Are You Obsessed with Calorie Counting?
If you’ve tried to shed a few kilos, you’ve most likely tried calorie counting. It’s been around so long, some believe it’s the only thing to consider for weight loss. Not necessarily. And having an obsessive and unhealthy focus simply on the calories in your food, rather than where they are coming from, could do more harm than good. Dietitian Aimee Van Der Veer reports.
Where did calorie counting come from?
Calories are not something inherently evil, to avoid. A calorie (or kilojoule in Australia) is simply a unit of energy that tells us how much potential energy is stored in our food. For many years, this has been determined by bomb calorimetry – a process in science that measures the energy released when food is burned in a specialised chamber. But this release of energy is not identical to what actually happens inside the human body, according to more recent research, which is ongoing.
Counting calories for weight loss is thought to have been popularised by Dr Lulu Hunt Peters in 1918, after her best-selling diet book described her success with weight loss from counting and cutting calories.
What’s wrong with just a focus on calorie counting?
1.It’s not as accurate as it seems
The system only gives the calorie content of the protein, carbohydrate and fat contained in the food. However, we don’t eat these macronutrients in isolation, we eat foods and combinations of foods. There are many other factors that influence the digestion and calorie absorption from a food beyond these nutrients, such as the degree of processing, whether the food is from an animal or plant source and even your gut microbiome health. For example, some plant foods, like whole nuts, actually release less calories into the body than stated on their packaging (which can sometimes frighten people off eating them!) while some other animal-based foods may release more than originally thought and measured using bomb calorimetry.
There are also limitations in the accuracy of calorie counting due to seasonal and packaging variations and the margin of error can vary from packet-to-packet. Did you know that laws in the US allow a margin of error for calories of 20%? There is no law for the upper limit in Australia, but the law states that nutritional information panels should not be misleading. So, we can generally trust these values as fairly accurate. However, calorie counts on food packaging are designed to be a guide, not a measure of their weight loss or health potential.
2. Nutrient quality isn’t considered
Calories alone don’t tell you how nutritious a food item really is. While your body needs calories as an energy source like a car needs petrol, it also needs vitamins, minerals, fibre and various antioxidants. If you simply focus on counting calories, there is an assumption that they are all equal in how they will affect your body - whether they come from processed, packaged or whole foods. That would be like believing diesel, standard unleaded and premium unleaded fuel would all be equally good to run your car!
Recent research shows that the quality of calories (the foods they come from or that supply them) is most important for both your weight and wellbeing. Consider your calories by all means – especially from processed foods and alcohol – but don’t become obsessed with this measure because if you only look at calories you could be missing the bigger picture.
3. It can trigger overeating
With the popularisation of calorie counting for weight loss, low fat diets became the focus some years ago because 1 gram of fat contains about twice the calories as 1 gram of carbohydrate or protein. The food industry used this to their advantage, still manufacturing highly processed foods but positioning them as healthy just because they were low in fat or lower in calories. What many people didn’t realise was that in order to maintain taste and textural properties, sugars or highly processed carbohydrates were often being added instead – a red flag for any weight loss attempt!
While fats may be higher in calories, they have a higher satiety affect, keeping you fuller for longer. On the otherhand, low fat alternatives high in sugar cause a sudden spike in your blood glucose and leave you hungry soon after. That’s why it’s easy to overeat and rarely feel satisfied when eating such foods. Therefore, regardless of whether they are lower or not in calories, such foods are poor choices to support your long term weight and wellbeing goals.
Calorie counting also fails to recognise our body’s hunger and fullness cues. When we are not in tune with these cues, it is easy to overeat or undereat in order to adhere to strict portion guides and numbers. It’s better to consider the overall healthiness of our food choices and our satiety signals as this will automatically reduce or cut out surplus calories.
If not calorie counting, then what?
While you can take calories into consideration, and this can be especially helpful for some people, the good news is, you don’t need to weigh out each morsel of food in your diet and plug it into a calorie counting app to attain and maintain a healthier weight. Keys to successful and more natural weight (and health) management include:
- Diet quality – base your meals on unprocessed, wholefoods such as wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds;
- Mindful eating – learn to listen to your body’s cues as to when and how much to eat (an Accredited Practising Dietitian can help you with this – call our clinic on 9899 5208 if you are in Sydney);
- Move more – find some physical activity you enjoy and move more throughout each day – not just on weekends;
- Get enough sleep and manage your stress – poor sleep and stress can also affect hormones that regulate your appetite, making you eat more than you need or want. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep and manage your stress levels by regularly spending time in nature, having a rest day each week and catching up with those you love; exercise can also assist with stress management.