Don’t Count Calories – Count Carbs Instead

Counting Calories Is Useless. It Has Little Bearing on Weight. Instead, Carbs Should Be Counted.caloeies-scale

America is obsessed with calorie counting, and it clearly makes sense, doesn’t it? Calories are calories. It doesn’t matter which food provided them. If they aren’t burned, they are stored as fat. Isn’t this obvious? Books gotta balance, right, right?

Well it sounds great, but IT ISN’T TRUE! All calories aren’t created equal. Some sorts of calories will cause weight gain, and others can actually cause weight loss.

So what is going on? OK, here’s the short answer: Everyone’s body has an ‘ideal weight’. We are not talking about what your doctor says, or what you found on the internet. A tiny brain organ called the hypothalamus will regulate the amount of fat you carry around to a certain weight—the weight it thinks is the healthiest for you.  It may not be the weight you want, but whatever it thinks is best is what it is going to shoot for. Bear in mind that skinny ISN’T the healthiest for most people, overweight is. Really! (There’s quite good science behind this surprising claim.)

So lets suppose you are a 5’5” woman, and your hypothalamus has decided you should weight 140. If the hypothalamus is not somehow thwarted, that’s what you will weigh. If you are above this weight, it will burn fat. Both the fat you already have, and any you eat. If you are under this weight, it will store food as fat. You will have a difficult time moving your weight away from this ideal weight.

Calorie counting will have no effect on this weight. There is some interesting research some years ago where people were fed several thousand extra calories a day, all in the form of fat. (The published papers were called Gluttony I and Gluttony II.) In spite of a huge caloric intake, these people didn’t gain weight. They did report feeling hot and sweaty all the time.

Another good example would be the Atkins Diet. It’s one and only rule is don’t eat carbs. An Atkins dieter can eat all the protein and fat he or she wants. No calorie counting. The Atkins diet works, and works fast—up to a point. Weight typically comes rapidly down, and then abruptly stops. What has happened is this: The body burned any excess food and fat until the ‘idea weight’ was reached and it then maintained the weight there. No more loss, no more gain. Remember, this is the hypothalamus’s notion of your ideal weight, not yours.

But wait—this can’t possibly work or even make sense. A lot of people are overweight in spite of dieting.  You’re right, but so are we. Well, there’s one little detail we haven’t told you. The above tidy description of weight regulation has a problem: It doesn’t work if you eat very many carbs.  Carbs, especially sugar and starch, send a signal to the body to store everything as fat. If you eat excess sugar and starch, and for calories-be-skinnymany, it doesn’t have to be a lot, you will gain and gain; in fact for some almost anything above zero is too much. Why does the body do this for carbs, but not for fat. The reason seems to be rooted in our ancient ancestry, our hunter-gatherer days. We were all hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago, and had been since the dawn of time. Our body is all set up for that.  About the only sugar and starch a hunter-gatherer would get would be in late summer. The body would store this for the lean months ahead. The other 10 months of the year, we lived on animals and relatively high fiber edible plants we found in the nearby forest. Our metabolism is an only slightly modified form of a hibernating one; much like a bear. 

If you eat enough carbs, you will gain weight. If you don’t you won’t. Calories have little to do with it. If you starve your self, you can lose weight, but your body will fight it tooth and nail, and you will feel like a zombie. Sadly your weight will eventually return to a worse set point as you will have lost part of your metabolic drive due to muscle loss. But how many carbs can you eat without fat weight gain? That answer varies from person to person. Here is how to figure it out.

So here are the three rules of weight control:

  1. Determine your ideal weight. If you have never done the Atkins diet, do it for three to six months. Eat a variety of protein, meats, fish, fowl, dairy, eggs, as much as you like. Don’t worry about fat. In fact, additional fat will speed up this little experiment. Eat colored vegetables. Normally we recommend three portions of vegetables to one of meat, but for three months, cut this to one to two. However, eat no starch of any sort: no bread, no rice, no potatoes, no fruits, no alcohol. None. This diet may sound a little weird, and may take a few weeks to adjust to, but it is 100% safe. Now then, after three to six months, weigh yourself (make it longer if you are still losing weight). If you stuck to the diet, whatever you weigh at that time is close to what your hypothalamus thinks is your ‘ideal weight’.
  2. Determine how many carbs you can eat. Add carbs back into your diet. Start with our recommended three portions of colored vegetables per portion meat. Did you gain weight? If so, cut back a bit. If you did not gain weight (most people won’t) you can add a bit more. Maybe some fruit, maybe some bread, whatever you like. If you keep adding carbs back in, you will eventually start gaining weight again. Figure out the amount of carbs that just starts the weight gain. This is your ‘max carb’ number. Bear in mind that you will have to look tings up on the internet to determine the number of carbs in, say, 6 ounces of broccoli. In any case, be a good scientist, add everything up, and determine this number.
  3. Now then, with the ‘max carb’ number in hand, develop an eating plan that doesn’t exceed this, and enjoy your ideal healthy weight.

The Moral: Don’t count calories, count carbs.

Suppose you still want to be skinnier. You can get your body to take you to a somewhat lower weight – read, higher metabolic set point –  by doing any or all of the following. All these trick the hypothalamus into lowering your ‘ideal weight.’ (However, don’t expect to look like the emaciated scarecrows we see all the time on TV.)

  1. Interval and resistance exercise will lower the ideal weight, but aerobic exercise will raise it.
  2. Sleep well. Bad sleep patterns or lack of sleep will cause fat weight gain.
  3. De-stress. Chronic stress causes fat storage. Do NOT underestimate the power of stress to cause fat weight gain no matter what else you try to do. Meditate, Contemplate, Pray, Yoga…something as a tool to master stress.
  4. Eat many little meals. For instance, a large breakfast, a snack at 10, a medium sized lunch, an afternoon snack, a smallish dinner, and a very small bedtime snack. Eat for what you are going to do and not for what you did.

Remember, calories have almost nothing to do with what you weigh. It’s governed by the ‘ideal weight’ programmed into you hypothalamus, and the extent to which you thwart this by excess carbs. Bon appetit.

PS As an aside: Dr. Mike recommends any ‘add backs’ just be more and more varied vegetables. He also wants to make it clear this diet only works well for those with a relative degree of insulin resistance; in fact someone who strongly responds to this approach has engaged in a useful experiment to establish their degree of insulin resistance.

  4 comments for “Don’t Count Calories – Count Carbs Instead

  1. Nancy
    April 28, 2015 at 8:15 am

    You left us hanging at the end on the insulin resistance. Wouldn’t the diet work even better with someone who has very little insulin resistance?

    • April 28, 2015 at 8:35 am

      Someone who is insulin sensitive will handle carbs so well that they spend very little time with high enough insulin to drive calorie storage as fat; they tend to be thin. In fact some of my very insulin sensitive people need starchy carbs to maintain body weight. Few fall into this category. I sure don’t! Dr. Mike

  2. Helene
    April 28, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    How much we have to do, or not to do, just to live healthier on this planet earth!
    For those lucky people who are under the spell of Dr Mike, life could be easier. Because he is there for his patients.
    But for the rest of us just left: reading the guidelines and using your own willpower…

  3. Dave Ivers
    August 26, 2016 at 9:29 am

    Whats the best way to become more insulin sensitive? I’ve heard that intermittent fasting helps. Your thoughts.

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