Many people starting the low-carb diet wonder: should I count calories?
They’ve heard about all the benefits that a ketogenic diet can offer. Weight loss, better mental clarity, improved metabolism, and reduced inflammation are just some of the awesome things you stand to gain by ditching carbs and living off ketones instead of glucose.
But in many other weight loss and health circles, people say that it’s impossible to lose weight if you don’t count calories or eat at a caloric deficit. You don’t really hear about this very often on the keto diet, which can make it confusing for someone just getting started.
Here’s a definitive answer. By the end you’ll know all about the keto diet, counting calories, and if that is the best possible way to lose weight on this nutritional protocol.
What Is A Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet also referred to as keto, is a low-carb, high fat, moderate protein nutritional approach.
Someone on a ketogenic diet typically eats about 70 percent or more of their daily calories from quality fat sources. To be healthy, a keto dieter should try to base these calories on healthy fats like monounsaturated ones found in nuts, avocados, olive oil, and fatty fishes like salmon.
Keto dieters typically get about 20 to 25 percent of their calories from protein each day, and between 5 and 10 percent of their calories from carbohydrates.
(Yes, 5 percent is very small — you’ll see why in a moment.)
While the keto diet has been around for over 100 years (it was originally designed to treat children with epilepsy in the 1920s), it has become one of the most popular weight-loss diets out there in recent years.
One reason why is because keto helps keep you full. Instead of eating low-calorie foods to lose weight, keto dieters eat satisfying fatty and protein-rich foods that keep them full.
And although it take time to get used to having their body in ketosis, it can feel more effortless once you get used to it.
What Is Ketosis?
Ketosis (nutritional ketosis) is a metabolic state where your body burns ketones for fuel instead of glucose.
People who base their diets around carbohydrates (which is the majority of Americans; the Standard American Diet encourages you to eat more than half of your daily calories from carbs like whole grains) burn glucose (sugar) in their muscles and organs as a source of energy.
By following a ketogenic diet, your body depletes itself of its sugar reserves. After several days of not eating carbs, your liver eventually starts producing enzymes called ketones (or ketone bodies) which burn your body fat for fuel instead of sugar.
This effectively turns you into a fat-burning machine. Instead of using sugar to fuel your efforts, your body uses your excess fat.
Ketosis, at least in part, is why so many people have success on a ketogenic diet. (There are many myths about keto, but this actually happens to be true.) Eating this way naturally promotes fat loss, which helps many people lose weight.
What Are Calories?
It might sound like a rhetorical question or one that we all know the answer to. But while we all know the word, the majority of people don’t know what a calorie actually is.
Calories are a unit of measurement. One calorie represents the amount of energy your body needs to raise 1 kilogram of water 1 degree celsius.
If reading that made you go, “Wait, what?”, you aren’t alone. Society programs us to understand calories to be “those things that make you fat.” It’s unfortunate that so many people don’t understand the real definition, which is that they are simply a measurement of energy.
Each person’s body is unique in that they need a certain amount of calories to function. If you are tall, overweight, a man or woman, you’ll need a different amount of calories.
The same applies to your lifestyle—if you exercise or are sedentary, if you stand or sit for work, etc. These lifestyle factors also apply to the number of calories you can eat and still maintain a healthy body weight.
This might help you better understand the association between counting calories and weight loss.
Counting Calories and Weight Loss
It’s long been suggested that counting or restricting calories are the key to weight loss. This often stirs up a heated debate within weight loss communities. Should I count calories or just eat healthy?
After all, it’s a matter of simple physics. Thermogenesis (the process of heat production) echoes a law we all learned in school: energy can’t be created or destroyed.
When you eat too many calories (too much energy) your body can’t “destroy” that energy. It has to go somewhere, so our body stores it in our fat cells for later use.
When you don’t eat enough calories to meet your daily needs, your body uses that energy. After all, it still needs the same amount of calories (the same amount of energy) to complete its normal metabolic processes, like keeping your heart pumping and your hair growth.
The problem, as anyone who’s ever been on a diet knows, is that restricting calories comes at a cost. It’s incredibly challenging to restrict calories long-term, especially when there is a surplus of food available to most Americans at any given moment.
That brings up the question: if this diet is already good enough to help me lose weight, should I count calories on keto?
Should I Count Calories On Keto?
Short answer: maybe. It can help, but if it’s going to do more harm than good, it’s probably not a great idea.
*Because nutrition and diet advice cannot be effectively delivered in blanket statements, you have to take these as guidelines. Consult a medical professional before taking any of the suggestions below.
