People often debate whether counting carbohydrates and calories will lead to weight loss. As with any dietary pattern, there are pros and cons to each approach, and individual differences in how your body responds. When considering what might be right for you, it’s important to first brush up on the basics of nutrition and the differences between carbs vs. calories.
What are Carbs?
A calorie is a unit of measurement – a calorie measures the amount of Energy your body can get from food or drink. That’s why you’ll hear people say that most adults need about 2,000 calories a day, although that amount may decrease when someone is trying to lose weight.
Calories can come from a variety of sources, including fat, protein and carbohydrates. All three of these are macronutrients and are major components of a healthy diet. The Food and Drug Administration lists daily values for each of these as 65 grams of fat, 50 grams of protein and 300 grams of carbohydrates per day.
Each macronutrient has a specific amount of calories. For carbohydrates, this equates to 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate. Protein also has 4 calories per gram, while fat has 9 calories per gram. Considering the daily values, this means that people should consume about 1,985 calories per day, consisting of 200 calories of protein, 585 calories of fat and 1,200 calories of carbohydrates.
When it comes down to it, almost everything you eat contains calories. However, what you eat may not contain carbohydrates. Foods lacking in carbohydrates include protein-rich foods such as chicken, duck, pork and steak, and fat-rich foods such as extra virgin olive oil, lard and other cooking oils. Ultimately, comparing carbohydrates to calories depends on your dietary needs. While it is impossible to survive if you eliminate too many calories, you can safely consume only 20 grams of carbohydrates per day if you increase your consumption of other macronutrients.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrate is a big term. Bread, vegetables, fruits, milk and a wide variety of other foods all contain carbohydrates. If you’re a little confused, it’s because the term carbohydrate basically refers to a broad category of foods. Carbohydrates can be:
- Sugar alcohols
- Soluble fiber
- Insoluble fiber
Assuming you follow a standard diet, sugar and starches give your body most of its calories. However, all of these types of carbohydrates contribute to your diet in different ways. Certain carbohydrates, such as dietary fiber, even have their own daily value. The Food and Drug Administration recommends 25 grams of dietary fiber (soluble and insoluble fiber) per day.
Sometimes, you may see carbohydrates mentioned in a different way. As net carbohydrates. Carbohydrates and net carbohydrates are not exactly the same, although they are similar. Carbohydrate refers to any of its subgroups, while net carbohydrate is minus certain important types of carbohydrates that may be important to your diet. For dieters, net carbs usually refer to carbohydrates minus fiber and sugar alcohols, which do not affect your diet. However, for people with diabetes, calculating net carbohydrates is more complicated because this term is used to help manage insulin intake. People with diabetes primarily subtract insoluble fiber, but may also subtract some soluble fiber and sugar alcohols, depending on the amount present.
What’s the Difference Between Carbs and Calories?
People count calories and carbohydrates for many of the same reasons, most often to lose weight. Reducing carbohydrates on a ketogenic diet has been shown to improve metabolism and help with weight loss.
While both calories and carbohydrates can be measured or tracked, there are distinct differences between them. Carbohydrates are a macronutrient found in some foods, while calories are a measurable unit of energy found in almost all foods.
Some keto dieters don’t want to count calories or carbohydrates. Instead, they take a more lenient approach, reducing their carbohydrate intake without monitoring it too closely, using trackers, or increasing their daily net carbohydrate intake. Others prefer to count carbohydrates and use trackers to help achieve their goals.
Keto dieters usually lose weight without counting calories. Keto diets tend to be satiating and often result in a naturally lower daily calorie count (as well as putting the body in fat burning mode). However, calorie counting can help accelerate weight loss, especially since keto involves a lot of healthy fats, which are high in calories.
Pros and Cons of Counting Calories
To lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit. This means that you need to burn more calories than you consume. You can burn more calories by exercising or by increasing your daily activity (for example, by increasing your step count). You can also create a deficit if you consume fewer calories each day. Therefore, calories do matter.
Calorie counting may or may not be the best weight loss strategy for everyone. One benefit of calorie counting is that it can help you monitor the amount of food you consume. Calorie data is readily available for most foods, and for many people, calorie reduction is safe and effective.
However, it is not for everyone. Not all calorie counters and apps are accurate, especially if you’re not sure how much you’ve eaten (like at a restaurant).
And for some people, counting calories can lead to unstructured eating. If you don’t think about your calorie intake as a whole, there is also a risk of nutritional deficiencies (for example, not eating enough healthy fats, which have more calories than protein and carbohydrates).
Pros and Cons of Counting Carbs
Following a low-carb diet can be helpful for people who need to monitor their carbohydrate intake, such as those with diabetes. Keeping track of carbohydrate intake is relatively easy because nutrition labels clearly list the amount of carbohydrates – once you become familiar with which foods are higher and lower in carbohydrates, it’s even easier. Some people do find that reducing carbohydrates does help them lose weight.
However, there are risks associated with this eating pattern. Counting carbohydrates can lead to overconsumption of foods that have no carbohydrates but are high in calories or other macronutrients, such as fat. As with calories, it is difficult to count carbohydrates for foods that do not have nutrition labels.
Both counting carbohydrates and counting calories are effective for weight loss. They are basically just two different ways to ultimately achieve the same goal of weight reduction. The important difference, however, is that depending on whether you are counting carbs or counting calories, you will eat vastly different food choices under each approach. If you prefer to eat high-fat foods while losing weight, then choose a keto diet, but if you’d rather eat fat-restricted and low-calorie foods, stick to counting calories.