Since I have always counted calories (and now trying to move away from that), I’m having a hard time figuring out how much to eat. People seem to say eat until satisfied not stuffed. I think being off sugar and processed carbs has helped me figure out when I’m truly hungry vs sugar cravings…however do you feel that calories still matter or it's all about insulin…..or is that by keeping insulin levels low you burn stored body fat?? I'm a bit confused?
It's a lot more complicated than anyone has told you and nobody really understands the physiology of weight loss completely. So don't feel bad at being confused, and remember to take everything anyone says with a grain of salt!
That said, here's the basic paleo logic:
All human beings have an endocrine system which plays a major role in regulating appetite, fat/muscle gain and fat/muscle loss. How your body handles a calorie worth of food (once you account for digestion) is more or less determined by what your hormonal state is at the moment and how your hormonal state responds to that calorie of food. This system evolved over millions of years to accomplish these and other tasks, so we typically assume that it is capable of handling the problem of weight regulation better than you can consciously via calorie counting - assuming you are eating the foods it evolved in conjunction with.
If you are not eating those foods, you might generate a hormonal state which preferentially stores fat. The example typically cited is the Pima Indians - they were lean and fit eating their calorie unrestricted traditional diet, but when they were forced onto a reservation diet of basically sugar and biscuits, they ballooned. The paleo answer to why they didn't get fat in one unrestricted scenario but did in another is that in the case of eating a diet deficient in many nutrients and loaded with sugar, they interfered with the normal functioning of their endocrine system and caused preferential fat accumulation.
This is where the "insulin is all that matters" meme comes from. Insulin, of course, is not all that matters. If you overeat on a high-fat, very low insulin-index diet, you will gain fat. It's just that overeating on a high-fat diet is difficult if you're not trying to overeat because meat and fat are highly satiating - the insulinogenic effect of the diet in this case is less important than the satiating effect. And yes, they are interrelated. Remember, this is a very tangled web.
Calories do matter in the sense that overeating will cause you to gain weight no matter what you're eating. But the focus on calories is misguided, because it misses the actual pragmatic root of the problem in weight gain: the cause of your overeating is more significant to how you treat the problem than the fact of the overeating itself. Simply restricting calories will work, at least until your metabolism adjusts and/or you get so hungry you break the diet. But you can also attack the problem by changing the conditions that lead you to overeat, which allows your endocrine system to take over and frees you from having to think about calories.
In a way, the question "is it calories or is it insulin?" is fundamentally incoherent. Both are important and relevant, but they focus on different parts of the problem. With calorie counting, you're trying to attack the overeating but are failing to attack the reason you're overeating. With paleo, you are trying to attack the cause of overeating, and by doing so the calorie counting should become irrelevant.
So my actual advice to you is to eat to appetite from a paleo food selection and forget about the calories. Don't weigh yourself for a month or two. Ignore your weight. See what happens. For many people, simply eating paleo results in effortless weight regulation where before they had a hard time controlling things. Remember, this is all about self-experimentation - run the experiment and see if it works for you!
Calories probably matter to some extent, but much less than the conventional wisdom holds.
Many studies show that a "low-carb" diet can produce short-term weight loss even when subjects are allowed to each as much as they want (ad libitum). Such ad libitum low-carb diets are often superior to calorie-restricted high-carb diets. This is well documented in Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. As you pointed out, this is (probably) due to the way that low-carb diets control or normalize insulin levels in the body.
A Paleolithic approach works even better than a conventional "low-carb" approach because it eliminates altogether the main sources of insulin-spiking carbs (grains, legumes, sugars).
It seems that most people do not need to count calories if they avoid grains, sugars, processed foods, starchy tubers, etc. Once your metabolism adjusts to a basically Paleolithic (lowish-carb) diet, you will most likely eat less than before. You may feel full on less food, and the full feeling may last longer than it did before (say, 4-6 hours as opposed to 1-3). If you have excess fat, then you will hopefully begin to lose fat without really trying.
