We live in a time where fads sell. From politics to diets, our culture has been groomed for the newest. The hottest. The must. This year’s macro is next year’s no-no (hi, carbs). One day, dairy is verboten; the next, cheese can help fight heart disease. Are we juicing; are we not juicing? Are we wearing shoes on the running trail? Are we even allowed to run? And let’s not get started on fasting.
But when it comes to wellness, we take issue with the notion that there’s only one fit.
As the web’s longest-running authority on the organic approach to wellbeing, with bona fide old-school journalists on our team, we’ve decided to pull from the best of old-school shoe-leather newsprint, too. We’re providing a forum for debate on wellness topics with the launch of our Pro vs. Con series. But this isn’t your cable news pundit’s false equivalency schtick. We're driven by evidence and curiosity. Our standards are high, and we brook no b.s. Enjoy the positive ruckus, and let’s all learn together.
To start? Calorie counting.
For years, we followed the tenets of calorie in, calorie out. Cloaked under the Weight Watchers brand or simply using a pen and paper, counting calories was touted as the secret to healthy, sustainable weight loss. Now some experts are poo-poohing it, but for Jillian Michaels, foremost fitness expert and creator of The Fitness App, the time-tested technique of calorie counting remains the key to maintaining weight loss.
(Of course, Jillian's is not the only perspective on calorie counting out there! For eating psychology expert, Elise Museles, calorie counting doesn't tell the whole story when it comes to weight loss; she shared her perspective in a full interview with OA – check it out!)
Jillian, meanwhile, is sticking to her calorie counting guns – and she's not shy about sharing why. (And with those guns, we'd love to know her secrets.)
OA: Is calorie-in, calorie-out a good mindset for weight loss and weight management?
JM: I mean, it is the only way! It just is. It is the only way to actually lose weight.
At the end of the day, it is irrefutable; it is a law of thermodynamics; it is scientific law. It is not theory. Energy is not created or destroyed in a vacuum. Calories in our food are units of energy. When we consume more energy than we are utilizing, we store that energy in our fat cells.
Now this is a completely different conversation with regards to health. That’s the second component of what food is.
OA: Oh, so not all calories are created equal?
JM: That’s actually bullshit. A calorie is a unit of energy. That’s like saying a pound of chicken feathers is not the same as a pound of cement. Yes it is; a pound is a pound. The difference is that not all food is created equal.
Certain foods have zero nutrition value, right? And are loaded with pesticides and chemicals and crap. And then certain foods have fiber and micronutrients and phytonutrients and digestive enzymes and all kinds of awesome stuff, that’ll help you fight disease and live forever. But when we’re talking about weight, you cannot mix the two things.
Should the two things intersect? Yes, they should. Hopefully, they do. But when we are discussing getting bigger and getting smaller, it is a matter of calories in, calories out, and there’s an overwhelming amount of empirical data to prove it.
OA: Like what?
JM: Google the Twinkie Diet (Editor's Note: We did it for you.) A professor of nutrition basically set out to prove a point. And he ate nothing but complete shit. He lost 27 pounds.
OA: Got it. So if you eat less, you’ll lose weight?
JM: The reality is that you cannot starve weight off. It just won’t come off. It will destroy your metabolism. It will do a host of damage to your body.
I’ll give you the simple math. Let’s say that I am 10 pounds over where I want to be right now. I burn, in a day, without exercise – and you can figure all of this out online – but I know that my body, through involuntary bodily functions, we call BMR (basal metabolic rate) is burning about 1250 calories. If you don’t factor in exercise, and you look at your daily activity level, and again, there are all sorts of different components to that, but let’s say that there are four activity levels. Level one is you’re totally sedentary; level four is you’re a construction worker, right?
You pick your level, and if I’m on level two, I’m gonna say, 1.2, and if I was three, it’d be 1.3 times my basal metabolic rate. And this will give me a good idea, without exercise, of how many calories I burn in a day. So for me, I’m actually about 1500 calories a day. So if I didn’t eat over 1500 calories, I really wouldn’t gain weight. I just wouldn’t.
If I want to lose weight – and this is why people are like, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work –if I want to lose weight, and I’m eating 1200 calories a day, which is really rough. I mean that is like, holy fuck, I’m hungry. I am really starving myself, I am really depriving myself. But think about the math. I’m only losing 300 calories worth of fat – or worth of body weight – a day. That’s going to take me, give or take 12 days, to lose one actual pound.
OA: Whoa! So that ends up being really discouraging.
JM: This is why you must exercise while eating less food, because the exercise is going to take a 1500 calorie burn up to 2000. 2200, depending on how hard I train, how long I train. And now, I’m losing a pound a week, maybe two pounds a week instead of one pound every two weeks.
Once you understand the math, it’s very, very simple. I’m not gonna say easy, because anything with food is not easy for most people, but it’s very simple to understand, the steps.
