One of the biggest misconceptions among low-carb dieters is that you can eat whatever you want as long as it's low carb. I’ve had countless clients come to me, complaining that Atkins isn’t working. When I ask what they are eating, they list a day's worth of high-protein, high-fat food (which rarely includes vegetables and which typically totals to about 4,000 calories a day).
No wonder it didn't work.
It’s true that Dr. Atkins and many low-carb experts told us not to worry about counting calories in the beginning—but that doesn’t mean that calories don’t count. Because they do. If you eat too much of anything (even food low in carbs), you will not lose weight. And you can also eat too few calories, which will slow down your metabolism, putting the brakes on your weight loss.
The reason for the original advice about not counting calories had to do with the fact that a low-carb approach concentrates on managing blood sugar and insulin. You are encouraged to eat whole foods—protein such as chicken, beef, pork and fish, healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, butter, and fiber from vegetables—that naturally satiate your appetite and send hormonal signals to your brain that you're full. That's why it's easier to stay on a lower-carb diet featuring whole foods than a high-carb diet full of processed food, which stimulates hunger and cravings.
And that's why we tell you, in the beginning, don't worry about calories. Just worry about eating the right kinds of foods and your appetite will, hopefully, take care of itself.
But because calories are not the whole picture—the way they have been in many other weight-loss programs—does not mean they're out of the show. They've just been moved from a starring role to that of a supporting—but important—player.
This was never better illustrated than in a study done a while ago at Harvard University by Dr. Penelope Greene. Dr. Green took three groups and divided them into three different diets. Group 1 got 1,500 calories of low-fat food. Group 2 got 1,800 calories of low-carb food. (I'll tell you about Group 3 in a minute). Group 2—the low-carb higher-calorie group—lost more weight. (If it was all about calories, the higher-calorie low-carb group should have gained weight, not won the weight-loss contest.)
But then Dr. Greene threw in a third group. The third group also got low-carb food, but this time they got the same lower calorie amount that the low-fat group got: 1,500 calories.
And this group—the lower-calorie, low-carb group—lost the most amount of weight of all.
The point is: Calories aren't the whole story—but they do matter. If you're stuck at a plateau and have stopped losing weight on your low-carb plan, maybe it's time to do a little digging and see just how much food you're actually consuming. Keep a food diary and make sure your carbs are where they are supposed to be and your calories are around the 1,500- to 1,800-calorie mark for women and 1,800 to 2,200 for men. (The optimal number is highly individual. This is just a sample range for the minimum intake because too few calories can be an issue as well.)