Counting calories can actually be a recipe for disaster, as many people artificially restrict calories, leading to excessive hunger, which makes people fall off the "diet" wagon. The advantage of a "Paleo as lifestyle" approach is that you allow the fat loss to come naturally, due to the healing of your metabolism and insulin regulation, rather than through artificial (and unsustainable) caloric restriction.
There are some people who still struggle with overeating on Paleo. I suspect that most of these people actually have a hard time with carb cravings, rather than overeating problems. It is very difficult to overeat on Paleo! (Please note that I have a lot of sympathy for people with carb cravings and I am not being judgmental here. Carb addiction is very real, and I would like to see it being treated as an addiction, not as a problem of willpower.)
So, Cliffs notes: calories may matter, but counting calories paradoxically leads to failure in many cases.
To put it another way, the QUALITY of foods you eat matters way more than the AMOUNT of foods you eat. The current hypothesis is that this is because the quality of your food will regulate your metabolism and insulin levels.
Calorie theory is stupid. Wait, that's mean. It's way too simplistic.
If you gain weight, calorie theory says it's fat you've gained. But it could be muscle. It could be bone mass.
The calorie theory formula that everyone uses...
weight status = calories in - calories out
...is inadequate too. "Calories in" is defined as calories you eat. (I didn't know a calorie was a food.) "Calories out" is defined as calories you burn.
There's just one problem. You only consume food at the cellular level. So if you are burning calories, THAT is "calories in," NOT the stuff you are eating. That stuff is only going into your stomach. It hasn't been broken down to reach your individual cells yet.
Do we have a way to measure the calories your cells take in? Not an adequate one, I don't think--not without using way more expensive equipment than most doctors are willing or able to employ.
The other bit of it is your cells can get that energy from one of two places: the stuff that went into your mouth, and the stuff that is coming out of your fat cells. We don't measure which is what in that case, either.
And does calorie theory take into account your daily trips to the bathroom? Unless you're in ketosis you generally aren't peeing calories, but there is caloric value to good ol' Number Two. I wouldn't recommend putting humanure in a bomb calorimeter, it's probably an unpleasant experience, but I guarantee you'd get a measurement of caloric content from the stuff if you did. Obviously that's stuff your body didn't burn OR store. It doesn't figure into the calorie/weight equation at all.
And I should point out that you don't see too many fat type 1 diabetics. Not too many muscular ones, either, actually--there are a few, but they're in the minority. Insulin obviously plays an important role in weight gain--fat OR lean--even if it's not the only culprit.
I think it would be a more useful exercise, rather than count calories, to look at what you eat rather than how much, and tweak and fine-tune your intake of what you eat to see what happens with your body composition. Obviously some type of food encourages fat storage in your body, and probably would even if you didn't eat huge amounts of it. As much as I like dairy, I'd look to that as the first possible culprit, or maybe nuts--that's one that stalls a lot of people too.
My personal experience is that weight-loss websites tell me I should eat something like 1500-1800 calories a day of the low-fat grainy crap they recommend to me for "healthy weight loss," but I can eat up to 2900 calories a day of low-carb stuff, mostly meat and non-starchy veggies, and lose weight just fine. In fact my weight loss seems to stall if I go too low on calories, and improves if I ramp up the fat intake, and the more saturated the better. Go figure.
Getting fat on a Paleo diet is about as difficult as getting skinny on a low calorie SAD diet. After awhile both fail. I know, I've tried.
You can only eat so much protein and fat until the prospect of eating another steak or pork chop is nauseating. Your brain and gut simply revolt, they shut down. The body when properly fueled and tuned is an amazing thing. You can thank millions of years of gene expression evolution for that.
