Calories in, calories out. For athletes who aren't losing the weight they want to lose, it's a term they often hear. Ask around for weight loss (or weight gain) advice, and that’s what you’re likely to hear over and over. But does calorie counting work?
CICO, as it is usually abbreviated, is the basis for most diets. Eat fewer calories to lose weight, and more calories to gain weight. However, not everyone agrees with this—the calorie theory of weight change does get periodically challenged, most recently by low-carbohydrate fans who blame insulin for weight gain.
So that raises two questions. First, is changing caloric intake the only, or at least primary, mechanism behind weight change? And if it is, does that mean you need to count calories?
For those not losing weight... Does Calorie Counting Work?
Yes, for those not losing weight and want to start losing weight, a broad fact is that weight change is about calorie balance.
To lose weight without cutting back on calorie intake, you would need to do one of two things: lose water weight (which isn’t fat loss), or excrete fat or glucose un-metabolized. In other words, you’d need to be peeing out oil or sugar, in large quantities—and this doesn’t happen.
To gain weight without a calorie surplus, you would need to either gain water weight, or build muscle while losing fat at the same time. Simultaneous fat loss and muscle growth is possible up to a point—it typically does happen to novice trainees, but becomes progressively more difficult the more muscle and less fat you have.
Barring those possibilities, not losing weight and weight loss is about calorie balance. Losing weight requires cutting calories, and gaining weight requires eating more. People become overweight because they consume more calories than they burn—regardless of which type of food the calories come from, or which type of activity they use to burn calories.
Note that many studies have found that people who cut calories fail to lose weight, but there’s a big caveat here: all of these studies asked the subjects to self-report their calorie intake and assumed those reports were accurate. This assumption is very, very wrong—people routinely underestimate their caloric intake by 20 percent or more. When calorie intake and expenditure are tracked in a lab setting, the findings of the study confirm that weight change is mostly a matter of calories in, calories out.
In short, caloric intake is the primary, but not only, mechanism behind weight change. To lose non-water weight, you need to eat fewer calories. To gain weight, you probably need to eat more calories, although recomposition (simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss) may be possible for at least the first few pounds.
Do People Diet Successfully Without Counting Calories?
Yes, all the time. Many popular diets, including the Paleo diet, intermittent fasting, slow-carb, and ketogenic diets, are effective despite not requiring people to count calories. However, these diets still work by getting you to eat fewer calories—it’s just that instead of counting calories, you follow a set of rules that result in eating fewer calories.
Many people have even lost weight without counting calories or following an established diet by creating a few simple rules for themselves—logging all meals, cutting out bread and pasta, eating only two meals a day, eating more vegetables, etc. This Reddit thread where people share their success stories about dieting without counting calories has a few good ideas.
If you don’t count calories, what you need to do instead is implement rules—rules about what kinds of foods you eat, when you eat, and roughly how big each of your meals will be. In the research, this approach yields similar results to calorie counting. That is, not only do both approaches tend to produce a similar amount of weight loss, but they also tend to lead people to make similar changes in what and how they eat. They reach the same destination by a different route.
Alternatives to Calorie Counting and Why They Work
If you don’t count calories, you still need to eat fewer calories to lose weight and more calories to gain weight. There are many, many specific dietary rules you could implement that would help you gain or lose weight, but only a few underlying principles behind those rules.
6 Alternatives to Counting Calories
Here are a few mechanisms by which dieting without counting calories can work:
1. Reducing caloric density
To lose weight, you can eat less calorically dense foods—beans instead of bread, or lean meat instead of fatty meat, for example.
2. Changing food ordering
You can eat fewer calories by filling up on low-calorie foods like vegetables first, or gain weight by eating carbohydrate-heavy foods first, protein sources second, and vegetables last.
3. Changing the number of snacks and meals you eat
A change in meal frequency won’t be fully compensated for by a change in the size of each meal. Therefore, eating fewer meals or cutting out snacking tends to result in weight loss, and more meals or snacks tends to result in weight gain.
4. Meeting micronutrient needs
Eating foods with more vitamins and minerals will not only make you healthier, it will also make you less hungry, since some hunger is driven by the need for these micronutrients, rather than the need for calories.
5. Adjusting food variety
When you have a greater variety of foods and flavors present in any given meal, you’ll eat more.
6. Cutting down on variety reduces your appetite so you automatically eat less
Sheer mindfulness. Having any diet at all makes you think harder about what you put into your mouth. When you eat mindfully, you’ll tend to make healthier food choices even without specific rules telling you to do so. Calorie cycling. You can build more muscle and lose more fat by eating a disproportionate number of your calories in the 12–24 hours following a weight training workout, and fewer calories outside that window.
The Bottom Line: Does Calorie Counting Work?
To sum up, counting calories is a solid option. In my opinion, everyone should do it for a while, even if they don’t want to keep doing it long-term, in order to teach themselves to at least estimate calories more accurately. If you face the problem of not losing weight despite myriad attempts to do so, this can be a solid starting point.
But it isn’t the only option. Broadly speaking, there are at least four ways to diet for people looking to gain or lose weight:
- Count calories. Eat less to lose weight, eat more to gain weight.
- Follow a diet that uses rules about what to eat, and possibly also when to eat.
- Create your own custom rules-based diet with three to six simple rules that cause you to eat less (or more if bulking) without needing to count calories.
- Build habits that cause you to eat more mindfully, so you’ll make healthier food choices even without having a “diet.”
If you're not losing weight and looking for some answers, each of these options work, but people will naturally gravitate toward one over the others. You’re probably in a better position than anyone else to decide what will work with your own psychology and lifestyle, so pick the one that seems like it would be easiest for you to follow, and try it out for the next month.