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Stop Counting Calories If You Want to Lose Weight

BY Gale Bernhardt

For many endurance athletes, calories in do not equal calories out. If you have trouble losing weight despite heavy training and a restricted diet, the problem may be in what and when you’re eating and not how much.

If your key health markers are all in the “perfect” range, you can skip this column. Additionally, if you can easily lose weight and keep it off by eating a standard athletic diet (55-to 65-percent carbohydrate) and restricting calories by some 200 to 500 per day, give the column a pass.

However, if you constantly find yourself frustrated with your weight despite calorie-counting restrictions and consistent exercise, read on.

Metabolic Syndrome

In 2014, an IRONMAN athlete with metabolic syndrome came to me seeking help. His major issue was weight gain in spite of exercise. For example, he gained 10 to 12 pounds each time he trained for a marathon. His concern was that training for an Ironman would cause his weight to balloon. The second concern he had was speed work. Traditional speed work training contributed to his weight issue. That athlete, Mike Berland, eventually became my co-author for the book, Become a Fat-Burning Machine.

For this column I’ll focus on the metabolic syndrome and diet side of the equation. Training strategies can come in a later column. A person is diagnosed with metabolic syndrome if they have any three of five key markers out of range, or take medication to control any of the markers. The five key markers include:

  • Low HDL cholesterol – less than 50 dg/mL
  • High glucose or a fasting blood sugar – level above 100 mg/dL
  • High triglycerides – greater than 100 mg per deciliter (mg/dL)
  • High blood pressure – greater than 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) at rest
  • Large waist circumference. Sometimes called abdominal obesity, this is defined as a waistline that measures at least 35 inches for women and 37.5 inches for men.

Insulin resistance

Many experts now believe that insulin resistance is the root cause of metabolic syndrome as well as several other diseases including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. If you have insulin resistance, your body is not good at using calories from sugars and certain carbohydrates for energy, but your body is great at shuttling the calories to fat storage.

This is in part due to insulin, nicknamed “the fat storage hormone.” Insulin is a hormone that shuttles glucose into cells to be used as energy. The insulin receptors on your muscles operate under a lock-and-key system. The insulin docks into an insulin receptor, turns the key, and lets the sugar into the muscle. But when you have insulin resistance, the insulin doesn’t open the door. You literally can’t get sugar into the muscle, and instead you store those calories as fat.

Insulin resistance doesn’t happen overnight. One study1, 2 found that insulin resistance can be measured more than a decade before full-blown diabetes occurs and it is a progressive disease. This, in part, explains why people with insulin resistance find it more and more difficult to lose weight—in spite of cutting calories.


Insulin, released by the pancreas, is just one of the hormones affecting weight loss. A second hormone, PYY (pancreatic peptide YY), is released by the small intestine beginning about 20 minutes after we start to eat. It works to slow gastric emptying and gives us signals to reduce appetite during meals.

A third hormone, leptin, is released by the fat cells in adipose tissue, nicknamed “the satiety hormone”  and it works to reduce hunger. Ghrelin, on the other hand, is released primarily in the stomach and is nicknamed the “hunger hormone.” It works to increase our appetites.

The macronutrient composition of every food and drink we consume has an influence on hormones and metabolism. To ignore this fact and only worry about counting calories, no matter the composition of the calories, is a recipe for weight loss failure.

More weight loss in spite of more calories

Several studies have controlled macronutrient profiles, calorie intake and weight loss. One such study3 done in 2004 looked at 15 overweight men and 13 overweight, premenopausal women over a 30-day period. Analysis of food diaries revealed that the group consuming a low-carb diet (~9-percent carbohydrates, 63-percent fat and 28-percent protein) lost more weight than the low-fat diet group (~58-percent carbohydrates, 22-percent fat and 20-percent protein) in spite of eating nearly 300 calories MORE per day. The men on the low-carb diet lost three times as much abdominal fat as the men on the low-fat diet.

Athletic fat-burning is macronutrient dependent

Dr. Jeff Volek, a professor in the Department of Human Sciences at Ohio State University and a Registered Dietitian, did a study4 on the correlation of a high fat diet and athletic performance. The study compares two sets of evenly matched, elite male distance runners.

The first set of 10 runners followed a traditional high carbohydrate diet where 60 percent of calories came from carbohydrates, 25 percent from fat and 15 percent from protein. The second set of runners followed a low carbohydrate diet where a mere 10 to 12 percent of calories came from carbohydrates, a whopping 70 percent came from fat and less than 20 percent of the calories came from protein.

One of the biggest results of Volek’s study revealed that the fat-adapted athletes burned more fat at a higher pace than the traditional carbohydrate diet group. Peak fat oxidation was 2.3 times higher in the group that consumed a high fat diet. For endurance athletes, this means they have a significantly lower need for supplemental carbohydrates during training and racing, because more fat is being utilized as fuel.

Macronutrient profiles matter for athletic performance. Volek’s results also showed improved health markers for the fat-adapted athletes.

The composition of what you eat matters more than calorie count

If you want to lose weight, improve your health and improve your ability to burn fat during exercise, you must consider food macronutrient profiles, and you don’t have to eat a 70-percent fat diet to see results.

You do have to stop thinking that only calorie-count matters. Food macronutrient and micronutrient profiles combined with nutrient-timing strategies can have a large, positive effect on your weight, health and performance.

What you can do today

One thing you can do today is keep a very simple food log noting only four items:

  • The time you eat
  • What foods you eat (for now, quantity doesn’t matter)
  • How hungry you were before you ate
  • How satisfied you were after eating

This simple exercise can help you identify foods that allow you to be satisfied for long periods of time and foods that drive hunger to higher levels within a couple of hours after eating. The results of the food log can help you decide if you need to make changes.

For a place to begin making changes, read the book, “Become a Fat-Burning Machine.”


  1. Tabák, A.G. et al. (2009, June 8). Trajectories of glycaemia, insulin sensitivity, and insulin secretion before diagnosis of type 2 diabetes: an analysis from the Whitehall II study. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2726723/
  2. (2021, November 13). Understanding Diabetes — Diagnosis and Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/understanding-diabetes-detection-treatment#1
  3. Volek, J.S. et al. (2004, November 8). Comparison of energy-restricted very low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets on weight loss and body composition in overweight men and women. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC538279/
  4. Volek, J.S. et al. (2015, November 2). Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26892521/
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The Ultimate Full-Distance Training Guide

Training Guide

This guide is designed to be used as you train for a full-distance triathlon, with in-depth information on every part of the process. Each chapter is packed with tips, workouts, and insights from triathlon coaches, to give you all the tools you need to succeed.

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About Gale Bernhardt

Gale Bernhardt has coached Olympic road racers, triathletes, World Cup mountain bike riders and Leadville 100 racers. Some want to go faster, some want to cross the finish line and others want endurance sport as a lifestyle. TrainingPeaks hosts many of Gale’s ready-to-use, easy-to-follow training plans for cycling and triathlon.

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