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What to Count Instead of Calories…You’ll Be Surprised!

JONATHAN: Hey, everybody. Jonathan Baylor back with Carrie Brown and welcome to another Sane Show. Carrie Brown, how are you today?

CARRIE: Yippee!

JONATHAN: Yippee yea!

CARRIE: It’s a great day.

JONATHAN: It is a good day and I hope folks are ready because this is a show where I know I’m going to get exceptionally fired up.

CARRIE: Uh oh, reeling in?

JONATHAN: Yes, there will be some serious reeling in and reeling of you closer to the microphone. [Laugh] This show, Carrie, I can’t believe this. I don’t think you and I have actually ever done a show specifically focused on calorie counting.

CARRIE: That’s because calorie counting is stupid.

JONATHAN: Okay, so we’ve said things like that in passing, but we’ve never actually said why we think what we do about calorie counting and really give it the fair shake it deserves, and maybe people want to count something. What should they be counting? I think there is a bunch of different directions we could take it.

CARRIE: Counting is good. I just think there are much better things to count than calories.

JONATHAN: So what are some things that you count?

CARRIE: Do you know I don’t think I’ve ever admitted this in public before: I left school not knowing my times tables.

JONATHAN: Oh, see I thought you were just going to say you count the number of cats that you have because you are always trying to get that number higher and higher and higher.

CARRIE: Actually I do a head count before I leave the house. Before I leave the house, I have to have six little heads. Yes!

JONATHAN: Cats count?

CARRIE: Yes, that nobody’s missing.

JONATHAN: Oh, goodness. Well, so calorie counting. The reason I wanted to spend a whole show on calorie counting is because it is the most common technique that people use, at least in the States, to try to improve their health and their wellbeing.

You go to a standard personal trainer; you go to a standard primary care physician and you say, “I want to change the way I look and the way I feel through what I eat and what they will say is, “Just eat fewer calories,” aka you need to count your calories and you need to just eat less of them.

I know there is Paleo and there is Atkins and there is Veganism and all this kind of stuff, but 90%+ of people who are trying to change the way they look and feel don’t do any of that. They just count calories and try to eat less of what they are currently eating.

CARRIE: That is right. That is, probably the biggest diet in the world is counting calories. For example, think about the South Beach Diet or whatever.

JONATHAN: Exactly.

CARRIE: The biggest diet in the world is “I count calories. That’s how I control what I eat is counting calories.”

JONATHAN: Without question. In fact, I didn’t realize this until recently, that Weight Watchers… Weight Watchers is essentially the provider of calorie counting tools. There is no Weight Watchers’ Diet per se. Weight Watchers just says…

CARRIE: It’s all metrics.

JONATHAN: “We’ll help you count calories.” Weight Watchers has — it is a publicly traded company so you can look this up online — they have about a $1.5 billion capitalization. They have tens of thousands of employees in something like thirty countries around the world.

When we talk about the Atkins Diet is popular, we’re talking microcosm when compared to the number of people who just say, “Give me tools that will help me eat less of the edible products that have made me sick and sad,” a bit like saying “Hey, Carrie, I would like to stop smoking. Do you know where I can find shorter cigarettes?”

CARRIE: That’s silly.

JONATHAN: But that’s the kind of transformation I think we need to help.

CARRIE: Everything in moderation.

JONATHAN: Everything in moderation. What? Just smoke shorter cigarettes. What’s the problem? But think about calorie counting for a second, Carrie, because it has some things going for it.

Number one, it’s not thought of as a diet. Because of this, large corporations for example will offer things like Weight Watchers to their employees but they would never offer the Atkins Diet or the Paleo Diet or they would never say…

Could you for example imagine Microsoft, my former employer, your current employer, could you imagine Microsoft telling its employees to become vegans…?

CARRIE: That would go down really well!

JONATHAN: Or even saying “We, Microsoft, think our employees should go Paleo.” Microsoft couldn’t do that any more than Microsoft could say, “We’re going to have a Christmas Party” because they can’t have a Christmas Party. They have a holiday party because it’s agnostic. Christmas isn’t agnostic.

But calorie counting is this agnostic approach that basically says, “Eat whatever you want. We’re not going to make any judgments. Nothing is good or bad; just eat less of it…which is– Imagine if we used that logic anywhere else in life!

Like Carrie, there is no inappropriate way to treat another person. Just don’t treat anyone in any way too much. Like it’s okay to punch people in the face a little bit every once in a while but just do it in moderation.

CARRIE: Just once a week.

