Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Work

On this blog, I’m not claiming to know all the answers or be some weight loss guru. I’m here sharing my experience – namely, what’s worked (low carb & keto) and what hasn’t (moderate to high carb diets). With that said, here’s a bold take: this whole business of calorie-counting has been a total bust. If you believe it’s the way to manage your weight (like I did), you have been duped by those with interests other than your health. This post is not about conspiracy theories (I’ll save that for another day!), instead I’d like to explain why counting calories doesn’t work. And further, why cutting carbs & going keto helps you rediscover your natural satiety signals,

Being raised Italian-Canadian has given me plenty of practical experience to share on this whole concept of calories – and why they mean absolutely nothing. That’s not to say I do not “understand” there are caloric energy values of fat vs protein vs carbohydrates and they are different… I’m arguing those values are academic and when applied to weight loss, are frustrating at the least, and metabolically dangerous for most. How our bodies respond to a gram of carbs versus a gram of fats is vastly different. The former promotes overeating, while the latter regulates your appetite, gradually slowing you down to a comfortable stop.

Satiety Standoff: Pasta vs Steak

I can start by saying reaching the ‘standard adult requirements’ of 2,000 calories consuming nothing but beef, eggs, salmon is a going to be a very different day than doing so consuming 2,000 calories of soda, french fries, pizza, pasta, rice, and candy. We intuitively know this, but I thought it would be useful to unpack an experiment on this together.

Reigning Champion: “Healthy Low Fat” – Pasta

A delicious-tasting plate of mostly empty carbs. Fill ‘er up!
Photo by Jer Chung on Pexels.com

You sit down to a humongous bowl of your favourite pasta. It has been tossed in a perfectly balanced, fragrant marinara sauce. Topped with a dusting of Parmesan cheese. This dish is equivalent to 5 standard servings per the package, about 1,000 calories. You dig in. Before you know it, you’re halfway done, and still not feeling the slightest bit satisfied.

It’s delicious, you want to keep eating, and you sense no desire to slow down. You sit back – perhaps sipping a soda – and wonder “how could this be?” and “will I possibly be able to finish the remaining food?“. Just then, Nonna notices your pensive hesitation, and leaps in to action: adding another heaping spoonful to your plate despite a futile half-hearted protest. Your time for reflection is over, instead you clean your plate. A final helping is dolloped on to the plate… and only now do you recognize a familiar if delayed-onset “fullness” as your stomach stretches. Is this bloated sensation satiety?

That feeling of bloated fullness is deceptive. You are physically full of food – ie: the volume capacity in your stomach has been reached. We humans have “stretch” receptors in our stomach that signals us to stop eating or we will physically burst. This is the only satiety signal your body has when it comes to controlling your intake of carbohydrates. This explains why we are able to consume near-endless amounts of popcorn, pizza, pasta and bread.

Here Comes a New Challenger! “Evil Red Meat” – Steak

Now the next part of the test… Another meal on a different day. You are equally ‘hungry’ at the start of this meal than with the pasta dish. We will start with an equivalent caloric quantity of a food primarily deriving calories from protein and fat, ie: beef steak – 1,000 calories.

Pepper pictured is for decorative purposes only in this experiment!

You take sequential bites, and begin to slowly feel more and more full. There will be a point the next bite of steak looks less and less appetizing until finally, you won’t be able to look at the steak anymore. Funny, because when you began the meal it was most delicious (equal perhaps in its pleasure as that first bite of pasta from yesterday) but by the time you finish a whole steak, your ‘taste’ for the next bite simply isn’t the same.

Another way to think about these two competitors: think about what your final bite of each dish ‘feels’ like. That last forkful of pasta probably tastes just as good as the first. While your final bite of steak may have entered your mouth with some reluctance… and you clearly knew “this is my last bite, I can’t take another!”

Something else to notice… you will probably naturally be ok ‘leaving steak’ on the plate (just as you would leave water in a glass if you were no longer thirsty). With the bowl of pasta, maybe not so natural to leave noodles behind until they are all gone!

Clash of the Titans – We Have A Winner!

