We’ve been told to count calories and reduce fat for years, but we’re unhealthier, bigger and sicker than we’ve ever been before. Why?
Well, as you might have guessed, there are a few reasons! Some reasons are cognitive/psychological, some societal, some because we’re all influenced by clever marketing campaigns that drive us to make certain choices.
But two other things have changed. We’re not only eating differently (lower-fat, more processed and higher sugar foods - the sugar is often added to offset the lack of flavour in low-fat foods!), but we’ve been led to believe that as long as we count our calories, we’ll be able to manage our weight and improve our health.
First: we know the equation isn’t as simple as ‘calories in v calories out’ because of our hormonal response to the composition of what we consume can lead us to feel hungrier, store fat and end up in a vicious cycle.
Second: the mere act of ‘counting calories’ in itself doesn’t help! I can ‘count’ my calories as long as like, but beyond having a rudimentary idea of my energy intake, it’s of limited use because rarely do we truly know how much energy we’re expending.
Calorie counting over-simplifies the value of what we eat (i.e. it doesn’t tell us how quickly that energy will be released; how long it will keep us full; what our insulin response will be; how nutritionally dense it is (vitamins and minerals); the impact that food will have on our energy, digestion, mental clarity, etc… all of which are impacted by what we eat!
I first fell out with the process of counting calories when it failed my mum… She wasn’t the only one, either. Growing up in the Welsh Valleys, everyone seemed to be dieting at some point. The diet culture (mainly Weight Watchers and Slimming World) penetrated the working-class society hard during the early 90’s, and hasn’t really left since. What they have left is a generation of people who have no idea how to eat according to their needs, and who are not game to choose off a menu or prepare their own meals unless there is a brand-endorsed tick of approval.
Clever marketing… devastating effects, because it traps people in a system without educating them on how to develop a healthy balanced lifestyle.
When my mum first joined WW, she was a healthy weight. She’s since used the two main calorie/point counting systems in the UK for ~30-years. During that time her weight has doubled.
Just let that sink in for a while.
She probably joined these programmes more for the social aspect (everyone was doing it), and maybe hoping to lose 5kgs.
Instead, the diet culture and calorie/point counting systems eroded her own natural ability to eat until satisfied and choose foods based off of what her body was telling her she should eat.
The final straw for me came when I also got to experience this first-hand. I was new to the fitness industry and like many I began counting my calories to help me lose fat and improve my aesthetics (read: six-pack).
Although I succeeded in achieving my goal, I also failed on so many other levels. I became obsessed with what I was eating, which impacted my social life and mental health. I became obsessed with how I looked and the number on the scales, which damaged my self-confidence. I became obsessed with become leaner (even though I had a very low body fat%) which affected my energy levels. I became so obsessed, I didn’t realise it was a problem. Then it stopped working.
I was very lucky at this point, because my desire to truly learn directed me to what I know today, but most aren’t so lucky. Which is why over-simplifying our current problems and solutions to calories in vs calories out is incorrect and dangerous.
Calorie counting is flawed on a biological level[i] as it fails to consider your basal metabolic rate and energy requirements. It is flawed on a chemical level as it fails to acknowledge the hormonal effect of nutrients. And it is flawed practically as demonstrated by its failure to stop or even slow the rise in obesity.
Why does calorie counting work?
There’s no denying that calorie counting works in the short-term, but it’s not through the act of counting, but the consciousness of which it brings to your eating. When you’re counting your calories you’re more likely to eat less overall and choose better options.
In the short-term, counting calories will help you lose weight purely by bringing awareness to the caloric value of what you’re eating, and helping you identify lower-calorie choices that might be more suitable for your energy requirements, but it fails to consider actual education for living in the real world where calories and points aren’t listed on all your foods, which ultimately leads to weight regain[ii], which leads to people re-entering the programme. All of this leads to hormonal problems and impaired ability to use energy.
How to start successfully losing weight and keep it off (spoiler: no calorie counting!)
