Do people eat fewer calories on a low-carb keto diet? Do calories matter?
There’s a lot of confusion about calories and carbs and if you count carbs, do you have to count calories and if you count calories, do you have to count carbs?! It becomes pretty overwhelmingly complex when it’s really not that complex. It doesn’t have to be. There are a lot of experts arguing about the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin – a lot of this discussion is not really practical. It may be important to know how many angels can sit on the head of a pin, but the relevance to my clinic and to your diet is pretty low!
How do calories work?
The traditional idea that calories are the only thing you need to worry about is just not true. It’s more complicated because a calorie does not equate to a calorie. A calorie outside the human body is the same, but a calorie inside the body is different, depending on what kind of molecule it’s carried on and what sort of hormonal response comes from the molecule that has the calorie. A calorie is just a unit of energy. In a low-carb diet, we don’t teach worrying about calories. At first, it works, I would say 95 percent of the time not even paying any attention to calories. Of course, an arm that we do limit is the high-calorie items. This is based on a very practical guide that I didn’t create – I learned from doctors who used this method from the 1970s to 2000 and then we picked up the method and started studying it. We reverse-engineered how this works with the items that are really high in calories on the approach that I use – a low-carb diet with real food – the amount of cream, cheese, and mayonnaise is limited. While we don’t explicitly say you need to watch calories, there is a limitation on some of the high-calorie items that a lot of people over-consume when they don’t learn it the way that we teach it. What does that mean?
Limiting carbs automatically lowers your overall consumption
Our first study was in 1998 and then we published papers from 2002. Dr. Yancy did some studies in the VA (Veterans Affairs) population and now studies have been done all over the world; when you limit the carbs to a certain level – usually 20 or 30 total grams per day – just about everyone eats less than before. I say just about everyone, because there are some exceptions that I’ll get to in a moment. The limitation of carbohydrates allows your body to burn its own fat. When your body is able to burn its own fat from inside, your hunger goes down and you eat less, automatically, without having to count calories or the amount you eat! That’s where the big argument goes back and forth when it was clear to me after our first study that people ate less, but we didn’t have to tell them to eat less. They ate less automatically.
What might hinder the effectiveness of a low-carb diet?
I say that’s 95 percent of the time because there are some exceptions. In my clinical setting, I see people where just about everyone in their 50s and 60s are on medications for high blood pressure, diabetes, or pre-diabetes, mental health issues like anxiety and depression, or allergies. Medicines can thwart the automatic appetite suppression that most people get on a low-carb diet. If you’re on medications and they’re not working for you, please take advantage and see someone who’s trained in this way (keto diets) so that they can help you get off the medicines that might be thwarting the effects.
How to become a fat-burner
Let’s say you’re not on any of those medicines. What will happen after a couple of days is your body turns into a fat-burning machine. In fact, every human becomes a fat burner when you stop eating for three days. It’s not unusual – it’s universal. When all humans go into total fasting, they go into fat burning because that’s what we store in our body; we store fat – not fruit, not bread, not pasta, not rice, we store our energy as fat. After just a couple of days of not eating carbs (you can eat protein and fat with certain limits), your body starts burning its own fat, and compared to before you will eat less, automatically. From one or two days the hunger is normalized and you start eating less. The average age in my clinic is 58 years old, most are female, and the average BMI is 35. People start eating less and I typically see 1-2 pounds of weight loss per week. That’s 4-8 pounds per month, without talking about calories. Without counting calories. Without writing down food or logging, without apps. That’s the beauty and simplicity of using a low-carb diet to reduce the amount that you eat, to reduce calories. Yes, calories matter, but you don’t have to worry about them at first, for just about everyone. Back to our original studies, people were eating roughly 1200-1400 calories per day, automatically. Before, they were eating about 2000 calories a day, so there’s about a 600-calorie-per-day reduction compared to before, which leads to about 1-2 pounds per week. Even if you calculate things out with calories, it all makes sense.
Your energy intake must be lower than the expenditure
The way I see it is, to get your body to burn its own fat, you have to take in less energy than you’re expending and that energy is measured in the form of calories. I don’t really talk about calories, though, because you’ll eat less and automatically start accessing your body fat store and start using it. You have to get the intake below the expenditure. It’s like an Excel spreadsheet for the course of the day of how many calories you’re eating – but you don’t have to count them! By the end of the day, you’re taking in less than is expended so your body starts accessing your fat store. You’re allowing your body to access that fat store because you’re not giving that insulin signal from the dietary carbohydrates that lock up the fat. In fact, insulin is worse, it takes the sugar and carbs that you’re eating, turns them into fat, and stores them as fat. It not only blocks fat burning, but it also helps in the creation of new fat and fat storage. Calories do matter, but the way we talk about this and teach it is there’s a section of foods that we have on our lists in various forms where the cheese, cream, mayonnaise, and oils do have a limitation – because even though they may be zero carbs, they’re not zero calories. Beware of that.
If you’re on the most common medicines I see, they make things slower, although it doesn’t mean it can’t work. These include insulin (from inside your body or if you’re injecting it for diabetes), prednisone or steroids, even steroids up the nose called Flonase nasal spray (at springtime, people come in and the weight loss is slowing, I always ask if they’re taking Flonase nasal spray because this is a steroid and it can slow down the fat burning), and mental health medicines (they pretty much all can influence the appetite and even where the energy goes, internally). A low-carb diet will work pretty much 100 percent except if you’re on those kinds of medications or you have some sort of metabolic issue like diabetes or another complicating factor. If you do have those problems it doesn’t mean you can’t do this, but please work with a practitioner who is trained in this method. I just came from a meeting of the Society of Metabolic Health Practitioners – it’s called SMHP, which is a great resource. They have two conferences a year called the Symposium for Metabolic Health – that’s a good place to go to find someone in your area who can help you.
When should you count calories?
We don’t count calories, we count carbs. What that does is it allows your body to start burning its own fat. If you have a very long weight loss journey ahead, I might introduce the idea of cutting calories, monitoring calories, or being aware of habit eating (where you’re not really eating because you need calories, it’s more of a habit). At first, I don’t really bring that up. Most people don’t have to worry about it. If you’re in the low-carb diet and you’re at a plateau, you’re keeping the carbs low but you’re not losing fat, you may have to consciously reduce the number of times you eat or how much you eat because you’re now at a caloric energy balance. I know that’s a loaded term but it matters. Calories don’t count the way you normally would think they count. They do matter internally depending on whether it’s a carbohydrate or a protein or a fat and the calories of those molecules changes depending on the hormonal response to those calories. Everyone’s right, calories do matter, and carbohydrates and insulin matter at the end of the day.
There is one study of someone purposely eating way too many calories – he ate 5500 calories per day for 3 weeks on three different diets and he gained weight on a low-carb, high-fat keto diet. What he found out in just his one body is that he gained less weight on the low-calorie, low-carb diet than on the low-calorie high-carb diet. A keto diet doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to lose weight, it just means you’re going to be burning fat and if you’re eating extra fat calories beyond what you’re expending, you may gain weight, even on a low-carb high-fat keto diet.
Complicated? No, not really. Just stick to the food list we have.
Watch the full video here.