The Diet Hack…Calories?

Finished the book three days ahead of schedule! I sent the manuscript off the Archangel Ink for editing and formatting yesterday. Tomorrow night we fly off to Cabo for a two week vacation on the beach.

Some thoughts from my writing experience.

As I researched and wrote the book, it became quite clear how important calories are in the grand scheme. I know that the word “calorie” is taboo in the dieting world, and every blogger worth his salt has written about the futility of counting calories for weight loss. But, the sad truth seems to be that if you are not counting calories your weight loss journey will be short-lived.

The holy-grail of dieting is finding a way to eat that allows you to lose weight without counting calories. Some diets, like Weight Watchers, substitute “points” for calories, or have lists of foods you can eat as you please only limiting certain foods, e.g. “carbs,” fat, sweets, etc… This is all just a smokescreen to hide the fact that weight loss can only be successful when your diet is hypocaloric.

Here’s the problem with diets that don’t track calories: You will overeat on “allowable” foods and stop losing weight.

A big problem with calorie counting is that people get too focused on the number of calories, and lose focus of food quality. So I think it’s best to split the difference. Focus first on eating high-quality food, but also track how many calories you are ingesting daily. At some point, you’ll begin to lose weight and this weight loss can be sustained indefinitely by carefully adjusting the number of calories eaten daily.

With the technology available today, counting calories is very easy. There are tons of apps and websites with free calorie counting programs. Some even let you take a picture of your food and it will estimate the calories in the meal.

My Little Experiment

Starting January 2nd this year, I started counting the calories I was eating. Upon examination, my normal diet consisted of 2500-3500 calories daily, and I was weight-stable. I’ve been eating this way for many years, not worrying in the least about macro ratios or calories. My weight has remained between 175 and 185 pounds for many years.

On January 2nd, I weighed 183 pounds. I began limiting my calories to 1500/day. I used a free program found on to track how much I was eating. A sample day (Hopefully you can zoom in to see):

The results:

About 12 pounds lost over 6 weeks at 1500cal/day, mostly. I had a couple days over 2000 calories, but none significantly under 1500. My average throughout this period was 1550 cal/day.day3

Eating 1500 calories is not that hard. Especially when you load up on low-calorie foods like berries and veggies.  You quickly learn to identify food that takes up way too much space in your daily allotment of calories..butter, cheese, etc. have very low payback for the amount of calories they contain.

12 pounds in 6 weeks is definitely not as sexy as 5 pounds in 5 days like I could have gotten from the Potato Hack, but I think 1500 calories of real food is much easier than eating 3-5 pounds of potatoes a day.  And more sustainable, especially if someone needed to lose a large amount of weight.


It dawned on me as I wrote the book and did this experiment that the biggest reason for diet failure is failure to accurately track calories. There is no way to “eyeball” a specific calorie count. You have to use technology. You need to carefully measure and log everything you eat, unpleasant as that may sound. Once your diet is truly hypocaloric, weight loss will ensue.  If the food you are eating is mainly wholesome and nutritious, you don’t need to count grams of fat or carbs, just calories. If you do not lose weight, you have to  lower the daily calories until you start losing. For every human, there will be a level of caloric intake that results in weight gain, weight stability, and weight loss. This is universally accepted in medical literature.  Caveat: There may be certain illnesses that prevent weight stability.

What about you? Any arguments? Agreements?

24 thoughts on “The Diet Hack…Calories?

  1. I would point out that calorie counts in labels are legally allowed to be 10% off. And this compounds when you eat multiple servings.

    You may think you’re eating 1,500 calories, but are eating more or less.

    Also, research shows that dieting causes a corresponding metabolic slowdown LARGER than if the person had never been obese/overweight at all.

    Meaning that it will take fewer calories for a dieted down 180 pound man than one who has never dieted.

    Studies SUGGEST, that alternate day fasting prevents this slowdown.

    So a steady deficit is likely not the wisest approach to weight loss. It may seem like the simplest, but statistics don’t lie. A vast majority of dieters regain the weight and then some.

    Hopefully, you want to help your readers avoid this all too common pitfall of weight loss…


    1. Haha, did you sneak a look at my book? Yes, I discuss all of this and more…you are spot-on in all your observations. I found it a bit off-putting that calorie labels are allowed to be 10% off, but also consider that calories in whole foods can be up to 30% off from calorie charts. For example, bananas vary in calorie content depending on ripeness as resistant starch converts to sugar. Apples can have higher sugar content dependent on the soil and weather conditions of the season.

