In order to lose weight, there is one indisputable principle that holds true -- you must be in a calorie deficit.
There are no two ways about it.
Some will say you just need to avoid carbohydrates in order to lose weight, while others say calories don’t even matter, so long as you eat only “clean” foods.
They’re both wrong.
You can eat carbohydrates and still lose weight, and you can even gain weight eating only “clean” foods.
That’s because the ultimate governor of weight gain, weight loss, or weight maintenance boils down to your personal energy balance -- calories in vs calories out.
If you consume more calories than your body burns in a day, you will gain weight.
Conversely, if you consume fewer calories than your body burns in a day, you will lose weight.
It’s simple thermodynamics.
Now, a lot of gimmicks, tricks, and fads have popped up over the years to try to help people lose weight while avoiding the task of counting calories. And some of these fad diets (Atkins, Paleo, etc.) to help with weight loss, in the short term.
But it’s not because they have magical foods or the fact that they exclude other culinary fares. The reason they work is that the rules they put in place, place you in a negative energy balance (i.e. calorie deficit).
This is a fact that has been proven time and time again in countless research trials. When subjects are fed more calories than they burn off, they gain weight, and on the flip side, when they’re calorie intake is restricted, they lose weight.[1,2,3]
In fact, one review found that those who tracked their calorie intake lost an average of 7 more pounds than those who didn’t.
And, while calorie counting is often panned by diet “gurus” and intermittent fasting experts, the simple truth of the matter is that it works. The only way to know with any shred of reasonable certainty that you are in a calorie deficit is to track every morsel of food that you put into your mouth.
Eyeballing and estimating portion sizes or “guesstimating” the calorie contents of meals can potentially work if you’ve spent several years measuring, weighing, and tracking your food, but if you’re new to the world of dieting and fat loss, you’re likely to experience greater success by tracking your calorie intake.
The reason for this is that studies have found that people tend to vastly underestimate their daily calorie intake while overestimating the energy expenditure. This is the perfect prescription for “unexplained” weight gain.
Yet, if they had actually pulled out a food scale and weighed their food, they would know exactly how many calories they were eating and be able to adjust their daily caloric intake to be in line with their physique goals.
At the end of the day, burning fat and losing weight ultimately boils down to consuming fewer calories than your body needs each day. The most reliable way to know that you are in an energy balance is to track your calorie intake.
You can do this with paper and pen or use one of the many nutrition tracking apps available. Whichever method you choose, once you start accurately tracking your calories, you’ll be able to make adjustments and finally achieve the weight loss you desire without having to eliminate entire food groups or eat according to some strange timing ritual.
- Bray GA, Smith SR, de Jonge L, et al. Effect of dietary protein content on weight gain, energy expenditure, and body composition during overeating: a randomized controlled trial [published correction appears in JAMA. 2012 Mar 14;307(10):1028]. JAMA. 2012;307(1):47–55. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.1918
- Horton, T. J., Drougas, H., Brachey, A., Reed, G. W., Peters, J. C., & Hill, J. O. (1995). Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: different effects on energy storage. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 62(1), 19–29. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/62.1.19
- Tappy, L. (2004). Metabolic consequences of overfeeding in humans. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 7(6), 623–628.
- Hartmann-Boyce J, Johns DJ, Jebb SA, Aveyard P; Behavioural Weight Management Review Group. Effect of behavioural techniques and delivery mode on effectiveness of weight management: systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression. Obes Rev. 2014;15(7):598–609. doi:10.1111/obr.12165