June 19 2007

It’s the Calories, not the Carbs!

By Mark Sisson

Although I think the current food pyramid ought to emphasize vegetables over other sources of carbohydrates, you still need some carbohydrates in your daily diet. (Yes, you read that correctly.) I happen to believe a nutrient-loaded bowl of fresh broccoli is a more intelligent – not to mention tastier – dietary choice than a slice of bread and infinitely better than a Pop Tart. I don’t think many would quibble with my Pop Tart derision, but plenty of people take understandable issue with my unfavorable opinion of grains. We’ve been told grains are healthy – to say otherwise must be crazy-talk!

Grains do have a little fiber – sometimes – and offer some vitamins and protein. But, so do vegetables – for far fewer calories. Even whole grain food products tend to come with preservatives, added fats, and corn syrup – not always, of course, but I’m thinking in terms of the typical American diet. Someone is buying all those hamburgers and french fries. Not you? Okay, good.

One of many reasons for favoring vegetables over grains is the calorie factor – grains just have more calories than vegetables. A lot of people hope to lose weight without cutting calories, so they eliminate an entire macro-nutrient category. Axing a whole category is easy at first, and gives one a sense of accomplishment. It feels good. We did it in the 90s with fat. As it turns out, many forms of fat are vital and nutritious, so that wasn’t a smart idea. Now we condemn carbohydrates, which is fine, but I see people chowing on bacon and avoiding “too many” vegetables! How long before we start rethinking carbohydrates? This is why I stress the need for portion control. Eat a little fat, eat a little protein, eat a little (smart) carbohydrate – eat a little.

You can lose weight on a high-protein diet, but few stick with it for more than a few months. I agree with the philosophy of the higher-protein, higher-fat diets in that it’s essential to cut out the refined carbohydrates for optimal health. If we eliminated refined foods, particularly refined sweeteners in the form of snacks and sodas, I think it’s probable that we would see a welcome drop in heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Refined and even whole-grain carbohydrates are not the most nutritious source of calories.

What’s more important to you: being healthy or being thin? I would hope both! If you want both, you’re going to have to come up with a sensible long term solution beyond completely eliminating a macro-nutrient, because that’s not reasonable or healthy. Eliminate refined carbohydrates from your diet, but remember that weight management is still about calories, calories, calories. None of us needs to be feasting on massive steaks or wolfishly consuming the excessive portions restaurants dish out. Shaq is an exception.

To that end, I recommend limiting portions and getting the most out of every single calorie. Why eat a bag of peach-flavored chips when you could eat a real peach for half the calories and a good dose of unprocessed, real nutrition?

Carbs are an instant energy source, and some amount of carbs are necessary to function – though you can be healthier and leaner on a lot less starch than the food pyramid would have you believe. You don’t “need” 6 to 11 servings of grains every day. In fact, I think if we all but removed the grain section from the pyramid, we’d be right in step with an entirely natural diet for humans. We need a lot less of the grains and a lot more of the vegetables, nuts and legumes. And even though fruits are a source of sugar, we also need some fruit to be healthy – berries are best. Guess what? Those fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes are legitimate sources of quality fibrous carbs, and they’re necessary to health. (The grains, on the other hand, not so much. But it’s folly to lump all carbohydrates into one “evil” category, just as it was folly to lump all fats into one “evil” category. As we all know, there are vitally important and highly nutritious fats, like Omega-3’s, that we need to consume with reckless abandon.)

When we eat grain and sugar-based carbohydrates, we are more likely to store fat, suffer inflammation, create an imbalanced metabolic response, and stress our organs. (I cover issues like grain agriculture and human development in greater detail in my weekly op/ed, Primal Health.) That said, a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Certain calories, like refined carbohydrates, can prompt unhealthy reactions in the body, and may be more prone to store as fat because they seem to trigger a particularly stressful metabolic response. So, the key to health is in making the most of your calories by choosing nutritious ones that compliment the way our bodies work. But the key to weight loss? It’s still the calories, baby. Any more than you need to get through your day and you can bet dollars to donuts your body will find a way to store it all for future use.

Food is a great pleasure. I could never make it on a severely restrictive diet, nor would I want to. I advise that when you eat, choose the most nutritious, valuable calories possible, and keep it small. I do recommend limiting grain-based carbohydrates, not because I believe in “restrictive” diets, but because the evolutionary evidence indicates to me that we just aren’t meant to eat them. When you do eat non-vegetable carbs, limit them to very light portions, and choose natural starches that won’t send your pancreas into overdrive. Make fresh produce the base of your diet rather than attempting to adhere to a severely restrictive, high-calorie diet that demonizes an entire macro-nutrient. Remember, it’s the calories.