JONATHAN: This logic of [laughter] “Just take things that we acknowledge as bad and consume less of them as being a reasonable approach to anything” would be laughed at in any other arena other than health, which doesn’t make any sense.

CARRIE: Just as an aside, Microsoft have just upgraded their bacon.


CARRIE: Yes. Yum.

JONATHAN: That’s exciting.


JONATHAN: I noticed before I left that Microsoft did also provide more of a stop light on their menus which is like a red light, yellow light, and green light. The problem is, of course, that…

CARRIE: All the foods are in the wrong category.

JONATHAN: Yeah, everyone is in the wrong category and the vast majority of the foods are red and just saying– Just making people aware of how unhealthy everything they are eating is and not providing them with other options isn’t helpful.

But what I want to get at here, Carrie, is just again some examples that really illustrate the absurdity of calorie counting and also to address the most common objection you’ll here if you criticize calorie counting which is people eat less and they lose weight. Well, watch “The Biggest Loser”. How can you possibly argue with calorie counting?

The problem with that logic is nobody, to my knowledge — at least I know I’m not and I don’t think you are — is saying that starvation — we’re not saying that starvation does not cause you short term weight loss.

I think hopefully every rational person in the world would agree that if you stop eating food, you will lose weight as long as you continue not to eat food. By that logic, if you stop drinking water, as long as you stop drinking water and discontinue drinking water entirely you’ll also lose weight. That doesn’t mean you should do it.

CARRIE: Right.

JONATHAN: If you can cut off your leg, you will lose weight; there is no question; but does that mean that cutting off your leg is an effective approach for weight reduction?

CARRIE: Just to be clear, we do not recommend you cut off your leg, lovely listeners!

JONATHAN: That might sound ridiculous, Carrie, but let’s say you went to see someone to help control your weight and they said, “Just cut off your leg.” We would say “That person is crazy, because I’m not going to go through my life with only one leg.”

There is no ambiguity in the scientific literature that if you deprive yourself of sufficient energy and sufficient essential nutrition, that you basically cut off half your brain. Stop eating food; you’ll be cold, tired, crabby, depressed and your brain won’t function and you will get sick. You have essentially cut off half your brain. It is like not putting fuel in your car’s gas tank.

We all acknowledge that it is completely unreasonable to ask someone to cut off their leg to lose weight, but asking someone to cut off all or the vast majority of essential nutrition and energy into their body and to function in today’s modern culture on an empty fuel tank is reasonable? That seems ridiculous to me.

CARRIE: Silly.

JONATHAN: I know you have had experience with this personally.


JONATHAN: And it has not gone well.


JONATHAN: Tell us about your experience.

CARRIE: You mean that time when I was cycling 12 miles a day and only eating lettuce?

JONATHAN: Correct.

CARRIE: And not losing any weight [chuckle].

JONATHAN: Yes. Your experience was unique in the sense that you didn’t lose weight. I know quite frequently people will temporarily lose weight, but most people have not struggled to ever lose weight for a period of time in their life.

Most people struggle to enjoy their lives while maintaining robust health and fitness, maintaining robust health and fitness while simultaneously enjoying your life. That’s the Holy Grail.

If you want to go on national television and lose as much weight as possible, I’ll tell you how to do that. Stop eating food, stop drinking water, and exercise as much as you can — and take stimulants as one of the most popular instructors on that show recently showed she’s willing to do.

If you are really feeling crazy, cut off some body parts. Of course don’t do those things! They are terrible for you. They are all terrible for you! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that taking a person and depriving them of that which is essential for life is unhealthy. It’s horribly unhealthy.

CARRIE: What is the point in losing weight if you feel awful and none of your organs are working properly?

JONATHAN: And, on top of that, Carrie — so this is the key distinction — if you are willing to tolerate being hungry and not having your brain work and not having your emotions in check and not having your sex drive in check, if you are basically willing to live your life in second gear for the rest of your life, starvation can work and studies show that about 4.6% of people are able to do that.

If that is not acceptable to you, then the act of counting calories or the act of just taking a nutritionally deficient western diet and saying, “The solution to obesity is to just eat fewer calories of crap” rather than not eating crap is worse for you than doing nothing.

What will happen is you will temporarily cut calories. Then your life will suffer so much that you will stop doing that, you will go back to eating a normal amount and you’ll yo yo diet. This is what we’ve all experienced.

If you’ve read The Calorie Myth or listened to our other podcasts, you know that, if you want to talk about things for your health, cutting off a limb pales in comparison to the health consequences of repeated yo yo dieting.

