Carbs vs. Calories

Should You Count Carbs or Calories for Weight Loss?

People often debate whether counting carbs vs. calories will lead to weight loss. As with any eating pattern, there are pros and cons to each method, and individual differences in how bodies respond. When considering what might be right for you, brush up on nutrition basics first.

The Difference Between Carbs and Calories

While some people use carbs and calories interchangeably when it comes to counting the nutritional value of foods, they are very different.

Calories

A calorie is a measurement of energy. The amount of energy a food provides is measured as a calorie. The proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in a food contribute to the total number of calories that food provides.

Protein, fat, and carbohydrates are all essential macronutrients that affect total caloric intake in different ways. Nearly every food has calories, but not every food has carbohydrates.

Carbs

Carbohydrate foods are made up of starches, fiber, and sugars. They have four calories per gram and are a good source of energy for your body. Whole-grain foods are a source of carbs, fiber, and nutrients.

Consuming a lot of refined carbohydrates, like white rice and white bread, can result in excess calorie intake. This can can cause weight gain, an increase in triglycerides, and feelings of fatigue. Refined carbs also lack in filling fiber and other nutrients that whole-grain foods do have, such as B vitamins.

In addition, when you eat low-nutrient carbs, those items can displace other foods—including protein, which can help you feel full and eat less. If you choose to count carbohydrates to lose weight, make sure that you keep enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet so you get the important vitamins and minerals you need.

Fat

A gram of fat provides nine calories. If you eat foods high in fat, your total caloric intake can increase quickly. But eating healthy fats is important for health.

Fat helps you to feel full and satiated. If you eat a small amount of fatty food, you may feel satisfied sooner and eat less overall. For that reason, foods that contain healthy fats, like certain types of fish, nuts or avocado, can be a smart addition to your weight loss diet.

Fat is also essential for the absorption of several important fat-soluble vitamins. It is used for energy when carbohydrates are not available.

Protein

Like carbohydrates, one gram of protein provides four calories. Proteins include animal proteins—meats, fish, seafood, milk, eggs, and cheese—and plant-based proteins such as tofu, lentils, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

Protein is important as it powers your muscles and strength and contributes to healthy organs, hair, and even blood.

Sugar

Sugar is not a macronutrient. It is a type of carbohydrate. Many nutritious foods, such as fruits and dairy products, contain natural sugars that help provide the body with energy. And small amounts of added sugar aren't necessarily bad for you.

But people often consume a lot of added sugar without even knowing it. Sugar is added to many of the processed foods we eat, like canned soups and pasta sauces. Increased sugar consumption has been linked to serious health consequences, such as an increased risk for type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.

Aside from the health consequences of consuming too much added sugar, there are diet drawbacks as well. Many experts feel that the more sugar we eat, the more sugar we crave. For some people, reducing sugar intake may reduce sugar cravings, resulting in lower total calorie consumption and weight loss.

Pros and Cons of Counting Calories

To lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit. That means you need to burn more calories than you consume. You can burn more calories through exercise or increased daily activity (for example, by boosting your step count). You can also create a deficit if you consume fewer calories each day. So calories do count.

Calorie counting may or may not be the best weight loss strategy for every person. A benefit of calorie counting is that it helps you monitor how much food you're consuming. Calorie data is readily available for most foods, and for many people, reducing calories is safe and effective.

However, it does not work for everyone. Not all calorie counters and apps are accurate, especially if you don't know for sure how much you are eating (say, at a restaurant).

And for some people, counting calories could lead to disordered eating. There is also a risk of nutritional deficiencies if you don't take a holistic view of your calorie intake (for example, not eating enough healthy fats because fat has more calories than protein and carbs).

Pros and Cons of Counting Carbs

Following a low-carb diet can be helpful for people who need to monitor their carb intake (such as people with diabetes). Tracking carb intake is relatively easy, since nutrition labels clearly list carb counts—and once you get familiar with which foods are higher and lower in carbs, it's even easier. And some people do find that reducing carbs does help them lose weight.

There are also risks of this eating pattern, however. Counting carbs may lead to overconsumption of foods that do not have carbs, but are high in calories or other macronutrients (like fat). And as with calories, it's hard to count carbs on foods that don't have a nutrition label.

A Word From Verywell

To create a calorie deficit and lose weight, most people find it simplest to count calories. It's easy to find the calorie total for most foods, and to log them with a weight loss app or tracker. If you are counting calories, looking at your balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat can help you plan a well-rounded and balanced eating plan.

If you keep your carb intake within recommended guidelines (50% to 65% of your total calorie intake), that leaves enough room to eat protein and fat. By consuming a balanced diet, you are more likely to provide your body with the nutrients and fuel it needs to stay active and healthy.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Liu AG, Ford NA, Hu FB, Zelman KM, Mozaffarian D, Kris-Etherton PM. A healthy approach to dietary fats: Understanding the science and taking action to reduce consumer confusion. Nutr J. 2017;16(1):53. doi:10.1186/s12937-017-0271-4

  2. Paluch AE, Gabriel KP, Fulton JE, et al. Steps per day and all-cause mortality in middle-aged adults in the coronary artery risk development in young adults study. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(9):e2124516. doi:10.3390/nu10030360

  3. Stanhope KL. Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2016;53(1):52-67. doi:10.3109/10408363.2015.1084990

  4. Jacques A, Chaaya N, Beecher K, Ali SA, Belmer A, Bartlett S. The impact of sugar consumption on stress driven, emotional and addictive behaviors. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019;103:178-199. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.05.021

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 9th Edition.

By Malia Frey
 Malia Frey is a weight loss expert, certified health coach, weight management specialist, personal trainer​, and fitness nutrition specialist.