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Low-Carb for Fat Loss: How Many Calories To Eat?

January 7, 2011
Most low-carb diets emphasize that you don’t need to count calories. Weight loss is supposed to be “effortless” as long as you eat adequate protein (not strictly a part of “low-carb”, but most low-carb diets include this valid piece of advice) and sufficient fat. The latter automatically follows from the fact that if we keep protein in a fixed range – usually calculated by a rule like 1g per pound of lean body mass – and we also want to keep carbs low, the only other macronutrient that we can sensibly use to modulate calories is fat.
I basically agree with all of that. I even agree with the “effortless” fat loss part, but in order to achieve it I’ve found that caloric intake is still something that needs to be finely tuned in order to achieve this fat loss. Consider this often mentioned rule:
“Eat when you’re hungry, and until you’re satisfied”.
The problem is with the “satisfied” part. From my own experience I know that I would still sometimes eat way too much – which can happen if you take the “you don’t need to count calories” too literally. Do the following statements apply to you?

  1. You’ve been on a low-carb diet for quite some time.
  2. You began the diet with a lot of fat to lose.
  3. Initially the fat came off effortlessly, but after a while the fat loss came to a halt or significantly slowed down, but you’re still quite chubby.
  4. You’re eating a lot of meat, eggs, cheese etc. because the diet emphasizes that you should put no limits on these low-carb, energy dense foods.
If so, then you might want to consider this:
  1. For a few days, try to undereat on purpose. Keep carbs as low as always, eat adequate protein and a lot of fat, just a lot less calories (50% is a good place to start). 
  2. Between the (smaller than before) meals, try to listen to your body. Are you still hungry? If so, eat some small protein/fat snacks. Meat is ideal, cheese is also quite ok for most people.
  3. Does this result in reduced energy levels? If so, then you’re eating too little, and you should increase meal sizes and/or snacks gradually.
  4.  See if that helps with the fat loss. It did for me. What currently works best for me is to have one reasonably large meal per day (say, a normally sized steak with veggies and garlic butter) plus occasional very small snacks of meat and cheese. Works like a charm!
  5. As your fat loss proceeds, you’ll gradually have to increase food intake – so this approach automatically transitions into maintenance. All you did was to eat a little less anyway.
The key element here is to find a sweet spot in terms of caloric intake. Eat too little and your energy levels will suffer – you will put your body in a state where it can’t mobilize sufficient quantities of fat from its stores to – in addition to your dietary fat – power your daily activities. Eat too much and your body will use dietary fat rather than mobilizing its stores. I don’t mean this in a binary sense – even when you eat too much your body will use some stored body fat at some point. The goal here is to maximize the amount of mobilized body fat. Reducing carbs is what can help with fixing the regulatory problem of your fat tissue – it’s like turning a one way street (mobilized fat – stored fat) into a two way street (mobilized fat -> stored fat, stored fat -> mobilized fat). Imagine a fat cell – outside there’s a certain level of fatty acids, and inside as well. Fatty acids are continuously entering and leaving the cell. What we need is a reduction of fatty acids on the outside. When there’s fewer dietary fat entering our blood, then we can achieve the situation we hope for: Fat cells mobilize fat, other cells take that fat in and burn it, and overall there’s fewer fat arriving at the fat cells to be taken inside and be stored. It’s pretty simple, actually. 
Of course one thing to keep in mind is that the degree of leanness you can achieve depends on a few factors that you might not be able to influence. These include genetic disposition, age, how obese you have been for how long, whether there are other hormonal issues, stress etc.. But be that as it may, I think that reducing carbs is the only viable long term strategy that you can use to get as lean and healthy as possible.

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  1. Hey Mike – I've figured up a day's worth of eats for a friend, trying to see what "50% fat" would look like… I gave her 2 whole eggs, 4 oz chicken, 3 oz ground meat, 2 cups cooked broccoli, 1 cup cooked green beans and 2 Tbsp butter. Cals = 1093, Fat 73.8g (60%), Carbs 43.6g (14%), Protein 71g (26%).I can't imagine eating all that meat and eggs with only 2 Tbsp butter to work with. I also can't imagine eating all those veggies with only 2 Tbsp butter to work with. Even at that, the fat content is 'too high'. To make this day fit the 50% fat content, we'd have to drop one Tbsp butter. What a dry, boring, tasteless day…Would you share a sample day for "50% fat"?Thanks

  2. karen,I have to apologise: What I meant was that you cut calories by 50% while still maintaining a high fat, low-carb diet and see how that affects your hunger and energy levels. I added the word calories ("just a lot less [calories]") to make it less ambiguous.As far as the menu is concerned, I would replace some of the lean meat with fatty meat like bacon – as you say, adding a little more fat adds a lot more taste. I also currently use less veggies for most of the meals … for example, often scrambled eggs with bacon will do just fine for me.Mike

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