      My 1500 calories were probably more like 1750-1800 if they had been accurately measured with a bomb calorimeter. I think people focus too much on the calorie count when they should be looking for a calorie estimate that causes weight loss at a steady rate.

      And, yes, with larger weight losses, people will have to cut calories at some point for the weight loss to continue. This makes perfect sense when you think that a 300 pound man needs more calories to maintain than the same man at 200 pounds.

      I discuss in length ways to counter the dropping metabolism when losing weight. “Cheat days,” alternate day eating, etc… Also adequate protein to prevent muscle loss and exercising in conjunction with weight loss can also help.

      For a person that needs to lose say 100 pounds, they are most likely maintaining on 3000+ calories a day. They will need to reduce calories to around 2000 per day for several months to lose the first 50 pounds, and then reduce to 1500 per day to lose the next 50 pounds. Once at goal weight, their new maintenance level of calories will be around 2000-2500/day. But if they learn good eating habits along the way, and stay away from junk food, fast food etc… they will stay at a normal weight for along time and not regain quickly. None of this is “easy” and many other factors need to be looked at as well…sleep, exercise, stress, drinking, medical issues, etc. Much more than just calories involved in being a health human.


  2. Intermittent fasting definitely helps with weight loss. Another thing I’ve noticed is I have had an easier time losing weight while taking a butyrate supplement. For one thing it seems to speed up transit time for food to pass on through quite quickly.


    1. Interesting. I’ve IF’ed for many years now and I know it helps me control how much I eat. I don’t think I came across butyrate supplements in any of the research papers I found on weight loss. Glad you found something that worked.


    1. Discussed in depth in the book. Many medical conditions wreak havoc on metabolism. Thyroid disorders are the worst. Also PCOS and Cushings. At some point weight causes medical issues, and then it becomes a real “chicken or the egg” situation and doctors are clueless on what to do. Stress leads to emotional overeating. Some people really, really struggle to lose weight. In those cases, best to focus on eating the best quality food, becoming active, and try to be as healthy as possible. I never look at overweight people and think “lazy slob!” I know every person has unique struggles but the food industry, diet industry, medical industry, and media are quite at fault as well. I’ve watched a diabetic friend at work gain 20 pounds eating “keto” the last couple months, blindly thinking that a diet devoid of starch and fiber is making him healthier.


  3. Every word you write is true. Whether or not one is actively counting calories, your body is. And the reason people are reluctant to count is just as you say: we are lazy. It is a tedious pain for those of us who are lazy by nature. When I was losing weight years ago, I dealt with this issue by eating the same three small meals every day. These were foods I enjoyed, were healthy, and after a year I was down to a normal weight. Over the years, however, since I don’t weigh or count, my weight has gone up at times – never a huge amount, but always an unpleasant surprise at the doctor’s office. Recently, I learned my weight was up five pounds from last year. But, for me, my current method works well enough. I still eat the same simple foods every day – mostly – which enables me to – mostly – maintain a very large weight loss. This post is absolutely correct, I think. Can’t wait to read your book.


    1. When it works, it really works well. I think that calorie counting will make a comeback, maybe it will replace keto in a couple years. People should be able to maintain weight on a range of calorie intake, but when one consistently eats above a certain level, weight gain is inevitable. It’s probably best for most people to strive to eat close to the same calories most days, but periodic overfeeding is not a bad thing. A well-functioning metabolism will ramp up to burn the extra calories, but just can’t cope with continued overload.


  4. Hi Tim,

    I agree with the counting calories thing. That is what works for me. The only thing that works for me along with having adequate protein.

    I actually feel that you may have been able to have a higher and more sustainable daily calorie amount – more like 2000?? Although the fact that your experiment was relatively short-term may have factored into your decision.

    I would have found it hideously difficult/virtually impossible :-/ 🙂 to stick to 1500 for 6 weeks (even with loading up with high water vegetables and berries, etc). So I guess just for being able to do that you have my admiration. I was never able to stick to WW or JC or any of those low caloric diets.

    The only diet I can stick to for any length of time (a week is usually my max) that averages 1500cals a day is the Potato Hack.

