The Top 3 Reasons You Should Stop Calorie Counting to Lose Weight (and what to do instead)

Weight loss is a major motivator when it comes to making changes to diet and lifestyle. It’s also a vast cultural mind-f*ck that we’ve all been indoctrinated to value over how we actually feel.

There are tons of blogs, online resources, plans like IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros), and subscription services like Noom and Weight Watchers dedicated to weight loss. Most of these focus on one principle: calorie counting to lose weight. (Even if they assign “points” – those are still based on calories.)

Calorie counting is based on the vague idea of “calories in-calories out,’’ a theory that all calories are equal. The gist is that it doesn’t matter where the calorie comes from because, with exercise or caloric restriction, you will burn those calories and lose weight. 

If you are considering trying this approach for weight loss or have already begun, especially if you have IBS or IBD, I am waving a big red flag for you to STOP. Before going any further, let’s talk about the top 3 reasons you should stop calorie counting to lose weight.

Reason 1: Calorie counting to lose weight won't work if your gut is a mess

Calorie counting does nothing to heal your gut. In fact, it can make gut problems worse. 

Why does this matter? 

Because gut health is foundational to maintaining healthy weight. 

Your gut barrier and gut flora are integral in regulating your metabolism, hormones, inflammation level, and even your cravings. The gut is so critical to metabolic and hormone function that it is considered an endocrine organ (1). All of these factors play a part in weight loss. 

The small intestinal lining is made of a delicate, fortified barrier composed of a single layer of cells and a protective mucus layer. These cells are called intestinal epithelial cells, and they are attached by unique proteins called tight junctions. 

Tight junctions regulate the transport of small molecules and nutrients across the barrier and prevent unwanted things from crossing into the bloodstream.

When the mucus layer and the tight junctions become damaged, it allows pathogenic substances, like bacteria and viruses, and partially digested food into the bloodstream. This is called intestinal hyperpermeability or “leaky gut.” A leaky gut creates systemic inflammation and wreaks havoc on the entire body. It is thought that leaky gut and the gut dysbiosis that contributes to it may lead to inflammation, weight gain, and obesity (2). 

Many mechanisms are part of the gut-obesity connection. 

First is the connection between gut health and thyroid hormones. 

Thyroid hormones regulate metabolism, affecting body weight and how easily you can burn calories. Dysregulated thyroid hormone is one of the first clinical clues to investigate when someone has difficulty losing weight. However, gut health is often overlooked. It has been observed that those with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis have gut dysbiosis that is not present in healthy control subjects (3,4). Celiac and non-celiac wheat sensitivity are also strongly correlated with thyroid disease (5).

Gut health also determines how well you absorb nutrients from the food you eat. You could be eating a perfect diet, but if you aren’t absorbing nutrients, you are essentially flushing your time and money down the toilet. 

Thyroid function, for instance, relies on iodine, selenium, copper, and zinc, while our pathways of nutrient metabolism are highly dependent on B vitamins. Gut health greatly influences the absorption of these crucial micronutrients (5). 

Beyond affecting thyroid hormones and absorption, gut health influences the foods you crave and your hunger levels (6,7). The microbiota alone can control how many calories are absorbed from your diet (2)!

Conversely, the health of our microbiome and our gut barrier is greatly influenced by diet. Consumption of ultra-processed foods, sugars, unhealthy fats, and alcohol can damage the gut, and traditional calorie counting to lose weight does not exclude these foods. Instead, the dieter is taught how to make these foods fit into the diet simply by staying under a certain number of calories each day. Conversely, healing and maintaining gut health requires a healthy, nourishing diet and consuming enough calories to allow healing to happen.

An amazing study on caloric restriction illustrates this point. The study found that overweight postmenopausal women who consumed a low-calorie diet for 16 weeks experienced weight loss but also a drastic change in their gut microbiome.

The weight loss came with the price of decreased bacterial abundance, impaired nutrient absorption, reduction of microbe-produced short-chain fatty acids, and overgrowth of the pathogenic bacteria Clostridioides diffcile, aka C. diff, a sometimes deadly bacteria (8).

This is just one study with many limitations. However, it provides some insight into what happens in our gut during periods of extreme and long-term caloric restriction. 

Reason 2: Calorie counting to lose weight won't work if you need extra nutrients to heal your gut (or hormones or immune system)

The trouble with calorie counting is that there is usually no focus on nutrients or food quality. And when your gut or hormones or immune system (or any system!) needs to heal, nutrients are vital. 

Often, calorically restricted diets limit special foods that your body needs more of during periods of healing. One of these is carbohydrates. 

Contrary to mainstream dietary advice, carbohydrates like root veggies, whole fruits, whole grains, and legumes are healthy and good for you, especially your gut microbiome! And they do not need to be eliminated for weight loss to occur.

These foods contain tons of fiber, polyphenols, and antioxidants, all of which are needed for a healthy gut. These types of carbohydrates are also a wonderful energy source for the body. And energy is something you need a lot of while you are healing. 

Another food that is often restricted is fat. Fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient, containing nine calories per gram compared with four calories per gram that make up both protein and carbohydrate, respectively. 