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18 thoughts on “It’s the Calories, not the Carbs!”

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  1. Thank you Mark for this post. I always wondered should I still watch my calories as well as carbohydrates. You have confirmed what I have felt. So I will eat more vegetables and fruit(nutritious carbs) instead of the grains. And I will still watch my calories.

  2. ughhhhh other news letters from mark say calories dont really matter! So confused :-p.

    1. I am wondering then same thing. I just read a separate post from Mark that said portion control and calories don’t matter. I’ve been eating 99% Primal for a month now and I am not losing weight or BF%. I am eating when I’m hungry and not eating when I’m not.

      I’m confused now as well

      1. This must have been written by a worker bee while Mark was on vacation.

  3. tank you mark i lost about 145 pouds im stronger and full of muscles go see my website and look by your self tank you mark your new friend mike

  4. Thank you for that post I lost 85 lbs in a year on a low carb diet still till this day I do not eat bread or pasta of any kind I think things that are enjoyed over noodles can be enjoyed over veggies it was hard to learn a new life style but well worth it!! With alot of critisim from family and friends who dont believe in the low carb life style.

  5. What? I read PB and Total Body Transformation and as many of mark’s blog entries as I can and I am confused by this! Legumes? Calorie control? I know ultimately we will be less hungry and eat less often on PB lifestyle, but this is the first I’ve heard about this from mark. All my friends and family have pretty much been converted to primal life and have lost weight, except my sister who is drinking a lot of alcohol! I actually bulk up on calories from good fats in order to sustain my energy throughout the day. Hope i haven’t somehow missed the boat here?!

  6. But this is definitely mark’s writing style, not a worker. Mark! Come clarify!

  7. So should I still watch my daily calorie intake then? If so, what is a ball park figure for men and women and age and weight?

  8. Hm, this makes sense but I can definitely see how is it confusing, especially the mention of legumes as so important. To be honest, the only thing that has ever really worked for me was counting calories (not so difficult with today’s phone apps) when I wanted to lose or control my weight. However, that was on a non-primal diet. So approx. how many are we looking at to control vs. lose weight on a primal diet? Would the values differ from a person on a traditional American diet?

    1. Agree with you, I too can only lose while counting calories, even on primal diet. I think I have to be conscious of this because I tend to overeat, so it helps me. If you don’t gain weight and eat this way without counting, great, and I’m jealous, lol. But for me, I use my phone app and it keeps me on track. Maybe I will get it will become more routine and easier in time, but with crappy metabolism due to thyroid issues, counting calories works best for me.

  9. The title is a bit confusing.

    It’s not that Mark is saying that you should watch your calories, keeping tab on how many calories you eat in the whole day (although I’m sure he doesn’t agree with eating more calories we need to eat). His argument is specifically in the context of carbohydrates: when having foods that primarily carbs or have a lot of carbs, eat those foods that have less calories so you don’t consume more carb-based calories than you need. That is why he suggests that when we are choosing which carbs to include in our diets (cuz we need some carbs after all), we should choose smart choices like veggies, fruits, and even legumes and especially lentils (esp. if your vegetarian)to an extent. He does say in another post that legumes are carb-hefty, but not as much as grains are(https://www.marksdailyapple.com/beans-legumes-carbs/#axzz1pFeOE2ud); the important thing to keep in mind is that Mark is giving healthier options for carb-based foods as opposed to grains based on number of calories in those foods, which does not need to be high since we don’t need to consume a lot of calories from carbs in our overall diet (instead,fats and protein should be bigger sources).

    On a side note,even if the article was written by a “worker bee,” I’m pretty sure it was written by a credible author that Mark trusts and the article was probably approved by Mark as well.

    Still, I think it is a good idea if Mark comments to make things clear!

  10. I think that this is just an old post (notice that the first comment is from 2007), and that his advice has changed considerably since then.

  11. I’m amazed that the comments from years ago were confused about the fact that overeating calories causes weight gain.

    Granted, there is an overriding hormonal element that individuates each person’s personal results, but math is still math at the end of the day.

    Personally I like (and get away with) eating light one day (low calorie, 70-80g carbs, 70-80g fat, 75-90g protein), then eating normal the next. The normal day gets some exercise, the light day gets more water.

    I normalized my high fasting blood sugar in only 4 days doing this (from 103 down to 80!!). That means I am no longer hyperglycemic and hyperinsulinemic. As long as I throw in about 20 minutes of air squats every other day to keep my biggest muscles insulin sensitive, I am staying on track and not leaning towards pre-diabetes type 2, not to mention the fat loss and muscle maintenance.