At the end of the day, weight loss is connected to the number of calories you eat. If you chronically overeat, meaning you take in too much energy, you will have a hard time losing weight. Your body won’t have a need to burn up it’s stored fat if it’s getting a surplus to its requirements.
That said, ketosis can be a powerful tool to help you lose weight, and the keto diet naturally is pretty good at providing satiation. You’re not eating half a rice cake per meal—you’re getting whole foods like avocados and lean chicken, both of which contain fiber, protein, and fat, all nutrients linked to keeping you full after you eat.
Further, there’s always has to be a psychological consideration of counting calories. If you’ve had a bad experience with counting calories in the past, and think that could derail your momentum, it might not be worth doing at all.
So basically, while counting calories can be seen as an antiquated approach to weight loss, the amount of energy you’re taking in does have to factor in. It might not be necessary if you find you can lose weight by just following the low-carb diet.
But if the scale isn’t moving, you might need to consider tracking your food intake. (Keep reading for a better solution.)
Pros and Cons of Counting Calories on Keto
To simplify the discussion above, here are some positives and negatives to counting calories on the ketogenic diet.
- Knowing how much you eat can help you better predict weight loss
- Weight loss is more likely
- Some dieters like a regimen/goal to aim for
- More achievable if you like setting goals/have successful experience with diets
- Mentally more taxing
- Some may find it difficult to restrict foods and count calories
- Some feel intimidated by counting calories
- More difficult for beginner dieters
Fortunately, there’s a way that can sort of give you the best of both worlds without obsessing over calories.
Counting Macronutrients: A Better Solution For Weight Loss
If you’re using the ketogenic diet, you’re probably trying to lose weight. You may have other health goals, but studies show that losing weight can help reverse a lot of metabolic conditions and other things keto dieters frequently use the diet to heal or improve.
Counting calories isn’t a feasible solution for all. Removing some of your favorite foods while obsessing over every piece of food that goes into your body can be like a full-time job, and start to make the idea of weight loss seem impossible.
But there is a better solution: count macronutrients.
What Are Macronutrients?
All human food can be broken down into three different macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
You already know that a ketogenic dieter follows a breakdown of fat, protein, and carbs. In fact, studies show it’s nearly impossible to get into ketosis if you eat more than 10 percent of your daily calories (about 50g per day) from carbs.
What you may not know, is that each macronutrient has a specific caloric breakdown:
- Protein – 4 calories per gram
- Carbs- 4 calories per gram
- Fat- 9 calories per gram
As a reference, a keto dieter only eats about 200 calories per day of carbs (if that). For a 2,000 calorie diet—the country’s standard—you would also eat well over 150g of fat if you’re eating at least 70 percent of your calories from this macronutrient.
Why Counting Macronutrients Is Better
In short, counting macronutrients is better because it feels much less restrictive.
All foods have a variety of the three macronutrients. For example, lean chicken breast is mostly made of protein but also contains some carbs and fat, too.
Avocado is an example of a food with a liberal amount of all three macronutrients: 17g of carbs, 29g of fat, and 4g of protein.
Using a macronutrient counting app on your phone, you can design backward from the number of calories (energy) you need each day.
How To Count Macronutrients
Here’s an easy solution to start counting macros instead of calories when using the ketogenic diet.
Start by finding your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the number of calories your body burns when you do absolutely nothing, and the number might surprise you. You can google a simple calculator for this.
Apply the ketogenic diet macronutrient split to this number. If you’re allotted 2000 calories per day, your macronutrient breakdown would be:
- 1400 calories from fat (155g)
- 100 calories from carbs (25g)
- 500 calories from protein (125g)
Enter these numbers into your macronutrient app, and then take a few days to get accustomed to the app entering your food. You have the freedom to eat any foods you want throughout the day at any time, so long as you stick to your overall daily macronutrient goals.
Verdict: Which Is Better For Weight Loss?
The answer to, “Should I count calories on keto?”, as you can see, is clearly not black and white.
While there are absolutely some merits to knowing how much energy you’re putting into your body on a daily basis, there’s always sustainability and the mental aspect to consider. If you feel that counting calories will be too restrictive or difficult for you to sustain on the path to your goals, it might not be worth it.
The ketogenic diet by itself is a powerful tool for weight loss. If you’re overeating all the time, though, you may have trouble dropping excess fat.
A solution that could work instead is to count macronutrients. To many people, this feels less restrictive than counting calories, and so long as you stay in your macro guidelines as they relate to the ketogenic diet, you should be able to maintain ketosis and still lose weight.
Here’s where you can learn more about the keto diet. We wish you nothing but success on your weight loss journey!