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Don’t Count Calories to Lose Weight … Yet

various foods with calorie countsAm I crazy? Isn’t weight loss all about calories? Don’t you have to burn more calories than you eat to lose weight? Sometimes, mostly, and yes. If weight loss is mostly about calories, then why am I telling you to stop counting them? Let me explain:

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Before you ever start calculating protein, carbohydrate, and fat ratios, and before you ever start setting calorie intakes, you need to focus on the quality of the food that’s going into your mouth. Until your diet is 80-90 percent whole foods, you’re wasting your time counting calories.

If you’re going to restrict your calorie intake, while simultaneously not eating a predominantly whole food diet, you are going to be severely lacking in nutrients. And guest what – a nutrient dense diet is going to make the weight loss process 10 times easier. That means a diet that’s void of essential nutrients is going to make the weight loss process 10 times harder. Don’t restrict an already bad diet.

Step 1: Add in Whole Foods

So what’s the first thing you should do when you’re trying to lose weight? Eat less? That’s what most people think. I say no. Instead, before you ever start taking food out of your diet, you start adding healthy food into it. Should you be counting calories yet? No, not yet, and maybe not ever.

Make your first and only goal to start eating more fruits and veggies. Maybe that means you have a protein smoothie, or maybe that means you have a chicken salad loaded up with veggies. Whatever the case, don’t change any other eating habits until you’re consistently eating more fruits and veggies over a 2 week period. Once you’ve done that, move on to step 2.

Need some food ideas? Here are 100 healthy foods to eat to lose weight.

Step 2: Remove Processed Foods

As you add in more and more healthy foods, the ability to eat the processed foods that made up the majority of your past diet starts to get pushed out. Your body stops sending you signals that it needs more vitamins and nutrients. It stops telling you to eat, eat, and eat more food to get those nutrients in. Frankly, you’re too full to eat the bad food, as the fiber and water content of whole foods fills you up.

The cravings start to subside, and before you know it, your diet has slowly made the shift from predominantly processed foods, to majority whole foods. Congratulations, making it this far will net you 70% of your weight loss results. Not to mention, you are going to be 100 times healthier than you were.

Step 3: Add in Exercise

OK, so your diet is 80-90% whole foods. Do you start counting calories now? Nope. Now it’s time to start adding in exercise. Exercise is going to create the perfect metabolic environment for fat loss. It’s going to put your hormones in the right position to mobilize fatty acids.

Why am I telling you to wait to start exercising? It’s because I want you to focus on the most important aspect of health and weight loss – nutrition. If your nutrition is off, no amount of exercise will be able to counteract the effects.

Nail down your diet first. Once you have that and it’s become habit, adding in exercise is easy and fun, and you will actually get to see the fruits of your labor. I will note that highly motivated and skilled individuals will be able to work on creating exercise and nutrition habits at the same time. If this is you, then have at it!

Step 4: Start Counting Calories – If Necessary

Which takes us to step number 4. Believe it or not, not everyone has to count calories to lose weight. In fact, for some OCD people or people with eating disorders, it could be counterproductive.

However, there may come a time when you want to lower your body fat from an already low percentage to an even lower one, and to do that, you might have to get a little more meticulous with your diet.

Still, it is not always necessary. Many people have gotten down to single digit body fat without ever counting a single calorie. They practiced portion control, and they ate less and less whole foods as their progress stalled out.

Read here to see how to determine correct portion sizes for weight loss without counting calories.

Does that mean counting calories is a bad thing? I don’t think so. Counting calories teaches you a lot about your food. After practicing calorie counting for a while, you get the unique ability to look at a food and know its nutritional breakdown, and that can be very beneficial when it comes to practicing portion control.

However, as I said before, don’t get ahead of yourself. It can be overwhelming trying to change too many habits at once. Focus on improving the quality of your diet before you change the quantity of it. I think you’ll be much happier with the results.

