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Why I don't count calories or macronutrients (even though I just did)

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  • Why I don't count calories or macronutrients (even though I just did)

    John Turner asked about my daily caloric intake. I have actually never measured it because I've been trying to learn to follow my appetite rather than a numerical formula. But I was curious to see the numbers.


    Juiced greens such as kale, celery (60, 0-10-6)

    Salmon oil capsules (18, 2-0-0)


    Three slices of bacon (270, 21-0-15)

    Chicken sausage (130, 7-0-17)

    Three eggs (210, 13.5-3-18)

    Broccoli florets (25, 0-4-3)

    1 tbsp butter (100, 11-0-0)

    1 scoop Jay Robb whey protein powder (110, 0-0-25)

    1 glass almond milk (40, 3-2-1)


    Chipotle burrito bowl, chicken and lettuce only (195, 6.5-2-32)

    Chipotle burrito bowl, steak and lettuce only (195, 6.5-3-30)

    (My wife and I tried Chipotle for the first time, but found it too spicy and nutrient-poor to justify the price).

    Mix of clams/shrimp/squid (120, 0-4-26)

    Seafood sausage (110, 3.5-1-18)

    Chicken sausage x 2 (260, 14-0-34)

    Three eggs (210, 13.5-3-18)

    Spinach (20, 0-3-2)

    2 tbsp butter (200, 22-0-0)

    1 tbsp coconut oil (189, 21-0-0)

    Cod liver oil capsules (18, 2-0-0)

    1 scoop Jay Robb whey protein powder (110, 0-0-25)

    1 glass almond milk (40, 3-2-1)

    2 tbsp almond butter (190, 17-6-8)

    Portions are as accurate as I could get them. This is a pretty typical non-IF day for me. I ate everything on this list to the last drop of grease.


    2820 kCal

    156.5g fat

    43g carb

    279g protein

    I'm 5'9.5" and 155 pounds this morning. Lean body mass is about 135 pounds, judging by my recent bodyfat analysis.

    What do I find wrong with this picture?


    Perhaps this is a heresy, but I don't consider all carbs the same. 100g of cellulose, hemicellulose, sucrose, and HFCS all have the exact same calorie count. But their metabolic effect is so different that grouping them together seems pointless. Cellulose passes through your body undigested by enzymes or bacteria (unless you're a termite). Hemicellulose feeds bacteria in your colon and converts to Vitamin K but is otherwise not a source of energy. Sucrose, of course, goes straight to blood glucose levels and provokes an insulin reaction. HFCS has to be heavily processed in the liver at the cost of vital nutrients. So why do we add all these different things together into one carb number? When you consider enzymes and glycemic index, the picture is even more complicated. Broccoli, for example, has sucrose and glucose but actually reverses the effects of diabetes (through an enzyme called sulforaphane.) Eat 100g of broccoli carbs and you'll still be in ketosis in my estimate. Eat 100g of HFCS and you'll be on the express train to diabetes. So what does it mean to say I ate 43g carb? By itself, approximately nothing.


    Protein is not a generic molecule; it is a collection of up to 22 standard amino acids and many more non-standard amino acids. The bioavailability varies wildly based on source (whey isolate is almost twice as available as beef protein) and on quantity (the more you eat of a certain protein, the less efficiently your body absorbs it). The complexities here are vast, and like carbs, proteins are highly diverse. If I have 100g of whey isolate, I'm getting a nice balance of absorbable acids. If I have 100g of straight phenylalanine, I'm cruising for a nutrient deficiency or worse. Faced with such complexity, I simply eat as many proteins from as many different whole animal sources as possible and let my liver sort it out. They say you should have .7-1.0g per lean body pound; I'm getting about twice that on a regular basis. Although I have to pee a lot, I've also put on loads of muscle. Coincidence...?


    You need a certain amount to provide energy. Past that amount, your body will ignore the rest in the absence of enzymes from dietary carbs (thanks Griff). I could have drunk a bottle of olive oil for dessert yesterday without significantly altering my energy stores this morning.


    So then, what does the kCal value signify? It signifies only the amount of energy that would be released by literally burning all of the above foods. Needless to say, the body's metabolic processes are much more subtle and complex than fire. 500 calories of cellulose means nothing. 500 calories of protein/fat is probably healthy. 500 calories of raw sugar is a kick in the pancreas. So to me, this number is almost totally meaningless in the aggregate.

    So, there you have my admittedly parascientific explanation for why I don't count calories or macronutrients. In addition, it's just plain tedious. I have other demands on my time.

    I follow more subjective indicators to determine if I'm eating right:

    * Energy levels - can I do at least 22 pushups in one standard elevator ride?

    * Abdominal poochiness - what does the subcutaneous fat depth around my navel look like this morning?

