Calorie counting is stressful (and other reasons to avoid it if you want to lose weight)

When it comes to weight (specifically fat) loss, I’m not into counting or consciously restricting them. I’ll come onto why in a moment. But before I do, I want to share the results of a recent study in which women ate in one or four ways [1]:

1. where individuals ate a diet which restricted calories to 1200 per day (individuals were given pre-prepared food to eat).

2. where individuals ate a diet which restricted calories to 1200 per day in which the individuals were also required to keep their own tally of calorie intake (in other words, they both restricted and monitored calorie intake)

3. where individuals were required to monitor their calorie intake, but were not required to restrict calories

4. where individuals were allowed to eat normally.

The study lasted 3 weeks. The results, briefly, of this study were that women who restricted calories (groups 1 and 2) saw a significant rise in levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Individuals in group 3 (monitoring calories only) did not see a rise in cortisol levels, but their ‘perceived stress’ went up. In short, cutting back on calories or just tracking them is stressful.

The raised cortisol levels seen in those restricting calories may have special significance, as this hormone predisposes to weight gain, particularly around the middle. Seeing as most individuals restricting calories are doing it to lose weight, this biochemical side-effect of caloric restriction might be viewed as quite counter-productive.

It may also help explain why so, so many people who restrict calories to lose weight find this approach so ineffective in the long term. But there are other fundamental problems associated with caloric restriction that mean I am no fan of it. These include:

1. a reduction in the metabolic rate [2], and this is something that can take a long time to recover too [3]

2. a tendency for individuals to gravitate to lower calorie foods that can be quite unhealthy (e.g. artificially sweetened foods and drinks)

3. a tendency to move away from fat and towards carbohydrate – the chief driver of insulin – the hormone that drives fat deposition in the body

4. hunger – which can make this approach simply unsustainable

5. when individuals restrict calories, they tend to spontaneously move less too [2,3]

Put all of these things together and it’s not difficult to understand why caloric restriction is so often such a dismal failure for those looking for healthy, sustainable weight management. So unkeen am I about caloric restriction, that I’ve devoted a whole chapter of my new book (Waist Disposal – the Ultimate Fat Loss Manual for Men) to its perils (Chapter 2: The Calorie Trap). More importantly, perhaps, the book provides lots of information about how to escape this trap. For more information about the book, see my last post here.


1. Tomiyama AJ, et al. Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosomatic medicine 5 April 2010 [epub ahead of print]

2. Redman LM, et al, Metabolic and behavioral compensations in response to caloric restriction: implications for the maintenance of weight loss. PLoS One 2009;4(2):e4377

3. Weyer C, et al. Energy metabolism after two years of energy restriction: the biosphere 2 experiment. Am Clin Nutr 2000;72(4):946-53

7 Responses to Calorie counting is stressful (and other reasons to avoid it if you want to lose weight)

  1. Jezwyn 22 April 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    But what about when the diet is a low-calorie, high-fat one, where our cells are given full and easy access to our stored fat? From what I’ve read and experienced, cortisol is still an issue, but metabolism is less likely to be adversely affected as the cells are still receiving adequate energy from fat stores. High-fat (low-carb) also blunts hunger thanks to leptin, of course, which is another sign that the body knows it has enough fuel to survive and doesn’t have to induce fatigue and other output-lowering mechanisms to conserve energy. I don’t think it’s fair to blame calorie counting without considering where those calories are coming from.

  2. jon w 22 April 2010 at 7:46 pm #

    dont count, and dont eat sugar, wheat, vegetable oil. eat a lot of saturated fat. how much simpler can it be?

  3. simona 22 April 2010 at 9:54 pm #


    Barry Groves, who is a proponent of high-fat diets too underlines the fact that you have to eat enough, so that your metabolism doesn’t slow down. Leptin, as I understand, is secreted by fat cells, so if you have less fat stores after you lost a lot of fat, your leptin is very low. It all depends on your body fat set point, if you managed to change it as a consequence of your diet, otherwise your body is going to want to get back to your original diet. I hope dr. Briffa is referring to this concept in his book.
    Also, I lost 37 kgs since August 2008, but since last Autumn, about one year after I started, my fat loss stalled, slowed down, and my blood results showed low T3, which is the active form of thyroid hormone and it is still the same now. I thought I was getting enough calories, I ate loads, Christmas, winter, etc.
    So, it’s not always so simple, as Dr. Briffa mentioned in the comments to the previous post.

  4. simona 22 April 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    I meant ‘to your original weight’ not ‘diet’ above.

  5. Dennis 23 April 2010 at 2:28 pm #

    Eating refined and processed foods is the direct cause of obesity and inability to control one’s eating. The main thing is that refined and processed food provide empty calories, devoid of nutrients and unfamiliar to our ancient genes. Such foods are addictive because no amount of food will provide the essential nutrients the body needs (craves) and excess food calories are converted to de novo fat. If one eats an all natural wholefood diet one will get all the nutrients one needs, will not eat excessive calories, will not feel hungry, will not put on excessive weight and will feel fit. Eat all types of fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, herbs, spices, seafood, wild game, other non intensively farmed meats, eggs and some whole grains – all raw or lightly cooked. Do not eat sugar, anything made from white flour or other refined grains, any oils apart from extra virgin olive oil or anything else which has been refined, processed or has added chemicals.

  6. Margaret Wilde 23 April 2010 at 9:15 pm #

    Overweight people can easily lose some of the excess weight, mainly fluid retention, by seriously reducing their intake of salt and salty food. Dieting and calorie restriction are not necessary.

    I think I have written previously of how BBC2 showed a series of programmes called “The Truth About Food” when I learnt about some relevant Danish research. ” See where you will read: “a high calcium intake increases the excretion of fat in the faeces”. ” In fact, the researchers found that twice as much fat was excreted on a high calcium intake as on a low calcium intake ” and this was independent of calorie intake. ” They also found that dairy calcium (they suggest low fat yoghurt) is a particularly good source for this extra calcium.

    On one of the links – – from the BBC The Truth About Food site, it says: “Calcium is the mineral most likely to be deficient in the average diet. Let me repeat that. Calcium is the mineral most likely to be deficient in the average diet. Calcium deficiency is a condition in which we fail to receive or to metabolize an adequate supply of Calcium,” and also: “Calcium helps keep the weight off. Research suggests that if you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, you’re likely to be overweight.”

    There are a number of reasons that overweight people in particular tend to be deficient in calcium. The main reason is that sodium retention/salt sensitivity/fluid retention depletes the body of calcium.

    Here are two other very simple reasons:

    1. Most fat people are ‘dieting’ most of the time ” i.e. they are eating insufficient food for their body’s needs.

    2. Fat people are routinely advised to limit their intake of dairy food like milk because their advisors (wrongly) believe that milk is ‘fattening’.

    So to reduce fat retention, if it is present, the most important thing is to alter the diet to reduce the fluid retention which is the initiating cause of excess weight and the primary reason for fat people being short of calcium and for fat people ‘dieting’. That means reducing sodium intake and ensuring plenty of fruit and vegetables in the diet (because their high potassium content helps to displace sodium from the body).

    And specifically it also means having a higher intake of calcium, especially, if possible, from a dairy source like low fat yoghurt. ” It is also necessary to ensure sufficient vitamin D intake, as this is needed to metabolise the calcium.


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