CARRIE: What amazes me is that the number of people that think that eating 300 calories of cookies is the same as eating 300 calories of lean chicken or 300 calories of spinach. How can they?

I don’t understand how they can possibly believe that they are all the same because “It’s just calories,” that spinach isn’t healthier than the cookies or the chicken isn’t healthier than cookies.” But when it is all about calories, you lose all that sense of health.

JONATHAN: Let me try to help here, Carrie, because I think what people get hung up on — and this is an excellent plan. I’m so happy you brought it up — is this whole “A calorie is a calorie is a calorie” mythology.

Let’s take a step back. “Calorie” is a measure. It is just a unit of energy. When we say a calorie is a calorie, that is a bit like saying a cup of liquid is a cup of liquid. Think about that.

A cup of liquid is a cup of liquid if all we’re looking at is the quantity of fluid. If you have a measuring cup on your counter and you put petroleum in it and you take another measuring cup that is one cup and you put skim milk in it, they are both cups. They are both one cup of liquid. So are they the same?

Yes and no. They are the same in the sense that the same volume of liquid is there, but they are horribly different. And if you don’t believe that, drink one of them [chuckle] and then drink the other one and you’ll see that they have different things happen.

So another silly example. A roomful of air. “A roomful of gas is a roomful of gas.” Right? Well, yes, but if Bedroom One is full of oxygen and Bedroom Two is full of carbon monoxide, you would not tuck your children in in one of those bedrooms! Are they the same? Yes, they are both rooms full of gas, but one form of gas will kill you and another form of gas you would die without. So when people say “A calorie is a calorie,” we get into these–

CARRIE: Well in one sense it is.

JONATHAN: Like when people are talking past each other, yes. In an irrelevant, scientific sense that nobody is actually debating or talking about, yes a calorie is a calorie just like a car is a car.

CARRIE: Right.

JONATHAN: A car is absolutely a car, but if my house is on fire and then the fire marshal pulls up in a Chevy Volt versus a fire truck, I’m like, “Hey! A car is not a car! I could really use a freaking’ fire truck right now based on my circumstance!”

This is why the book is called The Calorie Myth. If we talk about the calorie myth it is not that calories don’t exist. It is not that if you eat 10,000 calories you won’t gain fat. It is that calorie measures the volume of energy that is being put into your body.

CARRIE: Right.

JONATHAN: There are millions of other factors that determine your health. So yes, calories exist. Yes, 100 calories is 100 calories like an ounce of liquid is an ounce of liquid, but just like an ounce of lighter fluid will do something different to your body than an ounce of bone broth… They are still both an ounce of liquid but…

Some of this stuff is just crazy that we are even debating this because why? It is common sense.

CARRIE: I think I’m going to have to reel you in.

JONATHAN: Reel me in, Carrie. Reel me in, but does that help?

CARRIE: Yeah. No, absolutely. But as humans I think we like to count things. What are we going to count? If we’re not counting calories, what are we going to count? If you don’t want to take something away and not replace it with something better or something good…

JONATHAN: Absolutely.

CARRIE: So people like to count.

JONATHAN: I would argue that a large percentage of the benefits that come from “counting calories” don’t actually come from counting calories. They come from people being conscious of what they are eating. Let me give you an example.

Food journaling, just the act of writing down what you eat will cause you to change what you eat and potentially how much you eat because the vast majority of junk that people put into their bodies is not an intentional, conscious choice.

CARRIE: “I must eat junk.”

JONATHAN: Right. It is a passing, just drinking some soda, it’s just picking up that cookie. Even if you put a rubber band on your wrist and that rubber band just reminds you to eat consciously, you will spontaneously eat more sane food and you will spontaneously likely consume fewer calories because sane food will fill you up faster as we’ve talked about in other shows.

If you want to count anything, I would strongly recommend — and we’re certainly coming out with software that will help with this — counting food groups, counting servings of food. How many — count the number of servings of non-starchy vegetables you eat in a day and you want to make it higher. You want to pursue abundance. You want to score more. You don’t want to think about deprivation.

Count the number of non-starchy vegetables you eat in a day, count the number of servings of nutrient-dense protein, count the number of servings of whole food fats and try to make those numbers higher.

CARRIE: And count the amount of water you drink.

JONATHAN: Yes, count the number of cups of water.

CARRIE: Or the number of bags of green tea you consume or…

JONATHAN: Count how many hours of sleep you get per night.


JONATHAN: And count how many — this is really important — count how many things you are grateful for. This is actually something that has been shown in myriad studies to just dramatically increase happiness, gratitude journaling. Every single day “count” three things you are grateful for. That will do–

A lot of times people want to lose weight, not because they just intrinsically want to lose weight but because they think that losing weight will make them feel a certain way.

