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Keto versus calorie counting: Do you need to count calories on keto?

7 minute read • July 13, 2022

Do you need to count calories if you eat keto? Does keto work better than counting calories? Do calories even matter if you follow a keto diet? People follow ketogenic diets for many reasons, but if you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, your main reason for doing keto is probably weight loss.

So let’s tackle this from that angle: if you want to lose weight on keto, do you need to count calories?

The simplest answer is no…but also maybe. 

There’s a frequently cited line in the weight loss field: “Calories count, but that doesn’t mean you have to count them.” A related take is, “Calories don’t matter, until they do.” I’m sure those are both clear as mud, so let’s make sense of these vague statements. 

Losing and gaining weight

If we look at this the other way around—if you want to gain weight—then it seems obvious that you’d need to eat more, right? You can’t make something out of nothing, so barring some kind of hormonal abnormality, if you want to increase the mass of your body, you have to give it more mass with which to build.

So if you want to lose weight, then it stands to reason that you’d need to eat less. If the food you eat provides your body with less energy than it requires to perform its basic life-sustaining functions (plus any extra you expend through everyday activity and exercise), your body will need to tap into its stored fuel (mostly fat and carbs) to make up the difference.

Satiated appetite

people talking and smiling

In this regard, the nice thing about eating keto is that in most cases, the shift from burning mostly carbs to burning mostly fat helps to control appetite. People report that their total hunger is reduced and they feel hungry less often.

The combination of these two things means that most people on a keto diet eat less without deliberately trying to. That is, they reduce their caloric intake without any specific effort put toward weighing and measuring their food, tracking it in an app, or limiting themselves to any particular amount of food—except for keeping carb intake very low.

Unfortunately, these reports of reduced hunger are mostly anecdotal. There’s a mountain of published scientific research proving keto diets are effective for weight loss, reversing type 2 diabetes, and improving a long list of health issues. Missing from most of these studies, however, is assessment of hunger.

You don’t need a randomized controlled trial to tell you whether you’ve experienced this yourself, though. You probably already know whether this is one of the benefits that keto is imparting to your life.

If you used to get cranky, irritable, and shaky if you didn’t eat every two hours or so on a high-carb diet, then keto might be a whole new world for you if you feel totally comfortable going many hours between meals.

Counting versus not counting calories

calories on watch

So, calories don’t matter until they do. What does this mean? 

Think about building up your savings. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say you have just one bank account. Everything you earn and everything you spend goes into and comes out of this account. (We’ll also ignore interest just to keep things simple.)

If you know for certain that you always have more coming in than is going out, then you know you’ll have a positive balance and that this balance will continue to increase over time—without you needing to keep track of every penny. But if you want your savings to grow more quickly or you want to save more for a certain period of time, then you need to be more deliberate with your budget.

If you want to reach a certain goal and your current practices are not getting you closer to it, then you need to change those practices.

Maybe for general growth, it was enough to know you had more money coming in than going out. But now that you want to save more, or save more quickly, you might need to make a plan and track your income and spending for a while to make sure you’re sticking to that plan.

In other words, you don’t have to follow a budget—until you have a goal that would be reached more quickly and easily by following one.

Don’t overdo it

water overflowing out of hand

The reality of keto is that just because something is very low in carbs doesn’t mean you can eat an unlimited amount of it and still lose weight. (Overdoing heavy cream, nuts, cheese, and other low-carb, high-fat foods is notorious for stalling weight loss or even causing weight gain.)

Even being in ketosis doesn’t guarantee weight loss. Being in ketosis only means that your body is burning fat – it doesn’t automatically mean you are losing body fat. If you take in more energy than your body expends (measured as “calories”), there will be no deficit that your body needs to make up for by tapping into its stored fat.

Burning fat versus burning carbs

grillling food

My co-author on the book, End Your Carb Confusion, Dr. Eric Westman, often says, “Keto is a fat-burning diet.” That’s true, but the unsaid second part is critical to understand: burning fat isn’t the same as losing weight.