    At present I am trying to find my true maintenance level and am up to around 2425 calories per day without any gaining. When I have found my true maintenance I will use a modest 10% cut to lose a couple of kilos and then go back to my maintenance level.

    I am a member of IIFYM (If it fits your macros) and their calculator for me recommends around 1825 for weight loss. There are many people who use their calculator and have huge success losing weight. When they get their numbers at first many of them are astonished at how high they are but it seems to work. If it doesn’t (after they have been sticking to it for a month) they then lower them a little.

    I really think that working out with decent sized weights (dumbbells 10-18kg) makes a difference for me.

    I am looking forward to seeing more posts.

    Enjoy your well earned holiday. 🙂


    1. When I get back from vacation I want to carry this experiment out until May or June as I still have an extra 10-15 pounds I could stand to lose. I think I will start back at 2000 per day and adjust from there. 1-2 pounds per week is a very healthy rate for losing weight, but man it gets old, lol.

      After counting calories for 6 weeks, I see why the Potato Hack is so popular! It probably really is the only diet that lets you eat freely without counting anything. Even after a day of stuffing yourself with potatoes, you’ve eaten only 1500 calories and ingested high quality nutrients and more fiber than 99% of the population ever eats. If I ever re-do the Potato Hack rules, I’ll probably recommend some extra protein for longer term weight loss. Like a chicken breast or two daily. Or some fish, etc.

      It really sounds like you have it figured out! Great job. Keep up the good work.


  5. No arguments. Total agreement.

    There are incidentals like getting adequate protein or the benefits of resistant starch but the fundamental basic requirement for fat loss is a calorie deficit. It’s not sexy but it’s true.

    Even if calorie counts aren’t accurate it is consistency not accuracy that matters.


    1. You know who REALLY hates calorie counting? The Diet Industry, lol. Weight Watchers, Slimming World, Atkins, Jenny Craig, all of those…they don’t dare utter the words “diet,” “calorie,” or even “weight” for fear of chasing customers away. Everything has shifted to “lifestyle” and they are embracing a much heavier physique. Maybe this is good for their bottom line, but I think they will not increase their percentages of successful weight loss until they start to focus on calories and staying away from highly processed food. Not that they really want people to lose weight and stop paying dues, though.


  6. Yep, in terms of weight loss calories are king. I’m almost 6 years into maintenance at this point and I’m still mindful of my calorie intake, still use my food scale to measure out portion sizes every day etc.

    Currently I’m experimenting with the DASH protocol with a few others over on the forums at MFP. Having fun tracking my intake on cronometer (if you haven’t played around with that site I highly recommend it-fantastic breakdown of micros etc).

    I haven’t tracked like this in a while (usually just do some mental calorie math throughout the day), and my calorie intake lines up perfectly with where my weight is at. I’m in a small cut to get rid of some vanity pounds and have a calorie intake of 1,350 right now to lose .5lb a week. Tracking my daily weigh-ins on a trending app and my weight is spot on to my calorie intake.


    1. Where calorie counting really gets off-track is eating out. Even though most restaurants now list calorie content of their foods, it’s impossible to really track how much you are eating when there are appetizers, free bread, drinks, and desserts involved. And things like take-out Thai/Chinese/Mexican food…impossible to even guesstimate how many calories in a #39.

      But, if you are serious about it, it’s only short-term that you need to be so meticulous, and if you accurately track like 80% of your intake and guess at the other 20%, you should still be able to eat at the deficit required for sustained weight loss or maintenance.

      DASH is really good. I’m already mulling over a DASH Hack book some day. And MFP (My Fitness Pal) is also really good. If more people would discover the DASH and MFP combo, there’d be a lot less weight problems out there, haha. Instead, people do the popular diets, like keto, and get really bad advice from salesmen.

      Out of curiosity, how does the MFP community view the keto diet? Seeing much success, or still lots of “why am I not losing weight?” type of posts?


      1. If you’re interested in DASH, check out nutritionwonk’s podcasts on it (they also do a set on keto). Pretty interesting stuff 🙂
        I’d LOVE to see more being published on DASH, for it being so highly recommended by the medical field/having solid research behind it, there’s very little out there in the publishing world about it. It’s pretty common sense though, and that doesn’t make money :p

        Keto and MFP-that’s a loaded question lol. There’s gobs of people who start keto and claim it’s a miracle, but there’s very few posters who seem to stick with it for any length of time (from what’s being posted on the forums). There’s a few die-hard keto/carnivore advocates who claim it does magical things for their health, but for the most part the more seasoned posters just tune them out.


