Do calories matter on a keto diet? This guide will tell you all the truth about calories on a keto diet and whether you should even care about them.
There are basically two schools of thought regarding weight loss and fat burning. Both of them are, at least to some extent, right. The first one is all about energy balance (calories in versus calories out) and maintaining a caloric deficit. The other one, the keto and intermittent fasting school, is all about hormones (especially insulin and keeping it low).
There are lots of people who lost weight on diets based on caloric restriction. There are also a lot of (and probably even more) people who successfully lost weight without counting calories but only following a keto diet (click to learn more) or doing intermittent fasting (click to learn more).
So who is right? Which method is more effective and sustainable in the long run? Can you totally neglect calories on a keto diet? Is counting calories on keto stupid and a waste of time? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each school of thought?
This article will answer all of these questions and more. You will be able to choose the best “calorie approach” that will help you meet all of your weight loss, health and fitness goals. Let’s get started!
This is the most popular approach to weight loss. Probably everyone who has ever tried to lose weight was on some calorie-restricting eating program. I’ve also been there and failed miserably.
The idea is that both losing and gaining weight is about energy. If you burn more calories (calories out) than you eat (calories in), you are on a deficit and lose weight. It doesn’t really matter what kind of calories you eat (whether they come from fat, protein or carbs) as long as you maintain a deficit. Of course, there are different approaches to where you should take these calories from but many fad weight loss diets even let you eat junk… as long as you are on a deficit.
The most often recommended caloric deficit is 500 kcal per day. This translates into about 3500 kcal weekly deficit, which should translate into losing one pound of weight per week. Losing 1-2 pounds per week is considered the healthiest weight loss speed. No matter what type of diet you are on, you will indeed be losing 1-2 (or more if you have more weight to lose) pounds per week in the first weeks of caloric restriction.
All you need to do is calculate your caloric needs (you can use one of many calculators on the web), subtract 500 kcal from it and you are good to go. Many calculators will also calculate the most healthy deficit for you based on your age, sex, activity level and other factors.
Here are my two favorite calorie calculators (both are free and easy to use):
That’s about it. You calculate your caloric needs, decide how big of a deficit you want and start losing weight almost immediately.
Caloric restriction indeed works. However, it has two huge shortcomings you need to know about.
All the internet calculators will be happy to tell you how many calories you need or even what the best caloric deficit is for you taking into account your activity level, goals and other factors. Smart-bands and smartwatches can even measure how many calories you burn on a given day or workout.
The only problem is that these calculators don’t exactly know how many calories you need or burn. They are simply algorithms that give you the estimation. How many calories you need or burn can differ widely from day to day based on many factors. No one knows your exact numbers.
If you manage to maintain a substantial caloric deficit over a longer period of time, you will surely lose weight. There is no doubt about that. However, the problem with this model is that it’s not sustainable. No matter how well-disciplined and determined you are, you will sooner or later become worn-out, hungry, irritated and stop caring. You will ultimately give up and gain all the lost weight back. You will end up where you began. The sustainability of this approach and long-term success is unfortunately very low.
Even though the caloric estimations are only estimations, it’s virtually guaranteed that you will lose weight if you remain on a caloric deficit over a longer period of time. However, as noted above, this approach works only in the beginning and its effect usually starts to wear off after a few weeks or months. This is when people either give up or look for other more sustainable methods. And this brings us to the next point, that is, weight loss as a game of hormones.
If you are interested in learning more about the calories-in-versus-calories-out approach and where it fails, I recommend taking look at these articles:
Basically, this method works but there is a missing piece that is sustainability and long-term effects. It’s not your fault that you are unable to remain on your “diet” for a long time. That’s hormones and your body trying save itself from starvation.
Compared to the calories-in-calories-out model, this school of thought (the keto school) is relatively new. However, it addresses and fixes all the problems the calories-in-calories-out school has and offers you a sustainable solution.
According this school of thought, you don’t really need to think about calories too much. It’s hormones that control whether you burn fat or not. The most important hormones in the game include insulin, glucagon and cortisol. Insulin is the most important player and your task is to keep it low most of the time. You can keep it low only if your blood sugar levels are low.
When insulin is low, you can burn fat. When it’s high, you cannot burn fat no matter what you do. Carbohydrates are the most insulin-spiking macro-nutrient so it’s recommended to restrict or completely avoid them on most keto or low-carb programs.
Fat is almost neutral to blood sugars (and thus insulin) so you can really eat a lot of it (without counting calories) and still lose weight. What’s more, fat is way more satiating than carbs so by eating fatty meals you will naturally consume less calories and feel less hungry.
Consuming a lot of fat instead of carbs can really help you kill any cravings but it’s still no magic. If you overdo with fats (and calories) you will be gaining weight just like you would with carbs. This is what you need to be aware of.
Some people say that counting calories on keto is stupid and unnecessary. To some degree it is true but if you totally go overboard with fats and eat like tons of it, you will indeed gain weight (or at least stop your weight loss). The main reason why a keto diet works so well for weight loss is because it naturally reduces your appetite so that you eat less and thus don’t need to count calories.
