Should I count calories on keto?
Many people say no there’s no need. On keto, you crave less food, so you eat less. Just listen to your body, they say.
Others claim that calories are everything on keto. If you don’t count them, the story goes, you won't see any results.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. Some folks can get away with ignoring calories on keto. But if you’re just starting out, or trying to achieve a specific bodyweight, it probably makes sense to track them.
This article covers the whys and hows of counting calories on keto. First, though, let’s review some basics.
What Is A Calorie?
In the dictionary, a calorie is defined as the amount of energy needed to raise 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
Practically speaking, however, calories represent stored energy in food. This energy is released during digestion.
Calories take the form of three macronutrients: Fat, protein and carbohydrates. When digested, these macros have unique effects in your body.
Macronutrient Calories per Gram:
- Carbohydrate: 4 calories per gram
- Fat: 9 calories per gram
- Protein: 4 calories per gram
In other words, 500 calories of fat have vastly different effects than 500 calories of sugar. One difference? Sugar significantly spikes blood sugar and insulin levels. Fat does not.
Raising blood sugar and insulin levels shuts down your ability to access body fat. That’s why sugar is restricted on the keto diet.
So when it comes to human health, a calorie is not a calorie. Different foods have different effects on your metabolism.
Calories and Metabolism
Your body burns calories when you sleep, when you watch TV, and when you lounge around. Total up these periods, and you have your resting metabolic rate.
Your resting metabolic rate, or basal metabolic rate, is the amount of energy needed to power basic bodily functions. This includes your heart beat, your digestion, your cognitive capacity, and many other things.
Metabolic rate typically accounts for 60-70% of your daily calorie burn. The rest is physical activity. (Yes, that includes fidgeting!).
If you’re trying to lose weight, calories matter. What you’re aiming for is a negative energy balance, a situation where you burn more calories than you consume.
So, should you drastically cut calories (a 50% reduction, say) for weight loss? Maybe not.
When you restrict calories—day after day, week after week, month after month—your metabolism slows down. In other words, you burn fewer calories, even at rest.
For a real world example, look to The Biggest Loser. On the surface, the show seems to be a success as the participants usually lose a lot of weight!
But here’s what the show doesn’t mention. When the cameras switch off and the contestants go home, the weight comes roaring back.
Why? Because the participants are suffering metabolic slowdowns. When they start eating normal portions again, their bodies are ill-equipped to burn those calories. So they gain weight.
This isn’t speculation. One study on 16 participants from The Biggest Loser found that their metabolisms were still depressed six years after the show!
The takeaway here is that, while calories matter for weight loss, aggressive calorie restriction isn’t a sustainable strategy.
Calories on Keto
Recall from earlier that a calorie is not simply a calorie. Different diets have different metabolic effects.
For example, one study found that people following a ketogenic diet had higher energy requirements (faster metabolisms) than those on higher carb diets. Basically, they could eat more calories and maintain their weight.
Does this mean you can eat as much as you like on keto? Not so fast.
Overeating on Keto
Compared to other diets, it’s harder to overeat on keto. That’s because a keto diet is highly satiating.
Satiating means filling. The keto diet has been shown to reduce hunger hormones like ghrelin and neuropeptide Y, and stimulate fullness hormones like leptin and cholecystokinin.
Keto has also been put to the test in clinical settings. In one trial, women with obesity eating a ketogenic diet lost more weight than women eating a calorie-restricted low fat diet.
Think about that. The keto women weren’t told to limit calories, yet still lost more weight!
But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to overeat on keto. Even if they’re keto-friendly calories, too many calories will lead to weight gain.
Nuts and dairy are probably the biggest offender here. So tasty, so salty, so easy to mindlessly overeat.
If you can’t control yourself around, say, cashews—keep them sealed and out of sight. Or buy smaller bags of keto snacks that are harder to overdo.
Under Eating on Keto
If you’re eating keto to lose weight, a mild caloric deficit is desirable. Five to ten percent fewer calories per day is nowhere near the Biggest Loser diet. It’s sustainable for weight loss.
But since low-carb diets reduce hunger hormones, it’s possible to undershoot your keto diet calories.
If you want to gain muscle (or maintain weight) on keto, you need to avoid a caloric deficit. This may mean, in certain cases, eating beyond the dictates of hunger.
Tracking Calories On Keto
Determining your optimal calories on keto will require some tracking and tinkering.
The first step is to figure out your bodyweight goal. Weight loss? Weight maintenance? Muscle gain?
Once you know your goal, you need to determine your daily calorie burn. How? By calculating your calorie intake, and comparing it to changes in body weight.
To find out your calorie intake, use an app like Carb Manager or Keto Diet App. Everything you eat goes into the app. Log your meals religiously for 3 or 4 days and you’ll know your average calorie consumption.
Combine this data with your bodyweight data and you’ll be in one of three scenarios:
- Weight is staying about the same. Your calorie intake is about the same as your calorie burn.
- You’re losing weight. Your calorie intake is less than your calorie burn.
- You’re gaining weight. Your calorie intake is higher than calorie burn.
From here, you can adjust your eating habits accordingly (eat more, eat less, or stay the same) until you achieve your goals.
Author: Brian Stanton
Bio: Brian Stanton is the author of Keto Intermittent Fasting, a certified health coach, and an expert in the keto diet, fasting, and gut health. Follow Brian’s work by visiting his website at www.primalsapien.com.