Start by ditching the diet mentality and focus on being mindful of what you’re eating, and how that food makes you feel during and after the meal. Don’t ‘start Monday’. Don’t have ‘one more treat’. Start now. And know that the occasional treat will always be a part of your life. Because this is a LIFESTYLE, not a diet! Because life is for living, not dieting.
Maintaining your weight-loss is much harder than losing it, which is why you should be focusing on keeping the weight off, no matter how little it is. When weight-loss occurs too quickly, your metabolism is effected which makes it harder to lose weight as time goes on, even when the weight is regained.
A perfect in-practice example of this is the 2016 study[iii] which followed-up on ‘The Biggest Loser’ contestants, 6-years after finishing the show. Some gained nearly all of it back.
Another study done in 2016[iv] found that diet-induced weight loss resulted in long-term changes in our gut microbiome, which impacts our hormones, including those related to our happiness, appetite and fat storage. This study also found that exercise programmes enhanced satiety, indicating the importance of being active and mobile, as a key component in your journey for a healthier weight and lifestyle.
What to eat
Choose high fiber, nutrient dense options… basically, the less processed, the better. A 2010 study[v] looked at two identical sandwiches - one made from processed ingredients, the other unprocessed. It found that the unprocessed sandwich was digested nearly 50% slower! No wonder we’re over-eating, we’re unsatisfied by the highly-processed, nutrient-poor choices most-accessible to us.
Choosing foods which are unprocessed, especially those with protein and colourful vegetables, is the perfect strategy (think vegetable omelette). Protein not only increases satiety but uses more energy to absorb, digest and use, too[vi], and vegetables increase the volume of your meals (another satiety tactic[vii]) whilst maintaining a low calorie and carbohydrate profile, so there’s less impact on your insulin (the ‘storage’ hormone) levels.
Lowering the amount of sugar, refined carbohydrates and carbohydrates overall is important. Both natural and artificial sugar in excess, combined or alone, can cause inflammation[viii][ix], increased hunger[x] and weight-gain.
Other factors to consider
My aim is to give you ALL of the information, which is why I created my healthy lifestyle programme – Sleep | Eat | Move | Repeat.
If you’d like to read more about how each pillar can help you achieve a healthier lifestyle and weight, click below:
If there’s anything I can help with please let me know, and I’d love to know what you think of this blog. Have you tried calorie counting before? Did it work? Why/why not?
Speak soon JC.
[i] Kennedy, G. C. (1953). The role of depot fat in the hypotha- lamic control of food intake in the rat. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 140, 578–592.
[ii] Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after "The Biggest Loser" competition. Fothergill E1, Guo J1,
[iii] Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after "The Biggest Loser" competition. Fothergill E1, Guo J1, Howard L1, Kerns JC2, Knuth ND3, Brychta R1, Chen KY1, Skarulis MC1, Walter M1, Walter PJ1, Hall KD1.[iv] Lean, M. E., & Malkova, D. (2016). Altered gut and adipose tissue hormones in overweight and obese individuals: Cause or consequence? International Journal of Obesity, 40, 622–632.
[v] Postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: implications for daily energy expenditure Sadie B. Barr and Jonathan C. Wright[vi] Dietary protein - its role in satiety, energetics, weight loss and health. Westerterp-Plantenga MS1, Lemmens SG, Westerterp KR.[vii] Volume of food consumed affects satiety in men. - Rolls BJ1, Castellanos VH, Halford JC, Kilara A, Panyam D, Pelkman CL, Smith GP, Thorwart ML.[viii] High-glycemic index carbohydrate increases nuclear factor-kappaB activation in mononuclear cells of young, lean healthy subjects. - Dickinson S1, Hancock DP, Petocz P, Ceriello A, Brand-Miller J.[ix] Carbohydrate nutrition and inflammatory disease mortality in older adults. - Buyken AE1, Flood V, Empson M, Rochtchina E, Barclay AW, Brand-Miller J, Mitchell P.[x] Insulin levels, hunger, and food intake: an example of feedback loops in body weight regulation. - Rodin J.