Speaking from my own experience, however, if you work out a lot or are an athlete, you will sometimes become ravenously hungry and eat way more than you need. Even if you are on a keto diet and in ketosis. Fat is more calorie-dense than other macro-nutrients so it’s very easy to eat thousands of calories from fat within minutes. Have you ever eaten a jar of peanut butter? Well, I have. 🙂
There are two things that can mess with your hunger and satiety signals on a keto diet: working out a lot and doing intermittent fasting too aggressively. Beware! Many people like to think about a keto diet and intermittent fasting like magic. Unfortunately, they are no magic. They are only great tools that make weight loss and hunger control way easier.
A keto diet (click to learn the basics of this eating program) is not a fad diet that you follow for a few weeks and then come back to eating junk. It’s supposed to be a transition and a new way of eating. You’re supposed to follow a keto diet for a lifetime. A ketogenic diet is sustainable and that is its biggest advantage.
If you follow this eating program, you will be lean, fit and healthy. Most people who lose weight with a keto diet never get it back. All you need to do is make some effort in the beginning to understand how it works and exactly what types of keto foods (click to view the guide) you need to eat.
There are tons of interesting studies and articles explaining in detail how hormones control practically everything within our body. Below are my favorite ones:
The takeaway for you here is that calories still matter on a keto diet but to a lesser extent than on a high-carb (or junk food based) diet. Calories are energy (whether they come from fat, protein or carbs) which you either use (burn) or store for later (in the form of fat). However, in the context of a keto diet and intermittent fasting, calories work a little bit differently.
Here are my top insider’s tips on calories on a keto diet:
I’ve tried doing both the lazy keto (without counting calories) and combining keto with caloric restriction. The lazy keto works great if you apply the common-sense principle, don’t go crazy with fats and do some sports. Caloric restriction and a keto diet can really do wonders even without exercise.
You guessed it! The ideal and the most effective tool to lose weight is some calorie counting (and a small caloric deficit) combined with a keto diet. This way you will be losing weight really quickly and it will be mostly fat (not water weight as it’s often the case with high-carb diets).
You don’t need to be extremely meticulous about calories on a keto diet but you should know more of less how much you are eating. This way you will avoid the most common keto mistake, which is going totally crazy with the amount of fat.
Here are a few tips on how to wisely control calories on a keto diet without making your whole life circle around this:
Once you get some experience with a keto diet and learn more about keto diet foods (including keto fruits), you will not need any calculator or application to help you control calories. You will naturally know when it’s too much and when it’s just enough.
Awareness is the key. There are a lot of useful apps and websites that will help you better control calories and know nutritional facts of specific types of food. Here are my favorite tools (all are free):
The above two tools are great because they also give you the estimated weight of products (like a handful of nuts) so you can roughly estimate calories without weighing your food. This will do if you do a keto diet!
I’m a minimalist and I’m all about keeping things simple. I would love to tell you that you can completely neglect calories, eat only keto-approved foods in unlimited amounts and watch the scale go down. However, I also have a lot of experience and I want you to succeed. That’s why I suggest at least some calorie control so that the scale will never negatively surprise you.
Start from calculating your caloric needs. Use some app that lets you estimate how many calories you eat and use it for a few weeks to get the feel of how much you are eating. Log your weight on a weekly basis. Start eating at a maintenance level. If the scale doesn’t move for a few weeks, add some slight deficit and look for hidden carbs. Good luck!
If you need help, feel free to contact me! I would love to help you.
The first time I was on keto I lost like 50 pounds without counting calories whatsoever. But the closer I got to my ideal weight the more difficult it was to lose weight. I got stuck at 180 pounds and was able to go below only after I started to count calories and use an app. It turned out I was eating way too much and wasn’t in any deficit at all (while I thought I was). At some point counting calories becomes vital
Hi Eduardo. Thanks for leaving a comment 🙂 That’s exactly how things work with a keto diet, counting calories, and weight loss. If you want to be super lean and have very low BF, you need to start counting calories at some point or do some aggressive intermittent fasting (which I don’t recommend doing). Keep up the good work and good luck!
Counting calories is time-consuming and difficult at first but if you want better and quickest results (from keto, IF or any weight loss program) you need to do this. It’s possible to maintain your weight or even lose weight without calories counting but you will be much more prone to making mistakes and overating. It’s a decision of what matters more: comfort or results. That’s my personal opinion only of course.
Only Keto didn’t work. To have really a weight loss, I used full fasting and one meal a day on a Keto Basis. During fasting I drank salt/potassium water. There is no real hunger. I lost 55 pounds in two months.
The problem ist, that one is used to eat to think: Now I have deserved food. Amazing how many time we use to deal with food.
In Africa I found a lot of guys who ate only one meal a day. Lots of carbs and fat and few protein. They were lean and strong and busy all the day. The rich ones who ate all the day had diabetes.