  7. Nice resource, thanks, maybe I’ll have time to listen next week as I’m laying on the beach with nothing to do but sip a margarita and watch the whales.

    re: keto – I’ve seen the same pattern for over 10 years, lol. What a terrible diet strategy. I am simply amazed at how widespread the keto diet is now, though. Viral marketing, gotta love it. I laugh at the convos I overhear at work, “Keto is less than 20 carbs a day!” “What’s a keto?” “What’s a carb?” “So no beer?”

    DASH diet has a very sound backbone, but also hard for the average person to implement. Requires portion control and avoiding Western food, something that most people simply do not want to do. I think it would make a good “hack” book. Here’s the only official DASH diet guidance ever produced. There are several other interpretations available, but this is the real-deal:

    Click to access new_dash.pdf

    It’s a public resource, put out by the US government, so little fear of trademark infringements if I want to write about it.


  8. Hi Tim ~

    I have a completely different take on stuff, as you know. But I know you had a moratorium on reading diet-related books while writing yours. Now that you seem to be done, I very highly recommend this book

    I’m only about 1/3rd of the way through, but I think it’s amazing. Everything he touches that I know something about is dead-on. Especially about exposing yourself to a large diversity of foods and then learning to listen to your body to pick the right ones for you. Dumb animals can do it. We’re dumb animals! The locality of food is important too, but I am humbled by the challenge of implementing it.

    The book is written by a scientist.

    I believe calorie counting is self-hypnosis. The measurement of calories itself is a farce in terms of accuracy. Self-hypnosis is no more than concentrated attention. Counting calories concentrates attention on how much food is eaten, and consciously reducing true calories is effective despite the farce. There is a psychic reward for meeting a chosen goal. This helps to focus attention. After the goal is met, attention wavers. A couple of pounds are gained. Now your attention is on being a diet failure. You hypnotize yourself into gaining weight. The diet failed.

    I can’t really claim credit for this idea, because this book made me think of it

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome, I’ll look for these books at the airports we will be in tonight and tomorrow. I agree there is a lot left to learn. I certainly don’t know all there is to know about health and nutrition. All I know is that the first step in regaining health has to be moving away from the Western diet and eating more real food, whatever that may be.


      1. I’d be very surprised if you find these titles in an airport! But what do I know?

        And I agree on your first step. And, sad to say, preparing your own food. And, sadder yet, moving your palate away from its comfort zone. And even the saddest, eating weeds and wild plants from your neighborhood. And eating animals that eat the wild stuff in your neighborhood. And in the ultimate sadness, SADfood is meant to trick the palette into thinking bad food is good.
        Some things are a little easier for you, like eating moose and bear from your backyard. Where I live, we have to think a little harder.

        But, yeah, the first book is amazing. Mice selected for particular diseases if given a diverse enough diet choose foods that “cure” the disease. Children with no social pressure choose foods that are healthy but socially suspect (heart, kidney, liver).

        Animals that eat pellets of scientifically balanced food are worse off than those allowed to graze on many different plants.


  9. Congrats on the new book Tim! Been a huge Potato Hack fan for years now and continue to use it for diet and weight loss tune ups.
    I have several decades of experience with weight loss and diet experiments on myself (adult weight has ranged from 160 to 305 – about 240 at the moment) and the few times I’ve counted calories I found that it just wasn’t a good method for me.
    Me personally, it is a mind over matter thing where I have to first visualize on my goals and then put them into practice. Basically seeing where I want to be and slowly making those changes until I get there. That is why the Potato Hack works so well for me…eating plain spuds puts those unhealthy urges in check and reminds me to focus on wholesome and nutritious foods.
    Not to be a bother but the whole concept of a calorie has always bothered me. I think there is a lot more going on under the hood in regards to how our bodies process food that makes an arbitrary unit of measure like a calorie someone redundant. A calorie doesn’t exist in nature – it is something we made up as a unit of measurement. I think of calories as a flawed theory that needs a major update and hopefully someday our science will help change this.
    So no counting calories for me. 🙂


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