By Daniel G. Amen


Excerpt from “The Amen Solution”

Don’t let anyone tell you that calories don’t count. They absolutely do. But it is not as simple as calories in vs. calories out. I admit that I used to think that as long as I stayed within a certain calorie range, my weight would be fine. But I was wrong.

You have to focus on eating “high-quality calories.” That means eating the apple instead of the apple pie a la mode, the almonds instead of the Almond Roca, and the steel cut organic oatmeal instead of the oatmeal cookie.

The research about calories is very clear. If you eat more calories than you need, you will be fatter, sicker, and less productive. In a famous study involving rhesus monkeys, researchers followed a large group of monkeys for 20 years. One group ate all the food they wanted; the other group ate 30 percent less. The monkeys who ate anything they wanted were three times more likely to suffer from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Plus, researchers saw significant shrinkage in the important decision-making areas of their brains. Over the two decades of the study half of the all-you-can-eat monkeys died while only 20 percent of the restricted-calorie monkeys died.

Many diet programs today have discarded the traditional concept of calorie reduction. Instead, they insist that you need to eat a specific ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fats in order to lose weight. Not so, according to a recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. This study found that calorie reduction—regardless of the percentage of fats, carbohydrates, or proteins in a diet—is what leads to weight loss.

For this study, the researchers enlisted 811 overweight individuals and assigned them to one of the following four diets:

20 percent fat, 15 percent protein, 65 percent carbohydrates

20 percent fat, 25 percent protein, 55 percent carbohydrates

40 percent fat, 15 percent protein, 45 percent carbohydrates

40 percent fat, 25 percent protein, 35 percent carbohydrates

At the conclusion of the two-year study, all four groups had achieved a similar weight loss of an average of nearly nine pounds.

Restricting calories does NOT mean starving yourself. Crash dieting isn’t doing your brain or body any favors. Extremely low calorie intake is associated with a lack of nutrients, which can deprive your brain and body of the fuel needed for optimal performance. Plus, this way of eating is not sustainable in the long run. It doesn’t teach you how to eat right to maintain a healthy weight, so after you drop the pounds, you go back to your old bad habits and regain the weight. I’ll bet many of you have been there, done that.

Be a value spender. Think of calories like money. You only have a certain amount of calories you can spend each day in order to reach your goal weight, so you want to spend very wisely, or you will bankrupt your brain and body.

My wife says I am not a cheap person, but rather a VALUE SPENDER. I hate wasting money. Once, I had a firm do work for our clinics, and even though their work was acceptable, I felt that they had over-billed me for the effort, so I avoided them in the future. I have this same attitude toward food. I hate wasting calories on foods that will drain my brain, make me fat, and leave me feeling sluggish.

If you are like me and you like to get a lot of bang for your buck, choose foods that offer the most NUTRITIONAL value rather than wasting your precious calories on foods that cause brain fog and keep you fat. For example, one cinnamon roll can cost you 720 calories, drain your brain, put you on an emotional rollercoaster, and increase your appetite and cravings. On the other hand, a 400-calorie salad made of spinach, salmon, blueberries, apples, walnuts, and red bell peppers will supercharge your energy and make you smarter.

You have to realize that when I talk about being a value spender, I am not talking about those so-called “value meals” the fast food restaurants offer. Most of them are actually robbing you of brain healthy nutrients and costing you far more in terms of your health and well-being. Cheap food may be the most expensive in terms of our long term health. A 2010 study in The FASEB Journal shows that you need to kill the junk food… or it will kill you early. This study found that when mice consumed high levels of phosphates, found in soft drinks and many processed foods, it sped up the aging process and led to early death. Where’s the value in that? Be a value spender when it comes to calories, or you will bankrupt your brain and body.


U.S. healthcare reform legislation passed in 2010 requires large chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. Many eateries also make nutritional information available on their websites. Make it a practice to look up menus online BEFORE you go out so you know which menu items will give you the most nutritional value for the calorie cost.

A colleague of mine was recently invited to a chain restaurant that is famous for its pizza. She knew it might be difficult to find something on the menu that was light on calories but high in brain healthy nutrients, so she spent a few minutes analyzing the nutritional information online. She found a salad (a half order) that was loaded with grilled vegetables and salmon, packed with protein and fiber, and low in saturated fat for about 600 calories. If she hadn’t done her homework, she could have ended up ordering a salad that sounded healthy but weighed in at more than 1,500 calories.