From the Organic Authority Files
You may be eating all healthy food, food that’s loaded with polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, fiber, micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, but if you’re eating too much of it, it doesn’t matter. You will store the energy in the wild-caught salmon, in the avocado, and the EVOO and the blueberries and all of that stuff in your fat cells. Period. End of story.
OA: Does the quality of food matter at all, then?
JM: The quality of your food can affect your base metabolism over time, because of how it impacts your hormones, and your hormones, essentially, run your metabolism. But it takes years to do that kind of biochemical damage. So where the food is important is your health! This is why skinny people get heart disease, and skinny people get cancer, and skinny people get diabetes. But they’re not the same issue.
OA: So if you want to lose weight and be healthy, how should you approach your food intake?
JM: Eat all three of your macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbs. All of them serve a purpose, and anyone who tells you they don’t is a fucking liar.
The key is the quality of those foods. We’re talking about wild-caught salmon, not packaged bologna. We’re talking about monounsaturated; polyunsaturated fat. Not fat from bacon and god-forbid pigs with hormones that eat garbage. We’re talking about food quality, and this is where the concept of whole foods, organic, whenever possible, and in my opinion, in particular when it comes to meat, dairy, thin-skinned fruits and vegetables, and this is where I really would like you to put that money.
OA: When you're limiting your calories and eating only super-healthy foods, can't it start to feel really restrictive? Do you ever get to cheat?
JM: One good rule is the 80/20 rule.
If you’re taking 80 percent of your recommended calorie allowance, and you’re making it the better choice – it doesn’t have to be perfect! But the better choice. The whole-grain bread, not the white bread. The apple not the apple juice. And then 20 percent is… the small French fries. The slice of pizza. It’s balance. That’s OK. There’s room for that. If 80 percent of your choices are the better ones, you will be just fine.
OA: We hear a lot about intermittent fasting. If you’re keeping to that math that you were talking about, does when you consume your calories in the day really matter?
JM: It only matters with regards to your longevity.
But if you took 2000 calories and ate them in one meal, or you took 2000 calories and ate them over 24 hours, it won’t matter to your weight. It just won’t.
But if we eat throughout the day, are we losing track of calories? Is it making us eat more? If we only had one meal, are we going to eat more because we’re overly hungry? But it’s still a conversation of: is it making me eat more? With your weight, it’s the total amount of calories. Period.
OA: When it comes to counting calories, do you recommend a paper journal or an app?
JM: I don’t care if you keep it in an app; I don’t care if it works better for you to keep it in your notes section, whatever works for you, do it.
OA: Do you recommend planning what to eat before you eat it?
JM: I like a two-week, hardcore deep-dive. Because I find that people are creatures of habit. They eat the same three to five breakfasts, the same five things for lunch. Over and over and over again.
So what I would like you to do is say: these are my three to five breakfasts, three to five snacks, three to five lunches, and three to five dinners. Do the calories on them. Because once you know it, you’ll know it forever. It becomes brainless. I know that an egg is roughly 80 calories. I know a slice of my bread is 80 calories. I know how much a pat of butter is; I know how much a dollop of… so now I’m like, this is my coffee breakfast with a splash of milk, two eggs and two pieces of toast, and I’m about 450 calories for this whole breakfast. I never look it up again!
I promise you, if you spend two weeks, and you read your labels, and you figure out how much is in each one of those meals, and let’s say it’s like maximum 20 meals. Maximum! You’ll know forever.
OA: When you focus on the numbers so much, it’s really easy to catastrophize over every small mistake. Like: well this day is fucked, so I’m just gonna eat everything. How do you deal with that?
JM: I know, right? Isn’t that the craziest thing ever? I like to tell people this analogy. You’re driving down the road; you get a flat tire. Who would ever get out of the car and slash all three of the other tires. Nobody would do that! You change the tire, and you get back on the road.
I recommend doing your calories over the course of the week. So it’s like, OK, I want to lose two pounds. So I need a 7,000 calorie deficit. I need 1,000 calorie deficit a day. First of all, decide if that’s actually realistic for you and your lifestyle. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We have nowhere to go but forward. People feel like they need to achieve this overnight, and they don’t! So if it’s a pound a week, if it’s a half a pound a week, who cares?
But if you’ve got those guidelines, those kind of guardrails, if you’re trying to get from Malibu, California to the Empire State Building, the Google Maps app is going to give you step-by-step instructions. If you miss a turn, it’s just going to reroute you. It’s not the end of the world.
But if you do the all-or-nothing approach, you will for sure, without a question, fail.
Related on Organic Authority
5 Pro Tips from Jillian Michaels to Thrive in Challenging Times
The 5 Reasons You'll Quit Counting Calories For Good, and Still Be Healthy
Quitting Sugar? Here’s How to Handle the Withdrawal