So, from a calorie-in-calorie-out perspective, it makes sense to reduce fat, sometimes drastically. But remember—food is more than calories! Healthy fat is essential for healing and regulation of inflammation. Fats from extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, coconut, and fatty fish like salmon and sardines contain nutrients that help the body heal. And when it comes to weight loss, fat is needed to help prevent overeating and keep blood sugar stable. 

Restricting calories can also increase cortisol, your body’s primary stress hormone (9). 

In a cross-control experiment, women who were instructed to restrict their food intake to 1200 calories per day had cortisol levels that increased throughout the day and were highest in the evening. 

In this study, control subjects who did not restrict calories had normal cortisol curves (9).

Typically, cortisol is highest in the morning and decreases as the day goes on. Higher cortisol levels have an anti-inflammatory effect, but over time, they suppress the immune system. This isn’t a problem unless cortisol levels stay too high for too long. Chronically elevated cortisol levels increase inflammation and make healing difficult. 

Reason 3: Calorie counting to lose weight might lead to more weight gain (and less healing) in the long run

Yep, it’s true. 

It’s common for dieters to gain even more weight long-term (10). Considerable weight loss due to severe, prolonged caloric restriction is usually not sustainable; the weight begins to return, and metabolism continues to slow. 

Probably the best-known example of this has been illustrated by the contestants of “The Biggest Loser.” If you are unfamiliar with the show, it is a reality series focused on extreme weight loss. What’s interesting is that a vast majority of the participants gain the weight back. So, the National Institute of Health conducted a 2016 follow-up study on 14 participants to investigate their metabolic changes (11). 

The researchers found that although the participants regained most of the weight within six years, their resting metabolic rate (RMR) continued to slow down. The average RMR at baseline was about 2607 calories per day. After weight loss, it dropped to about 1996 calories per day. 

By the way, RMR is the number of calories you need simply to survive. These calories support organ function, circulation, and the nervous system.

Sadly, after six years, the participant’s RMR had dropped even further, to 1903 calories per day (11)! This means that gaining weight back does not restore the metabolism to pre-weight loss levels. These individuals would need to continue to eat a very low-calorie diet to maintain weight loss. 

Although this is an extreme example—it’s unlikely that the average person would undergo the 30 weeks of intense exercise and dietary changes that the Biggest Loser provides—the phenomenon is real. It’s called metabolic adaptation. 

With rapid weight loss due to caloric restriction, the metabolism slows down (12). Researchers think this is a big reason why losing too much weight too quickly is not sustainable for most people. 

What to do instead of calorie counting

Can we conclude that calorie counting sucks? It’s not sustainable, it’s restrictive, it doesn’t help you eat healthier, and it stresses you out. Oh, and it might lead to weight gain in the long run. 

So, what to do instead?

Focus on how your body feels versus your size.

I hope you understand: you’re freaking beautiful and worthy no matter your size. I want you to focus on how amazing you feel.

Begin paying attention to how good (or not) you feel and how the food you eat makes you feel. Does your food give you sustainable energy, or do you need to eat every two hours? If being hangry is part of your personality, it’s time to take a step back and look at what and how you are eating. 

Begin counting nutrients instead of calories.

The first step is to avoid ultra-processed foods, added sugars, refined grains, and fast food. Then, think about this: do you eat protein-dominant foods with each meal, such as cottage cheese, eggs, fish, or red meat? How many colorful plant foods do you eat each day? How much dietary fiber do you eat every day? Do you eat healthy fats like extra-virgin olive oil, fresh avocado, and coconut milk or oil? 

How do you know you are eating and absorbing essential nutrients? Look for these signs:

  • Sustained energy
  • Diminished cravings
  • Not too hungry and not too full
  • Regular bowel movements
  • Joints feel better
  • Skin looks better

Focus on building muscle versus getting smaller

This doesn’t mean you have to become a competitive powerlifter like me! However, what we know about people with more muscle mass is that they burn more energy (read: calories) at rest, and have lower rates of falls and injuries as they age.

Increasing muscle is needed for healthy and sustainable weight loss, and it helps boost your metabolic rate. If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of starting an exercise program, start by walking. Even starting with 10-15 minutes once or twice a day has major benefits. Daily walking helps keep blood sugar balanced and decreases cortisol and stress levels. 

You might be wondering: if I’m not calorie counting to lose weight, won’t I overeat?

Here’s the thing: overeating is challenging when you cut out the ultra-processed stuff. But if you feel like you are overeating or need to eat every couple of hours, it might be a good idea to get some guidance from a nutrition professional…one who doesn’t adhere to the principles of calories-in-calories-out.

What about overeating protein? Isn’t that bad for you?

For healthy adults, protein is nothing to be worried about, and it’s everything to be excited about. 

Protein experts even argue that the RDA for protein, 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, is insufficient to maintain optimal health. Instead, aiming for 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight is ideal, and you may need more when actively trying to build muscle. 

For those with IBS and IBD, pay attention to how different proteins affect your gut symptoms. Some people with inflammatory gut conditions are intolerant of red meat like beef and pork. This is likely due to the way their gut bacteria interact with certain amino acids in red meat. 

If you are ready to prioritize feeling good, nourishing your body, and not counting calories, the Good Poopers Club is the perfect fit for you. Click here to learn more about how participants heal and, yes, often lose weight.