A lot of my patients ask me if it is possible to eat fast food while watching their calorie intake. The answer is yes. Many fast-food restaurants are adding healthier, low-calorie fare to their menu options.

To help you make better choices at fast-food restaurants, here’s a chart of calorie-busters to avoid and lighter options that get the green light.

Wendy’s: Baconator hamburger
Large fries
Large strawberry shake
Large chili
Baked potato
Total: 1,900 calories 550 calories
McDonald’s: Double Quarter Pounder
Large fries
Large Coke
Chipotle BBQ snack wrap
Cesar salad
(w/low-fat balsamic dressing)
Small Fruit ‘n’ yogurt Partfait
Total: 1,550 calories 550 calories
Jack in the Box: Sirloin cheeseburger
Onion rings
Mango smoothie
Chicken fajita pita
Fruit cup
Total: 2,020 calories 396 calories

If calorie counts are not listed on the menu, ask! Use your brain, be smart, and do not let other people make you fat and unhappy. Take control of your eating rather than letting a restaurant or ballpark vendor dictate how many calories you eat.

At the grocery store, READ THE NUTRITION LABELS! Many products that are marketed as “healthy” are in reality high-calorie, low-nutrient losers. Be sure to check the serving size on the labels. If you are like most Americans, your idea of a serving size is probably very different from the one listed. You might look at a box of bran cereal that says 100 calories per serving and think that’s a great value. But how much of it are you really eating? I was shocked when I actually measured out the suggested serving size of one cup of cereal. I had been eating at least twice that much but thinking I was only eating 100 calories.

This is why it is absolutely critical that you get a food scale, measuring cups, and measuring spoons and measure and weigh EVERYTHING you eat. This takes the guesswork out of counting calories and makes you be honest with yourself about how much you are eating. I can tell you that among our weight-loss group participants, the ones who buy a food scale and measure their food are typically the most successful.


The average active 50-old man needs about 2,200 calories a day to maintain his weight, and the average 50-year-old woman needs about 1,800 calories. You can find calorie calculators online to help you determine your individual calorie needs.

Here is an example from Sherri, one of our weight loss group participants. She used our online calorie calculator to determine how many calories she needed to maintain her current weight (at the debut of the program).

  • Height: 5’5″
  • Weight: 168 pounds
  • Gender: female
  • Age: 40
  • Activity lifestyle: sedentary
  • Result: She needed a total of 1,804 calories to maintain her current weight.

With this information, Sherri was then able to figure out how many calories she needs to eat in order to lose one pound per week. To lose one pound per week, you need to reduce your daily intake by 500 calories below your requirements. That is based on the fact that one pound of fat contains approximately 3,500 calories, so to lose one pound a week, you need to consume approximately 3,500 fewer calories per week. Divide 3,500 by seven days, and you get 500 calories per day. I recommend you use a combination of diet and exercise to reduce your intake by 500 calories. For example, eat 200 fewer calories and burn an additional 300 calories through exercise. So for Sherri, she needs to reduce her calorie intake to 1,504 calories a day, with 300 calories of exercise, in order to lose one pound per week. Without exercise she needs to eat 1304 calories a day.

Knowing your daily calorie allowance is only part or the weight loss equation. You also need to know how many calories a day you actually put in your body, just like you need to know how much money you spend. Overeating is the exact same thing as overspending. When you overeat, physical bankruptcy is your next stop.


Keep a daily food journal just like you keep a checkbook. Start the day with the number of calories you can spend, and write down EVERYTHING you eat and drink throughout the day. That includes the handful of M&Ms you grabbed from the receptionist’s desk and the sweetened iced tea you had with lunch. This one strategy made a huge difference for me. When I actually wrote down everything I ate for a month, it caused me to stop lying to myself about my calories.

One of our NFL players wrote that when he started counting his calories, it opened up a new world of self-abuse that he was completely unaware of.

“High-quality energy out” means you need to expend energy and rev up your metabolism in healthy ways.

Exercise, new learning, and green tea help. You will learn much more about workouts for your brain and body in Chapter Seven: Mental and Physical Exercise to Rev Your Metabolism. As for green tea, numerous studies have found that the catechins found in green tea, such as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), have a positive effect on metabolism, BMI, weight loss, waist circumference, and weight management.

When you are desperate to lose the love handles or the muffin top, you may be tempted to try unhealthy methods to expend more energy. Energy boosters to avoid include diet pills, sugary caffeinated energy drinks, too much coffee (green tea has half the caffeine as coffee), caffeinated sodas, smoking, and excessive exercise.