    * Hunger - if I'm craving carbs, I need more fat/protein.

    * Weight - if this increases more than two pounds from my moving average, I need to step up the activity (or do a bit of IF if my body's in recovery).

    All this has been a long way of saying: if you don't feel right about counting calories and macronutrient quantity, don't bother! Numbers can lull us into a false sense of certainty. Learn to follow your appetite as Grok did. Eat all you want of healthy proteins and fats in abundant variety, move around slowly, lift things, and sprint. Be patient, take the long view, and don't sweat the small stuff.

    Of course, some people swear by calorie counting and I'm not denying it helps them. Everyone has to play around and find what works for them, and calorie counting can help you be more aware of what you're eating. All this is just my own evolving approach.

    Also, I might be and probably am mistaken on some of the scientific details. Please feel free to demolish my theoretical house of cards if that's your game.

  • #2

    All seems legit to me, " that would be released by literally burning all of the above foods....." yet calories in/calories out was being discussed on a TV News program this very morning. Likely every morning. Succinct report there, Timothy, thanks for putting it up!


    • #3


      Eating lots but still hungry? Eat more fat. Mid-day sluggishness? Eat more fat. Feeling depressed or irritable? Eat more fat. People think you've developed an eating disorder? Eat more fat... in front of them.


      • #4

        Wow, thanks for posting this.


        • #5

          I haven't counted calories in a long time, but decided to chart and almost died when I saw that I had eaten over 2000 calories in one day!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Then I looked at the day before and only 900 calories, so I guess my body knows what it's doing.

          The more I see the less I know for sure.
          -John Lennon


          • #6

            Great post Timothy, thanks. You have a perspective that simply makes sense. I haven't been counting calories or ratios because of this bigger picture you have nicely summarized.

            However, I will maintain a loose mental tally in order to watch my appetite and keep it honest. Yesterday I ate more than usual (several hundred calories, to roughly quantify that), but it was okay. I really was hungry. And the extra food was mostly beef, eggs, and coconut oil. Some extra carbs from a quick pumpkin concoction as well. Felt great.

            On SAD, I would have been filling up on some grain/sugar snack and dutifully counting their calories (only to "lose count"), without even thinking about the vast nutritional void and negative effects. (Face palm)


            • #7

              Thanks everyone for reading! I'm glad you found it interesting. I've been ruminating on all this for a while now.

              Hello Kitty, I agree it's important to be aware of what you eat, and a mental tally is a good way to do that. Before PB I could sit down and go through bowl after bowl of cereal without thinking. In fact, towards the end of my first ever IF, I passed the nut jar and popped a handful in my mouth before I even realized what I was doing. (I spat them out -- ptooie!) When I eat now, I strive to make it a conscious choice rather than an unconscious reflex.

              And you can totally eat huge one day, and then barely graze the next day, and it all smooths out. In fact, my body seems to like it better that way. I believe Mark mentioned somewhere tracking food input from week to week more than day to day.


              • #8

                I don't track anything either. Grok just ate, he didn't care about macronutrient ratios. I want to be like him and enjoy my food in a carefree way.

                Height: 5'4" (1.62 m)
                Starting weight (09/2009): 200 lb (90.6 kg)
                No longer overweight (08/2010): 145 lb (65.6 kg)
                Current weight (01/2012): 127 lb (57.5 kg)


                • #9

                  +1 Mirrorball

                  Also whenever I post my calories I get told I'm lying because I CAN'T lose fat while eating that many calories and not doing any exercise.

                  At the end of the day the number means absolutely nothing and isn't worth tracking.

                  The "Seven Deadly Sins"

                  Grains (wheat/rice/oats etc) . . . . . Dairy (milk/yogurt/butter/cheese etc) . . . . . Nightshades (peppers/tomato/eggplant etc)
                  Tubers (potato/arrowroot etc) . . . Modernly palatable (cashews/olives etc) . . . Refined foods (salt/sugars etc )
                  Legumes (soy/beans/peas etc)


                  • #10

                    Great post, Timothy!

                    It was hard for me to break through the habits of CW... For a very long time, I tracked calories, makronutrients and other stuff on a daily basis. I went running about 4x a week and did strenght training 3x a week. I wanted to get bigger and stronger without putting on too much fat. It was a long, long struggle...

                    Nowadays, I strenght train 3x a week, sprint once a week and don't do any special "cardio" exercise. I eat as many calories as I like from meat, eggs and natural fats. I throw in some low-carb veggies for variety and extra taste. Since then, I added about 16 pounds, but nothing happened to my small skinny fat flubby around the lower belly (a relict from my high-carb, obese childhood...). Instead, my legs became much thicker and more muscular, as well as my back. All my lifts went up simultanously.