  • caroline-s77

    Love this- if only we could everybody to take heed of this and stop jumping on and off the diet treadmill.

    • Coach Calorie

      Yup, no 12 week plan can do what healthy eating does.

  • FitSmarty

    Good post!
    In my case counting calories lead to an obsession and eating disorder.
    It might be a good idea to count the calories at first, when you begin to change your lifestyle.. for the first two weeks or so.
    But in overall you should aim to learn to listen to your body.

    • Coach Calorie

      I’ve gotten a little obsessed with counting them too in the past. Every once in a while I add them up for the day to make sure nothing is out of control.

  • Carfoodel

    I use myfitnesspal to count calories and I have been on the yoyo weightloss for decades, it really works for me – it makes me look at what I am eating, the impact it has on my macro’s and I am getting healthier/eating cleaner all the time – I have lost 84lbs last year and have about 70lbs to go this year and calorie counting in combination with cardio and strength exercise and a load of walking is what has got me here. I think there should be an acknowledgement that there are many roads to fitness and tools like calorie counting can help you work towards healthy eating. MFP lets me see at a glance what nutrients I am short on and where I need to make improvements in a really easy format.

    • Coach Calorie

      I couldn’t agree more. As I said in the article, there are many benefits to counting calories, and I recommend everyone do it at some point in their life. However, many people start off trying to lose weight and they get overwhelmed at everything they are “supposed” to do. It makes it a lot easier for those people if they just focus on the quality of their food. Usually, that progress leads to them wanting to count calories and learn more about their food and fitness in general, but that only happens because they take their weight loss journey in steps.

    • BigBlueBouncy

      I LOVE MyFitnessPal app! Simply using that initially motivated me with exercise too as it tells you what you have burnt off, not just watching what I ate, to help me get the balance better and I lost 4 stone in a year, and have kept it off, and developed the love of exercise and what it does for you. Now I put my food into the app, but not obsessively because I know the values of the things i eat most often. This is where I now love this site – because Coach Calorie and all the info you find here simply increases the knowledge & motivation…making us smarter too. Thanks Coach Calorie!

  • Allison

    I love your whole thought process on this topic. I couldn’t agree more. Keep these great articles coming.

    • Coach Calorie

      Thanks Allison. Will do ;)

  • Latrisha

    Thank you Coach Calorie! I have been losing weight slow and steady since August. When I started out, I just focused on eating healthier (more fruits, veggies, protein smoothies, and lots of fish). The weight started to come off, no calorie counting needed. I also started to feel better and more energetic, so I started exercising. It all just happened very naturally. It has been the most non-diet diet that I have ever done. That was a first for me (I am diet veteran). Somewhere along the line, I decided to “help” the process by counting calories. It was the worst thing that I could have done. For me (and I probably do have OCD), the focus shifted from what I was eating to calories. Over the last couple of months I have noticed that my weight loss has slowed (more than it probably should) and I have been eating things which have little to no nutritional value (as long as I eat under my recommended calories for the day). My energy levels have been down as well. I have also been finding it harder to exercise which stinks! I have been trying to figure where I went wrong and this article answered it for me! I am going back to what worked.

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Latrisha, we definitely don’t want to turn healthy eating into an obsession. It should come as naturally as brushing your teeth. With my personality, it’s very hard for me to not count calories, but I’m much happier when I don’t. Definitely go back to what worked for you. Make healthy eating an afterthought, and I’m sure you’ll pick up right where you left off.

  • Lian Murdoch Was Dawson

    What would I put in a protein shake?

    • Coach Calorie

      Well, the possibilities are endless, but I like to mix my protein powder with frozen fruit and make a smoothie. You can also do banana and oats, or peanut butter and cocoa powder, banana and oats, etc.

