This is a surprisingly controversial topic in the world of internet dieting, and it’s for a good reason. A lot of people will try to tell you that it’s not this easy because they want to sell you on something else (please note the literal use of the world “sell” here). However, the truth is, it really is that simple: if you burn more calories than you take in, you will lose weight. Period. Full stop. You could eat nothing but Twinkies, and as long as it adds up to fewer calories than you burn you will lose weight.
So, if the only thing you care about is dropping a few pounds, that’s your solution: consume fewer calories, burn more, or both. As long as you do it correctly, it will work.* The problem is, losing weight is probably not the only thing you care about.
For people who already know they’d like to be generally heathier, this is easy. So let me instead address the people who think they only care about dropping pounds, because I was there. I was successfully losing weight eating whatever I wanted, so long as I stayed within my calorie budget, so I figured eating healthy didn’t matter. And if you really only care about your weight, it’s very easy to think that way. So who am I to insist that you do care about other things?
Well, let me put it this way: would you rather eat what you want, within your calorie budget, but be hungry all the time? Or would you rather be satisfied and full with what you eat, while still maintaining a caloric deficit? I’m guessing it’s going to be the second one; you’ll be much more successful sticking to a plan if it doesn’t leave you feeling hungry all the time. Hence, reason you should care about more than just losing weight.
Until recently, I ate what I wanted. I tend to eat fairly healthily just out of personal preference, but I was far from as good as I’m being now. My diet consisted of a lot of refined grains (anything white) and not a lot of meat. I was able to stay within my calorie budget when I was exercising, but there were still some days when it was a challenge and for the few months I had to stop running, sticking to my plan was far from easy. I did it, but I couldn’t wait to start running again so that I could eat more food.
Then, a few weeks ago, I decided to change that. Because I’ve been training for a half marathon, I bought a nutrition book specifically for long-distance runners and completely overhauled my diet. I started eating way more fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, and meat. I swapped my usual cereal, pasta, and bread for the whole grain versions (which was intellectually challenging, I assure you, as I was rasied on wheat bread until I eventually insisted so strongly on eating white instead that my parents gave up and let me do it). Even though the amount was already small, I decreased my consumption of sugary snacks, like poptarts, that taste yummy but only keep you full for about fifteen minutes.
The results were amazing. My first day of this new way of eating I only ate about 1000 calories and I felt completely satisfied for the large majority of the day. In the weeks that have followed, I’ve been able to stick to an average of around 1400-1500 calories/day no problem, in contrast to the 1700-1800 or so I was eating before. And please note that this is not a low carb diet. I still get a lot of carbs from my fruits and vegetables, as well as from my whole grains. This is a real food lifestyle.
Let me put it another way. Which of these two options do you think would satisfy your hunger for longer:
This 500 calorie slice of cake?
Or this 500 calorie steak meal?
Hopefully, the answer to that question is obvious. And that’s why a calorie both is and is not a calorie; while it is true that all you need to do to lose weight is burn more calories than you consume, regardless of what form those calories come in, it’s also true that it will be much, much easier for you to stick to a calorie limit if you’re eating the right things – things heavy in fiber, protein, and the healthy kinds of fats that will keep you fuller for longer.
*There are a lot of people out there who claim to have tried counting calories and not had it work for them. There can be a variety of reasons for this, chief among them being that said person was doing it wrong. A lot of times people will underestimate their calorie intake for the day by forgetting to count the things they drank or forgetting components of their meals, like cooking oil. They also frequently overestimate the number of calories burned during exercise. Another possible reason is that people new to exercise may sometimes experience weight gain due to inflammation, because the body isn’t used to that level of activity and needs some time to heal itself. Alternatively, based on their method of exercise, they may actually be gaining muscle, which is more dense (therefore seemingly heavier) than fat, and could even result in an increase in the number on the scale. Finally, not everyone’s metablosim burns calories at the same rate, so some people may need to have a net calorie amount significantly lower than what would typically be necessary for someone at the same age and weight.