CARRIE: Or look a certain way.

JONATHAN: They want to look a certain way because they think that will make them feel a certain way, in terms of like “People love me more, I love myself more, and I feel happier.” Right? So if the end result is to feel happier and to feel better about ourselves, we can also achieve that through gratitude journaling.

Count vegetables, proteins, whole food fats. Count sleep, count glasses of water, count things you are grateful for. Heck, there are quite a few things to count that are actually helpful. Any other things to count that you can think of, Carrie?

CARRIE: Well, just I guess the same would be true for throw your scale out because we don’t want to focus on weight. We do, if you like to measure your weight, a better sign of progression is to measure, to get a tape measure. So if that is another set of numbers that you would like to track, track a measurement rather than the weight on the scale.

JONATHAN: Here is another — this is a meta level of counting — so the counting we just talked about in terms of servings of sane food groups, water, gratitude… what was the other one? Sleep!

Then have a meta level of counting and so set a goal. Only eat ten servings of non-starchy vegetables. I want to eat three to six servings of nutrient-dense protein and I want to eat two to four servings of whole food fats. We also talk about serving size, but we can’t talk about all those things on the show.

Then I want to count how many days in a row I can hit those goals consistently because that consistency… You hit 21 days in a row where those key categories (veggies, proteins, fats, sleep water, green tea, and gratitude), you reach your counts consistently, and that’s when transformation happens because it’s a habit. That’s when you won’t need to count anymore because it is just what you do.

CARRIE: It is who you are.

JONATHAN: It’s back to what you were saying in our last show, Carrie. It’s your identity at that point. Counting is a stop gap. It is a temporary thing we need to do to get ourselves in the new place; but once we are in that new place it is autopilot.

You don’t need to count. It’s not the same as counting, but likely if you drive to work or if you drive some place every day you don’t really have to think about it. The first time you drove there and the second time you drove there, the third time you drove there you counted, you had to pay attention to what you were doing, you had to think about it and you had to consciously engage.

CARRIE: You would be amazed at the number of times I miss my exit.

JONATHAN: Without a doubt but it is because you are tuned out. Right? You are so… Counting is really just basically saying, “Put this in your conscious mind.”

CARRIE: Right.

JONATHAN: But a vegan doesn’t count how many servings of animals they eat. They just do it automatically; they don’t have to think about it. How you get to work or how you get to whatever you drive to every day you don’t have to think about because it is habit.

And then, once you get your non starchy vegetables, nutrient-dense protein, whole food fats, water, green tea, sleep and gratitude counts up high enough consistently, you won’t need to count anything and you can spend your mental energy rocking your mission rather than doing math.

CARRIE: So one thing that can really, really, really help with this is accountability.


CARRIE: So I have a very dear friend who lives in Georgia and so she’s on the Eastern Standard Time and of course I’m in Seattle, and every night she texts me when she goes to bed because she identified that sleep was one of her issues.

She knows that if it’s much past seven when she’s texting me, she already needs to be in bed. So that very fact of being accountable to me — not that anything bad is going to happen, it isn’t — but it just has made her very aware that she is accountable to someone that she goes to bed at 10 o’clock way more now than she did. It will become, over time, a habit that that’s what she does. So she is getting a lot more sleep now and accountability really helped her to get to that place.

JONATHAN: Isn’t it interesting that — I’m not a linguist so I don’t know if this has any meaning — but ACCOUNT ABILITY literally has the word count in it. So in this show we’ve talked about what you should be counting and then on top of that there is this meta level, something that will help you stay on track in terms of your counting, public accountability.

Carrie, it would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that now the team over here, the Team Sane, is dedicating all of our time and effort to developing tools and software and systems that help people to stay accountable publicly and to have support systems and to have apps and online programs that help you to count and to track the right things.

I don’t think people need more pills, powders and potions, and they don’t just need to smoke shorter cigarettes. They need help doing more of the right things and they need motivation and they need accountability, and I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that.

CARRIE: A bit of a strange example, but this week has really hit home for me that at Microsoft — and I know a lot of companies do — are starting to use a social tool called Yammer, which is like Facebook but for businesses. I actually work on the team that is trying to push Yammer out to everyone at work.

We are using it more. We are collaborating more. It is a brilliant tool for all of those things, and so my boss has been like, “Carrie, you need to use Yammer.” What I did was I set up my Yammer account so that when something happens, when the people I’m following do something, Yammer sends me an email.