    • Joni DB

      i put 2 cups of veggies again limitless (kale, spinach, spring mix are my top two favorites) chia seeds/wheat germ and flax seed powder form not seeds then add 2 servings of any fruit

  • alison marie

    Hi, great site! I’m a 38 year old female, 210 lbs (5’10″/large frame), very active (workout 6x week, alternate days of 30-40 mins cardio, upper/lower body weight training). I have gained weight over the past 3 years as a result of an achilles tendon injury that had me reduce my activity drastically. Now, I’m back in full-force and have been exercising for the last 6 months. The problem is, I am not losing any weight at all, I have become more toned but the extra fat layers are not going anywhere. I went to a dietician who put me on a program of 1,300 calories per day and although I followed it religiously (ate whole foods, balanced protein, carbs and fat) I did not lose 1 lb! Was also slightly hungry during the day. I also felt the calories were too low for my body and activity so now I put myself up to 1,800 calories for the past 3 weeks. Still, no change. Do you think this might still be too low? Should I try to experiment by upping my intake again? All my medical tests are normal. Hopefully you have some advice for me as I’m a bit troubled! Thanks!

  • Coach Calorie

    It your weight, 1300 calories is too low. Show me what you ate yesterday. Also, what do you eat for cheat meals, and how often do you have them?

  • Danu Gilna Duffy

    hiya tony firstly i love your posts,everything you talk about just makes so much sense. im currently following your ‘lose ten pounds in a month diet’but the comments are closed on it so i said id comment here instead.i feel great on it and i have already lost inches and 6 pounds following it but when you say drink at least a gallon of water a day i didnt know there was different US measurements,im in ireland and here a gallon is 8 pints ,it was soo hard to drink that much untill a friend told me it was a different system and its actually 3 and 1/2 eu pints,so much easyer to get through ,just thought maybe u should make a note of it as i was told drinking so much(the 8 pints)is actually bad for you and im probably not the first person to make this mistake,thanks so much for all your articles i love reading them :)

  • Coach Calorie

    Hi Danu, sometimes I forget that I have a worldwide audience. Thanks for the heads up. I try to label pounds vs kg as much as possible, but volume and distance measurements slip my mind.

  • Emma Walgate

    counting calories is the only way, ive lost a stone and a half in two months, i would never try anything else now i know it works, whatever anyone else says, there are too many different things out there, counting calories is the easiest way, i am proof that it works. Obviously it depends what you put in your mouth tho, 3 choccy bars obviously isn’t good, even if its the same calories as what your main meal would be, its about common sense and being sensible, planning meals. Drinks too, there a big thing i never took into account, and eating out is always higher calories than making it yourself

  • Emma Walgate

    Plus it only took 2 weeks for it to become in built in your mind, where you know what you can and can’t have without phisically counting, it just makes you much more aware of food

  • lauramomct

    Love this advice. I was once an avid exerciser and I ate a fairly healthy diet. I got burned out and depressed after a move and now I am feel the effect of my ‘break’ from my old healthy habits. I am starting slow by changing my diet…drinking a gallon of water daily and reducing ( until eliminated) the processed foods. It is a slow process but I feel better already. Thanks for the great posts and articles full of practical advice. :)

  • Coach Calorie

    Congrats on your progress! However, many people accomplish the same through eating whole foods in proper portions. I don’t have anything against calorie counting, but for most people it’s unnecessary extra work. I prefer to only start counting when it’s necessary.

  • NancyP

    I still count calories. I’ve been told I have disordered eating, but it’s a slow process for me. I got really heavy at one point in my life, and then went on a diet and got too skinny. I went from 190 to 100 lbs (I’m 5’4″). I didn’t allow my body any carbs and was running 60 miles a week. My period stopped and I messed up my thyroid. I am now 125 lbs, and eat clean (except for my alcohol consumption) and I lift heavy weights and run 30 miles a week. I’m told I look great, but I would like to lose a few lbs….so, for my own OCDness, I still measure everything I put in my mouth, unless I go out to eat, which isn’t often. I’m working on my issues!

  • Tony Schober

    Hope it all works out for you, Nat. Hang in there!