Calorie counting is the best known and most recommended tactic for weight loss or bodyweight management. It seems straightforward and logical enough, because excess calorie intake is associated with weight gain. If you consume more calories than you burn, most of that excess gets stored as fat. Most nutritionists and doctors recommend this for weight loss too! However, this conventional wisdom, which we long accepted, may have been turned on its head thanks to research from nutrition scientists at Stanford University.
Shedding Light on Calorie Counting
The idea of counting calories and restricting caloric intake to lose weight has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. While there’s no denying the physics of calorie calculation, the wisdom of using this approach to achieve weight loss has come under fire. There is growing evidence  that restrictive diet and exercise programs for weight loss are unsustainable. Most people who manage to lose weight end up gaining as much as 70% of that weight back, even when they continue to restrict calorie intake.
The Stanford study, which appeared in JAMA [2, 3], did not set out to investigate the efficacy of calorie counting. Instead, researchers were studying the effects of low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets on obesity. They were also investigating the hypothesis that genetic factors predispose some individuals to fare better with certain types of foods, rather than others. While their findings in that regard are important, the light that the study sheds on calorie counting is far more insightful. The researchers found that people were more successful with weight-loss efforts when cutting back on added sugar and other processed foods, while consuming more whole foods, and here’s the main point – the study participants lost weight while consuming as many calories as they wanted.
Losing Weight Without Calorie Counting
For those of us interested in weight loss, the main learning from the study is that you don’t need to count calories or get on restrictive diets to lose weight. The quantity of calories simply isn’t as important as the quality consumed. Study participants were allowed to eat as much fat or carbs as they wanted, as long as their nutrition came from healthy whole food sources. The only rule they had to follow was to not eat “crap”. Despite their unrestricted calorie intake, most of the participants lost between 10 to 13 pounds (4 to 5 kgs) and also saw improvements in other health parameters, such as reduced weight size, body fat, and lipid levels.
To better understand how you can lose weight without counting calories, it helps to take a closer look at the diet recommendations for the study. Technically, the low-fat group could consume colas, fruit juices, pastries, white rice, and bread, as these foods are low in fat. However, they were instructed to avoid such highly processed foods, instead favoring whole food options like steel-cut oats, lentils, brown rice, lean meats, quinoa, fresh fruits, pulses, and so on. Similarly, the low-carb group was recommended foods like salmon, avocados, vegetables, nut butters, hard cheeses, and other healthy low carb choices as opposed to processed meats, fried foods, and pork rinds.
When it came to physical activity, participants in the study weren’t prescribed any strict workout routines and most didn’t even increase their exercise levels, proving that healthy or clean eating is the best way to maintain healthy body weight.
As you can see, this study can be a groundbreaking way to get the magical formula of ‘lose weight and eat tasty food.’ However, if you are planning to follow it, it is best to consult your healthcare professional, as different bodies have different dietary needs.