Can You Lose Weight Without Counting Calories?

Some diet gurus claim that only “bad” calories cause weight gain. Do calories really matter? Can you lose weight without counting calories?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #162

“Eat as much as you want and still lose weight.” Sounds good to me! 

Many popular diets are promoted with the claim that, as long as you follow certain rules, you can eat as much as you want and still lose weight. Usually, the “rules” involve eliminating certain foods or food groups (such as carbs, or sugar, or meat, or dairy, or wheat) from the diet. a

The implication--or, in some cases, the overt claim--is that calories don’t matter.  Eating the right foods (and avoiding the wrong ones) somehow fixes your metabolism, regulates your hormones, or otherwise turns your body into a fat-burning machine that stays lean no matter how much you eat.

You can see why this approach is so popular.  By far, the biggest drag about trying to lose weight is having to give up foods (or portion sizes) that you would otherwise enjoy. And, to be honest, many of these diets do lead to weight loss. However, there’s far less metabolic “magic” than the books and magazine articles would have you believe.

Have You Heard These Silly Claims?

It’s not that eliminating food allergens or toxins triggers the release of fat stores. It’s not that cutting out carbohydrates turns off your fat-storage genes. When people cut back on carbohydrates or sugar or wheat or processed foods or whatever, they consume fewer calories—even when they’re not trying to restrict their calorie intake.

For example, one recent study found that people who followed a strict low-carb diet but were otherwise allowed to eat as much as they wanted ended up reducing their calorie intake by about the same amount as people who were following a low-fat diet that also put a limit on how many calories they could eat.

When people have a limited variety of foods to choose from, they eat less than they do when presented with a lot of options. 

(Here’s a tip on how to use this to your advantage.)

It turns out that most people don’t really want to eat double-bacon-cheeseburgers four times a day – especially when they are bunless and minus the French fries.

Calories Do Count But You Don’t Have To Count Them

Successful weight loss requires eating fewer calories—but that doesn’t mean that you must slavishly count calories. As the study I mentioned earlier suggests, adhering to certain rules can effectively reduce your calorie intake. You may not be able to eat whatever you want—but most of these strategies allow you to eat to satisfaction. I’ve talked about many of these approaches in the past, but here’s a rundown of my favorite ways to lose weight without counting calories—or going hungry:

  1. Restrict Refined Carbohydrates
    Although many people have success on very low carb diets, long-term maintenance becomes a real challenge. My favorite variation on the low-carb approach is to focus instead on eliminating refined carbohydrates like soda, candy, sweets, and caloric sweeteners (including sugar, honey and maple syrup). Also cut out desserts, white bread, and other foods made with white flour).  These foods pack a lot of calories into a small space but do very little for you nutritionally. What’s worse, they tend to stoke your appetite for more of the same.  If you can swear off refined carbohydrates, you can probably eat as much as you want of other foods and still end up reducing your calorie intake (and losing weight.)

    See also: Do Low Carb Diets Work?

  2. Eat More Protein and Vegetables
    Protein-rich foods like eggs, meat, poultry, fish, and tofu have an impressive ability to curb the appetite, leading to reduced calorie intake. Vegetables are low in calories but high in water and fiber, two things that also fill you up without filling you out.  And, of course, vegetables are also ridiculously good for you.

    See also: Protein and Weight Loss

  3. Eat More Whole Foods and Less Processed Food
    Processed foods (especially fast food and snack foods) tend to be calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, and are intentionally formulated, packaged, and marketed in ways that seduce you into eating more than you mean to.   One really easy way to reduce unneeded calories and, at the same time, improve the nutritional quality of your diet is to make more of your own food—using fresh, whole foods as your starting point.  Cook some oatmeal for breakfast. Make a tuna sandwich for lunch instead of visiting the food court. Give the pizza delivery guy the night off and roast a chicken for dinner.

  4. Eat Mindfully
    No one wants to go hungry, but the fact is that too many of the calories we consume have absolutely nothing to do with hunger.  They are calories of opportunity, or boredom, or inertia, or sheer habit.   Often, you can eat less and enjoy it more, by slowing down and paying more attention to your food as well as your appetite.

    See also: Why We Overeat

Keep in Touch

Are you often stumped for the perfect way to say or write something? Avoid using the same words over and over with Grammar Girl’s 101 Words to Sound Smart: http://bit.ly/oQ39Ze

If you have a suggestion for a future show topic or would like to find out about having me speak at your conference or event, send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com.   You can also post comments and questions on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page.  I answer a lot of listener questions in my free weekly newsletter, so if you’ve sent a question my way, be sure you’re signed up to receive that.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.