When your carbohydrate intake is very low, your insulin level stays pretty low most of the time. This makes it easier for your body to burn fat. (Insulin does a lot more than just lower blood sugar. One of the biggest things it does is inhibit fat burning!)

When insulin is high, your body will burn carbohydrates more readily than it burns fat. When insulin is lower, it’s easier for your fat cells to release their stored energy for your body to use for fuel. (To be clear, you’re always burning some fat, even on a high-carb diet. You just burn more when your carb intake is very low.)

So you can “burn calories” on any kind of diet—you’re always burning calories—that’s why you’re still alive! But if you want to lose body fat, it helps to use more fat for fuel rather than carbohydrate, right? After all, if you want to lose fat, you’ve got to be burning fat (not carbs), and that’s what keto does better than a higher-carb diet. But again, burning fat doesn’t equal fat loss.

Do you need to count calories on keto?

counting block

In most cases, no. Even if you’re struggling to lose weight, my first piece of advice would be to make sure your carbohydrate intake is truly low.

Consider switching from counting net carbs to total carbs and ditching the keto treats that are probably a lot higher in carbs (and fat) than you realize. Beyond that, cutting down on fat helps some people break stalls and get fat loss going again. (Think of keto more as ultra-low carb rather than “high fat.”)

Some people find that adopting an intermittent fasting (IF) practice helps them reduce the amount of food they eat without deliberately counting or restricting calories. If you go from eating three meals a day plus snacks to one or two meals per day, most likely you’ll end up eating less overall.

It’s possible, though, to fit the same amount of food into one or two meals that you were previously dividing among three, so while IF can be helpful, it isn’t always a solution to overeating.

Log your food

typing on phone

All that being said, if you think you’re doing “everything right” and weight won’t budge, it can be eye-opening to log your food and count calories for a week or two to get a sense of where you are. Record everything.

Every bite, every sip, every snag and grab from the candy dish you pass at work or the bits of this and that you swipe from your kid’s plate as you’re clearing away the dinner dishes. Maybe you’re eating a lot more than you realized—and maybe there are some easy swaps you can make and things you can eliminate altogether that would make a big difference for your weight loss.

(Also consider whether stubborn weight has nothing to do with your diet and might be caused by something else, like a thyroid problem.)

What if you count calories and still don’t lose weight?

old men playing chess

If you’re wondering about calories, then you’re obviously interested in losing weight. But it’s important to know that keto is very powerful for improving health even when you don’t lose weight.

People have reversed metabolic syndrome and had massive improvements in type 2 diabetes and triglycerides with very little weight loss. Risk for cardiovascular disease also improves whenfollowing a low-carb diet, even in the absence of weight loss.

Knowing that keto is making great things happen on the inside can help you feel confident and stay motivated to keep going even if your weight and size aren’t changing much. When you’re feeling frustrated by slow or stalled weight loss, here’s a look at 14 ways to know that keto is working for you besides weight loss.

Summing up

women posing for photo

If you’re following a keto diet for a purpose other than weight loss, the amount of food you take in is less relevant than maintaining an overall metabolic state of lower blood sugar and insulin, reduced inflammation, etc.

But if your goal is fat loss and that isn’t happening, pay more attention to what you’re eating and how much. You can probably spot the problems and course-correct without counting calories—but it can be an option if you’ve tried everything else and excess weight still isn’t moving.

For more fat loss tips—without counting calories—check out this video on the most common things that get in the way of fat loss on keto.

Make keto easy

smoothies

Looking to make keto easy? What about making carb or calorie counting easy? Then check out Keto Chow! Keto Chow is a meal replacement shake that has 1/3 of your daily recommended nutrients. That means you don’t need to count your calories or carbs, as it can replace one of your meals! And because these shake mixes are low carb and gluten free, they’re perfect for the keto diet.

Choose from over 30 delicious flavors, like Strawberry or Caramel Macchiato.

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