personally i feel that calories still do indeed matter, although much less so than on SAD. Ill put it this way, i used to be vegetarian/vegan. I was rail thin. sixpack abs all that. twinkie little arms, low energy a lot of the time, though. It was terrible. Years ago by the way. At any rate, i started eating what we all call "paleo/primal/whatever" about 7 years ago, after all that. I gained weight. body fat AND muscle. I chalk this up to the pure caloric density of much of what we all eat. Especially fat. its the most energy dense (calorically dense) macronutrient. I love it and eat lots of it:)
However, i do believe that as long as youre not eating a really really high number of calories on paleo that there is more "room for error", lets say, than on a highcarb way of life. Like, the body is better at handling moderately excess amounts of fat and protein than it is moderately excess amounts of carbohydrate. Still, though, at the end of the day if you pound down 5000 calories OF ANYTHING, your body is going to store it as extra fuel (what we call fat:)
i have been maintaining my weight - 245 pounds, on paleo / primal without counting calories for about 6 months. I was 410 pounds at one point, so 245 is a huge victory for me. I suspect that my body weight point is between 225 to 245 pounds, and that I have reached the end of what I can reasonably expect to achieve weight-loss-wise. I am 6'1...., where is if I had never gotten fat I would probably be 180 to 200 pounds normally. I may just have to be content with extra weight.
When I ate carbs I could NEVER stay at the same weight. Up and down and up and down....it was the classic dieter looses weight, but then it creeps back on...really frustrating.
I went from 410 to 250 to 270 to 225 to 265 and now I am down to 245...but the 245 has been stable for 6 months.....huge success in my book. I have to live with my extra weight forever. It is sort of a scar from growing up in such a toxic industrial food sugar wasteland. Someone should punish the sugar and carb companies for destroying lives. Anyway.
Your are on the right path. Being mindful of insulin and controlling blood glucose via diet is exponentially more important than counting calories.
As you progress, your internal sense of when you are truly hungry will become more keen.
I'd much rather over-eat on fat, then protein as opposed to eat one high insulin spiking desert.
Establishing a once or twice weekly Intermittent Fast works wonders for figuring out your bodies hunger signals too. You quickly learn to distinguish between real and imagined hunger. Once you start burning fat for energy a day without food passes without even thinking about eating.
I agree with Ben, calories do matter. One can lose weight on a donut diet, as long as calories are restricted (granted you'd have other problems here). On the other hand, if one consistently consumes more calories than one burns, excess calories will be stored as fat, regardless of diet. I don't count calories or worry about it too much, but I'm more paleo than primal, i.e. I don't buy into the idea that you can consume all the saturated animal fat you want on a consistent, ongoing basis.
I agree with Ben on another point as well. Fat is calorically dense, so consuming lots of it means you're consuming more calories compared to another macronutrient, ounce for ounce, all else being equal. I think it can all balance out, however, as long as satiety sets in before one reaches the proverbial 5000 calories a day.
If you restrict carbs enough your body will switch to a ketogenic (fat-burning) metabolism. So a very low carb, high fat diet can induce weight loss, but the calorie-in/calorie-out calculus still applies. I just think that in a ketogenic state, it would be hard to eat that many fat calories--you just won't want to eat due to satiety.
I found this gem (from the Weston A. Price Foundation, in response to someone who did not find success losing weight on the WAPF diet.):
Question: I find myself gaining weight, in spite of following the principles of nourishing traditional diets. Do you have any suggestions?
Answer: In my book The Fourfold Path to Healing, I explain that one of the keys to effective weight control is controlling the levels of the hormone insulin in your tissues and blood. Insulin is secreted when the sugar level in the blood and tissues is higher than needed for immediate energy use.
The usual reason this occurs is that you are eating more carbohydrates in your diet than you need for your activity level. Or, as I sometimes tell patients, you may be eating like a marathon runner but exerting the activity of a couch potato.
Lowering your carbohydrate intake to 75 or fewer grams per day will result in a gradual weight loss for about 70-80 percent of the patients I see, until they achieve something like an ideal weight (which, by the way, is not a weight that leaves you model-thin).
He basically replaced the word calories with carbohydrates. I guess he doesn't think calories exist. Just a myth created by the diet dictocrats? I guess so.
The calories-don't-exist diet is a great way to stay fat. I'm speaking as someone who lost 100 lbs, calories DO matter.