Counting calories—and cutting way back on them—is promoted as an effective way to lose weight. The keto diet, which focuses on a low-carb intake, however, can help you lose unwanted body fat without the stress of calculating every last thing you eat. Keto helps the body turn to its own fat stores for fuel, rather than relying on glucose. Burning fat, in turn, typically controls appetite and reduces sugar cravings, which can help drive weight loss as you naturally eat less—without having to count calories. In this article, we will explore why calorie counting is not necessary for most people following a well-formulated keto diet.
What are calories and calorie counting?
Calories are a unit for measuring the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. What does that have to do with the human body? In simpler terms and in relation to your metabolism, calories are used to describe the amount of energy we get from foods and beverages, or the amount of energy our bodies need to perform basic physical functions, like breathing, using our brains, and pumping blood. (Not to mention deliberate physical activity, like swimming or hiking.)
Macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein, and fat—provide our bodies with the calories we need. During digestion, the body breaks down those carbs, proteins, and fats into smaller units. These smaller units are then stored or converted into energy to be used for all kinds of purposes, including growth and repair, physical activity, making hormones and enzymes, and simply keeping us alive.
Losing weight, in broad terms, requires that you burn more calories than you consume. This has led many people to believe in adding up the calories of everything they eat and drink each day to ensure that their consumed calorie count remains below the calories their body is using. There are a few misconceptions about calories, however, that have proven this method less straightforward than it seems.
Why the traditional calorie equation is not always accurate
Weight gain has typically been whittled down to this basic formula:
weight gain = energy (calories) in – energy (calories) out
This was derived from the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed – only converted from one form of energy to another.
While this makes sense in some ways, the equation assumes that a calorie is a calorie, no matter what food is eaten. Many keto specialists, however, emphasize that what we eat is important, because even at the same calorie level, different foods have vastly different hormonal effects, and these hormonal effects have a powerful influence over how the body stores or uses fuel, as well as how often we feel hungry and to what degree.
Here are three key things that have been discovered when taking a closer look at the effect of calories in different foods:
- The body requires more energy to process and store protein than it does fats or carbohydrates (something known as the thermic effect of food). This throws the simple calorie equation off balance.
- Some energy is lost as heat owing to the thermic effect of food.
- Different foods have different effects on insulin, and increased secretion of insulin typically promotes fat storage rather than fat burning.
This is why calorie counting does not always yield weight loss.
When to use calorie counting on a keto diet
For most people who follow a keto diet, calorie counting is not necessary. This is because the list of low-carb foods the keto diet permits helps to reduce hunger, normalize appetite (you tend to stay full and satisfied longer between meals), and also to reduce sugar cravings. When you feel less hungry and your body isn’t crying out for sugar, it’s much easier to eat less without even thinking about it. This means that on keto, most people find that they eat less without deliberately restricting their food intake.
Calorie counting is useful in some contexts, though. The main reason why you might do this is if you’re following a keto diet and you’re not getting the expected weight loss results. Unknowingly consuming too many fats (like coconut oil or heavy cream) can be the cause of this. Jotting down what you eat each day can help in detecting the culprits that are preventing your body from burning its stored fat.
For others, where hunger does not go away even while following the diet well (often due to stress or the effects of certain medications), calorie counting can help to prevent consuming beyond what your body needs. Hunger should signal when to stop eating, but this may not be a reliable indicator if outside forces are making it difficult for your body to self-regulate. The idea of calorie counting often causes a lot of stress for newcomers to the keto diet. The good news is, calorie counting is not needed in most cases to ensure a successful and healthy keto journey.