I spend a good portion of my day in my Inbox. The fact that it goes in my email reminds me, “Oh, Yammer.” I don’t have to think about it; it pops me this reminder. Pretty soon I won’t need the emails to come into my inbox because I’ll be so used to using Yammer and all the conversations will be over there, that I won’t need the reminder anymore.

JONATHAN: Yeah, so it’s using tools and technology to help you form habits. And again, I don’t want to turn this show into an ad, but if you go to sanesolution.com, we’ve been spending a long time and a heck of a lot money trying to develop these kinds of tools to help you with these kinds of things. So give it a look.

Instead of calorie counting you can do food group counting, sleep tracking, all kinds of fun stuff. There are wonderful accountability tools up there as well and I think this will help people. The idea is not throw your hands in the air, don’t track anything. It is just track the right things.

CARRIE: Plus calorie counting is hard and miserable.

JONATHAN: Exactly.

CARRIE: It takes time and energy and yeah, you don’t have to do that.

JONATHAN: And you’re just counting the wrong… I mean counting calories is just the wrong thing. It is not that counting is intrinsically bad; it is just measuring… It would be like saying, “Carrie, let’s start a company and the barometer we’re going to use to determine whether or not we hire people is how tall they are.”

The measurement you are using is irrelevant. It is just not the right measure, not the right thing to track or to look at; it’s not helpful. It’s not that people don’t have a height; they do. It is not that calories don’t exist; they do but it’s just not a helpful thing to track.

CARRIE: Plus it is very inaccurate. An average apple has 40 calories. A huge apple would have 60 calories. You eat an apple and over the course of a day you can never really know how many calories you’ve eaten because all the calorie counts they give you are just so average.

JONATHAN: It also has a false precision in there too where, once we acknowledge that this isn’t a precise thing — nutrition is amazingly complicated and anyone who claims to have the precise answer down is about as trustworthy as someone who says, “Hey, I have this precise way where, if you give me your money, I’ll invest it and I’ll make exactly this much of a return for you in the stock market in exactly this amount of time.” You would run the other direction. “Thanks, Bernie.”

CARRIE: There are too many variables.

JONATHAN: There are too many variables. Generally try for eight to twelve servings of non-starchy vegetables. A serving of vegetables is approximately, if it’s a leafy green, the size of both your hands. If it is cooked and it shrinks, it is probably more the size of one of your hands.

Try to eat three to six servings of nutrient-dense protein. A serving is about the size of your palm. Try to eat two to six servings of whole food fats depending on your goals and your activity levels, and a serving of whole food fat is about the size of your pointer finger and your middle finger put together.

It’s not precise but that is all right. Your body is a homeostatic organism. Your set point is going to kick in and balance you out. Just get the big things right and let the body figure out the rest.

CARRIE: Plus if you are only eating real whole foods, then you don’t have to be so accurate with the portion sizes. It is only when you are eating crap that it becomes super important.

JONATHAN: Exactly. And this is the overriding point and this is what we talked about in previous shows: your brain will count calories for you just like your brain counts water. You don’t need to think to yourself — or oxygen or CO2 or anything else. Do you count how many milligrams of Vitamin C you take in? No. But what is it? scurvy?

CARRIE: You get scurvy.

JONATHAN: But somehow, if you just eat food, you don’t get scurvy. “It’s magic.” No, it’s your body!

CARRIE: If you eat sane food.

JONATHAN: Exactly. Well, Carrie, I think this is extremely helpful. I think the action item I am going to recommend for folks for this week is 1) check out sanesolution.com. I think you’ll like what you find, and 2) is — the tools are actually free so that is easy but if you want to go low tech instead of some of the high tech tools we offer at sanesolution.com, just take out a pad or a piece of paper, carry it around with you in your purse or in your pocket and write down the number of servings of non-starchy vegetables and nutrient-dense protein, whole food fats and I would say hours of sleep if you have to pick four things.

CARRIE: And for me, I would encourage you to find a good friend that you can be accountable with. It doesn’t have to be for a ton of things, maybe just one thing at a time, one new thing a week. Find somebody with whom you can stay on track with whatever you are counting.

JONATHAN: Counting and accountability taken to the next level — it’s sane; it’s awesome. I love it, Carrie. This is great. This is we’re eating more; we’re exercising less; but we’re doing it smarter and we’re staying sane. Chat with you soon.

CARRIE: See ya.

JONATHAN: Wait! Wait! Don’t stop listening yet! If you like what you hear and you want more free goodness, be sure to hop over to sanesolution.com and grab your free plan.