I remember the first time I tried burning some fat off.
My earlier bulk had gone horribly wrong and I got fatter. I hit my goal on the scale, gaining over 51 pounds, but now I was much fluffier (fatter) than I wanted.
I followed all the calorie calculations you see around on the internet, plugged it into MyFitnessPal and got down to work.
Each night, after a long day, I’d grab my phone and flop down on the couch and start tallying my calories.
“Huh, I hit my protein goals and still got more calories to fill in carbs/fats. I guess I could go have some chocolate and some mixed nuts.”
But every lifting session I did—I found out I was getting weaker and weaker.
The calorie deficit definitely worked for losing weight.
I lost over 11 pounds over a couple of months if I recall correctly.
But it wasn’t exactly the results I was looking for.
I had lost a ton of strength and didn’t look that much leaner…
I just looked—smaller.
In fact, I had wiped out nearly an entire year of strength gains. Frustrated, I went back to the drawing board. (It took me many years to figure out the solution.)
So, there are a few big problems I see with calorie counting when it comes to burning fat while staying strong.
1. Calories are legally allowed to be wrong by 20%
On boxed foods, the FDA allows companies to have their stated calories off by 20%.
The problem is that they’re often worse than that. In a 2013 study that analyzed popular foods and measured each product four different times.
- Reese peanut butter chocolate could be up to 40% more calories than stated
- Nature’s Valley Granola’s bar could be nearly 50% more calories than stated—or only 10% more—depending on which specific bar you eat.
- Tostitos Tortilla Chips were predictably between 25-40% more calories than stated.
My point here is that stated calories are often flat out wrong.
(The people I’ve seen that found great success counting calories are people eating the exact same thing every day and weigh out their food. This removes a big chunk of this problem.)
2. Calories don’t take into account metabolism changes of eating certain types of food
Diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT) is our body’s metabolic response to food. Our body will spend more energy and generate heat, trying to break down the food to get the nutrients. (2014 article)
- Protein has a DIT effect of between 15–30%
- Carbohydrates has a DIT of 5-10%
- Fats take very little energy to break down, and the DIT is 0–3%
In a 2000 study, researchers found that eating a 29% protein diet had their metabolism bump up 212 calories compared to an 11% protein diet—on the exact same amount of calories.
That means those who eat more protein, like lean meats, had their metabolism increase just by eating the right type of food.
Over a week, that could total up to nearly 1500 more calories burnt off through heat!
Not to mention, protein helps to build more muscle—which also boosts your metabolism.
3. Calories aren’t the sole source of feeling satisfied
One study found that eating 100 calories of popcorn was much more filling compared to eating 150 calories of chips.
The popcorn amount was 6 cups of total volume compared to the 1 cup of chips.
Our stomach needs stretch, we need to chew, and fibre is more filling.
In fact, for each 14g of fibre we eat, our calorie intake naturally goes down 10% (2001 study).
There are many things that affect how full we feel. (Protein content, fibre, texture like viscosity, water content of foods, etc.)
Does calorie tracking work?
The goal isn’t to eat *less* total food to get lean.
We want to eat *more* food, but of the low energy type (lean meats, veggies, spices, herbs, etc.)
And most people want to be lean and strong. So eating a lot more protein can help.
Let me be clear—calorie counting is not dead. It’s helpful to know which foods are energy-dense (croissants) and which foods aren’t (cooked broccoli.)
And we like calorie tracking when our clients are bulking and they’re already lean—to prevent overshooting calories (leading to extra fat-gain.)
But we’ve seen amazing results with our testers eating-at-will but following a few key principles:
- More lean meats—a lot more, and with every meal
- More low-energy veggies—with every meal
- Using flavour enhancers with next to no calories like garlic, onions, herbs, spices, etc.
- Cutting out cooking oils like butter and olive oil—although healthy calories—can remove a few hundred calories per day
- Reducing snacking and meal frequency, and instead filling up with meat/veggies
- Using time-restricted eating like 16/8 intermittent fasting—depending on type of work, personality, etc.
- And many more tricks like drinking large glasses of water with meals
If you’d like to learn more, feel free to check out our True Gains program which teaches men how to get strong and a six-pack at the same time.