In my experience, we have a clear winner in the ‘satiety race‘. The steak [Fat & Protein] have very different ‘satiety signals‘ than the pasta [Carbohydrate]. With the pasta, satiety arrived by filling up our stomach to its capacity and abruptly ‘stopping’ due to a physical stretch signal. With steak, however, we notice a gradual slowing down to a gentle comfortable ‘stop’ – we decided to put the fork down. It was not about counting up to 1,000 calories and forcing ourselves to walk away.

These different levers of satiety are critical to understand the difference in hunger each approach tackles. It is also interesting to really understand the messages our body is sending us, because if you’ve primarily consumed carbohydrates most of your life you might not really ‘know’ your hormonal hunger signal as well as your stretch hunger signal.

The slightly nausea-inducing fullness of consuming too much fat & protein is a subtle “stop” signal. Very different from physical fullness of eating 2-3 consecutive apples (Dr. Ted Naiman explains these concepts of satiety on his informative website with fantastic infographics). In any case, it is clear that calories are a rudimentary method of figuring out how much to eat particularly when carbohydrate is in the mix. When you are eating protein and fat, the need to count calories essentially vanishes.

Alternate Angle: Food Satiety Formulas

Class is in Session!
Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels.com

If this is a little hard to understand, let me lay it out a bit differently. Let’s assume we have in front of us 2 plates of delicious food (from our thought experiment above… Pasta vs. Steak). We can assume they amount to the exact same number of calories, call it an even 1,000! Depending on the composition of these calories (primarily carbohydrate for Pasta, or protein & fat for the Steak) our bodies will trigger various ‘satiety’ (or “Stop Eating!”) signals:

  1. Physical Fullness (Volume of food / stretches stomach, emergency brake)
  2. Hormonal Fullness (Body detects nutrients, hormonal response triggers stop)

So now we have another way to think about satiety than calorie counting, let’s try a formula to better wrap our heads around the concept!

Satiety for Pasta Plate [Carbohydrate]

[Delicious Food] – [Physical Fullness] = Consume high volume to stomach’s capacity, but never satisfy Nutrient Satiety.

Once your stomach is ’empty’ again, hormonal hunger is still there… eat again. The key message here: if you want to lose weight on this method, you will have to limit yourself ie: count calories and you will feel hungry!

Steak Plate [Protein & Fats] – Satiety Formula

[Delicious Food] – [Hormonal Fullness] = Consume lower volume, reach satiety without feeling ‘stuffed’ and remain satiated longer.

Your stomach is never ‘full’ of food, volume-wise. You have consumed sufficient nutrients to trigger hormonal satiety. You don’t feel that “bloated” and “overstuffed” fullness you might be used to recognizing as the only time to ‘stop’ eating. This satiety is calmer, subtler, longer-lasting and more comfortable.

To lose weight eating protein and fat… you just need to listen to your body’s hormonal satiety signals and limit the “no brakes!” carbohydrate foods to a minimum.

Forget Calories, Re-Introduce True Satiety Signals

Still believe “Calories are Calories”?
Forget that noise.
Cut sugar & processed carbs out, feel amazing..

Which would you rather feel, on the daily: Stuffed then hungry or satisfied & comfortable? This is a huge change when going keto. You need to understand that you don’t have to feel physically full before you stop eating. As a former carb-addict, I had to literally re-learn what it meant to be full. My old trusty hormonal hunger signals had been hijacked. Now they are set right, but old habits die hard and eating past satiety is a common reason some people stall on keto. They continue to search for that “physically stuffed” feeling eating foods that should be triggering their hormonal hunger signals.

Our satiety signals can be hijacked, and we are clearly wired to “keep eating” past satiety when the signals are right (high carb environment, it’s time to fatten up for winter!). So if you struggle with feeling full, I recommend you give your body the right foods (whole food fat & protein), and learn to trust your hunger. Recognizing the two different signals we get to ‘stop eating’ is critical in regaining your health sustainably for the long run. If you want to learn more or have a detailed discussion on the topic, connect with me here! Also I invite you to drop a comment with your thoughts + experiences below – the more we share, the more we can learn!

Til next time, ciao!

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