                    For all those who are on a daily struggle with their food intake: Choose your foods wisely and eat them conciously, but never be afraid of food! Remember, food is the tool for your body to live, survive and perform and it has been for the whole history of mankind.


                    • #11

                      Great post. I've always been prone to NOT keep track of my foods but mostly out of laziness and flat out confusion. There's a LOT of (mis)information in the fitness and nutrition world and for the most part it all points in different directions.

                      ...Eat every three hours vs IF

                      ...calories, calories, calories vs macronutrients

                      ...chronic cardio vs sprinting once/twice a week

             vs paleo

                      ...load up on veggies for weight loss vs protein, fat THEN veggies for fat loss

                      ...keep careful notes of what and how much you eat vs eat only when you're hungry, despite the time/amount of food your body knows better.

                      and I'm sure we could all add to the list, the point is that through my life I've found 50+ pieces of advice that were "right" until something else came along. I like the approach of "as long as you're eating within the PB, eating only when you're hungry and fasting every now and then, you don't have to count" but then there's posters like Sterling who will tell you that if you're trying to lose fat (as is my case) you should take note of what you're eating to know if you're in a calorie deficit. I value his input so I want to follow his advice, then I came across this thread and now I'm confused again!

                      I gather that if I'm doing IFs and I do about 3 a week without really thinking about it (dinner at 8-9, skip breakfast, workout fasted, lunch around 3-5) and I make sure all my food fits the PB/paleo lifestyle then I should have no issues. I have just been hungrier lately, need to up my fats I believe, and go back to my veggies which I had shunned a bit due to their carb content, albeit minimal I was just scared of getting too many carbs despite the sources, this thread has told me sources DO matter and carbs, like calories, may not all be made equal.

                      I used to seriously post here, now I prefer to troll.


                      • #12

                        do you have any more dt to te carbohydrate differencs?? obviouly iunderstand the glucose and HFCS but what eactly i and contains cellulous d hemicellulose?

                        Get on my Level


                        • #13


                          I value his input so I want to follow his advice, then I came across this thread and now I&#39;m confused again!</blockquote>

                          People who lose weight on low-calorie diets have to keep track of everything they put in their mouths and count calories forever for weight loss maintenance. Are you willing to do that? I&#39;m not, it sounds obsessive and would make me miserable.

                          Height: 5'4" (1.62 m)
                          Starting weight (09/2009): 200 lb (90.6 kg)
                          No longer overweight (08/2010): 145 lb (65.6 kg)
                          Current weight (01/2012): 127 lb (57.5 kg)


                          • #14

                            I track calories and macros out of caution (trouble with weight loss) and curiosity. However, I never use it to dictate what I eat. I don&#39;t look at the numbers and say, "oh, I haven&#39;t eaten that many carbs/calories today, I can now go eat more!" I simply eat what my body wants and then add it all up at the end of the day or even the next day to post and make sure my hunger signals aren&#39;t out of whack (leptin resistance).

                            It&#39;s funny becasue some days I find out that I have eaten almost 3,000 calories and some days it&#39;s only 600! My hunger balances everything out becasue my averages are about 1900 kcal/day (I am an average size female, so 3,000 calories is a lot!).

                            I will not track calories when I reach my goal weight.


                            • #15

                              MalPaz, cellulose is the primary structural element in plants and makes up their cell walls. Although it is a polysaccharide, it has a stable chemical structure and is not digestible by human enzymes although it may be available to certain intestinal bacteria. Hemicellulose is a weaker form of cellulose, but it is still not directly digestible by humans.

                              When I say that hemicellulose is "turned into Vitamin K" by bacteria in the colon, I&#39;m grossly simplifying one of the processes of the intestinal microbiota, the whole family of bacteria living in the large intestine. The types of bacteria in the microbiota can even affect weight loss or gain. One study found that inoculating mice with one type of bacteria (Bacteroides) made them lean, while another type of bacteria (Firmicutes) made them obese. This finding hasn&#39;t been duplicated in humans, though, and the role of intestinal microbiota remains poorly understood, though it is clearly significant.

                              Other factors affecting the absorption of nutrients include cooking, which radically changes the availability of proteins in particular, and any changes to the pH level of the digestive tract, which varies all along the intestines, affecting the absorption of different nutrients in different areas.

                              What I&#39;m trying to say is that using one number (like calories) to represent a food&#39;s energy value, or even a small set of numbers to represent a rough nutritional profile, oversimplifies the incredible complexity of nutrition. It&#39;s a bit like relying on IQ as a measure of intelligence, or counting the shovels in a toolshed to determine the rate of work at a construction site. Hence the need to listen to our inner Groks and follow our primal appetites to the good foods.