Saturday, April 2, 2016

Thoughts on Calorie Counting

One of the great things about following the Primal Blueprint or a Paleo lifestyle is that counting calories is not necessary, or even recommended. Following the Primal Blueprint is supposed to be simple. Eat lots of wholesome foods including animals, insects and plants. Avoid grains, beans and other legumes, most vegetable and seed oils, processed sugars and most processed foods in general. Do this and you will see improvements in health and energy. Heck, you may even lose some weight.

When you look at the big picture, your individual daily calorie or macro nutrient intake really does not matter much in the long run. What is important is your average intake of nutrients and activity level. If you want to keep an eye on calories and macro nutrients, I feel that looking at your daily average over a week is a good minimum time frame to use to see how you are doing. When I was in the weight loss phase of my journey I would log my food intake once or twice a week just to verify that my carbohydrate intake was staying under 100 grams of carbs per day.

 Why less than 100 grams of carbs for weight loss?

 Let's take a look at the Primal Blueprint Carbohydrate Curve:

According to this curve, maintaining an average daily carbohydrate intake between 50 and 100 grams will result in weight loss for most people.  I know that particular sweet spot worked really well for me.

It is also important to at least spot check your protein intake.  It is recommended that we consume somewhere between .7 and 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body weight (depending on activity level).  If you are losing weight, you want to minimize the amount of muscle you lose and if you are an active individual, you need the protein to build and repair muscle and other cells in your body.

The last macro nutrient that I note is fat intake.  Let's say you have your carbs dialed in and you are averaging between 70 and 80 grams/day since you want to drop a little weight.  Your protein intake is also where you want it for your lean body mass and activity level (for me somewhere between 120 and 150 gr/day at the moment).  When you spot check your intake (or check your weekly average), you see that your calories are lower than what they should be.  This is when you add additional healthy fat into your diet.  From the Primal Blueprint:
Learn to love them. They are the fuel of choice and should become the balance of your Primal Blueprint diet. Fats have little or no impact on insulin and, as a result, promote the burning of both dietary and stored (adipose) fat as fuel. Think about this: if protein and carbs stay fairly constant (and carbs stay under 150), you can use fat as the major energy variable in your diet. Feeling like you need more fuel (and you’ve already covered your bases with protein and carbs)? Reach for something with fat. Nuts, avocados, coconut, eggs, butter, olive oil, fish, chicken, lamb, beef, the list is a long one. 
You would also want to add more healthy fats into your diet if you are lacking energy or feeling extra hungry.  Healthy fats are a good and necessary nutrient that we humans need to consume.

The Primal Blueprint Food Pyramid:

Following the Primal Blueprint and using this food pyramid is how I have lost over 100 pounds and have maintained that healthy weight for over a year now.  Losing the weight did not take constant calorie tracking and did not really take too much effort on my part.  Following the Primal Blueprint is simple, not always easy, but very simple.

Now I bet you are wondering "What's up with your Monday Macros if calorie counting is not important?"

I have lost a lot of weight in the past, and started regaining it the month that I reached my goal.  When I reached a healthy weight this time, I wanted to ensure that I did not regain the weight.  I started daily tracking so that I could slowly increase my carbohydrate and calorie intake, and gather data to determine what calorie intake and macro profile was optimum for me.  I continue to track intake because I enjoy analyzing the data.  I document everything I eat in MyFitnessPal (MFP).  I set my MFP activity level as "lightly active" and my goal to gain 1/2 pound per week.  MFP indicates that my calorie goal is 2500 calories/day.  That happens to coincide with my personal goal based on my current exercise levels.  When I progress from my rehab workout back to the Simple and Sinister workout, my daily average calorie goal with be somewhere between 26 and 2700 calories/day.  I expect to end up at an average of 31 or 3200 calories/day when I am swinging a 32 kg kettlebell one handed.  I log my food for a couple of reasons.  First, I'm a data hound and I find the data interesting and useful to me.  After having documented everything I eat for over 400 days, I have a good idea of how my body reacts to different macro combinations and foods. Second, due to my lung transplant, I have lots and lots of blood work done.  Prior to my transplant the nutritionist on the transplant team tried to require that I eat whole grains, reduce my fat intake, and pretty much eliminate eggs from my diet before I could be listed.  It turns out that one of the senior doctors on the team also follows a mostly Primal diet and authorized my continuing to follow the Primal Blueprint.  I just had to agree to modify my diet as necessary to keep all of my lab results in line with the goals set by the team.  Well... my labs are awesome and the team is very happy with my progress.  My potassium was a little high once and my daily log proved that the test was an outlier and a retest had my levels in spec.

One thing I do not do is change my daily calorie intake based on my exercise routine for the day.  I still shoot for an average daily goal over a seven day period.  My body seems to agree with me as I have lots of energy, see good gains in my performance, and I'm not feeling like I need to eat more.

I see that lots of people in the social forums will increase their calorie intake because they went for a 30 minute walk or hit the gym for a workout.  I really think that is a waste of mental energy, and not very efficient.  Most apps like MFP assume a minimum amount of activity and calorie burn. so just because you walked an extra mile or two on Saturday does not mean you need to add extra calories on that day.

PrecisionNutrition has a couple of interesting articles on Calories In and Calories Out, and Mark has written an article on "7 Common Calorie Myths We Should All Stop Believing" that you might find interesting.

This turned into a long and rambling post, sorry about that.  I'll try to quickly sum up my thoughts on calorie counting.

There are lots of tools available to help us track our food intake, and these tools can be very helpful when we are trying to identify trends and issues in our diet.  Along with calories, these trackers allow us to keep an eye on our macro nutrients (carbs/fat/protein) and this feature may be even more helpful that tracking calories.

The best use of a calorie tracker is to spot check your diet to ensure you are in the ballpark for your nutrient goals, or for tracking daily averages over time to dial in your diet for a specific goal.  Before making most changes in my food intake, I follow a trend for at least a couple of weeks.  Now, if I know my average energy expenditure is going to increase, I don't wait to increase calories.  Today I will progress from my rehab workout to a full on Simple and Sinister workout.  I know my calorie needs are going to increase so my daily average goal will increase.

If you are going to track calories, please don't sweat the small stuff.  Look at the data as long term trend analysis, daily hiccups don't matter much so long as your daily average stays on track.  Your body is an awesome machine, it can and will handle variations in caloric intake quite well.

If you are more athletic, then you may want to look in to timing your meals and macros to best provide energy and muscle recovery, but for most of us this isn't so important.

Life is supposed to be fun.  Following the Primal Blueprint or a Paleo lifestyle is also supposed to be fun, and simple.  There is no need to over complicate things by becoming overly focused on energy in vs energy out and stressing about weighing and measuring all of your food.  Unless you enjoy gathering and tracking this data, don't do it.  I would recommend that you do the occasional spot check, logging a day or two's food intake just to check your macros, then go about enjoying living the Primal life.


  1. Awesome Post. Love the calorie in/out links. So much to digest if this is all you have been taught. NM

  2. Thanks Sue, glad you enjoyed it.