Should We Count Calories?

Shouldwecountcalories

I have lost count of the articles I have read recently announcing the end of calorie counting. According to some of them (and I’m sure you have probably seen at least one), we’ve had it all wrong, It’s not how much you are eating but what you are eating that is driving the nation’s weight gain.

Calories

You get the picture.

Headlines like this raise a lot of questions; what’s the truth about calorie counting? Have we really had it wrong all this time? Or, in our quest for a healthy lifestyle, does the ‘calories in calories out’ mantra still hold true?

Rather than jumping straight on my soap box and telling you what I think, I’ll try and be rational so you can make up your own mind (If you’re in a rush, then you can jump to my little soap box summary at the end….see you there!)

Ok. Let’s talk this through logically.

First off, a little factoid for you….

What is a Calorie?!

A Kilo Calorie (Kcal) is a measure of energy. Technically, it is defined as the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1Kg of water by 1 degree Celsius.  This is what is often stated on food labels and when measuring how much energy people need and burn. (If nothing else, hopefully this little fact will one day prove useful for you in the general knowledge round in your local pub quiz). We use calories to measure how much energy we take in and how much energy we expend.

When we measure energy balance in humans (and we have, in fair tests, LOTS of times), we KNOW that when people eat less energy than they burn, they lose weight.  We also know that when they eat more than they burn they gain weight.

So just to be clear:

The notion that you can lose weight WITHOUT eating less than you burn is nonsense.

One nil to the Calorie counting tribe. Put down that coffee we can all go home!

Ok, ok, there’s obviously a little bit more to this story than that, and if it were truly that simple why do so many people struggle to control their weight? Why the headlines? Is it really more about what we eat rather than how much?

It’s not an easy question to answer.

Eating behavior is a complex business.  Our food choices are affected by both our hormones (through hunger signals, feelings of pleasure etc) and our environment.  We know that people tend to eat more when there is more food available to them and when there is a large variety of food on offer (think of the buffet table!). The taste and texture of food also plays a part in how much we eat – You don’t need a Dietitian to tell you that it’s easier to overeat when you’re faced with a bag of Dorritos rather than a bag of apples (unless you don’t like Dorritos, in which case feel free to adapt that sentence and include your favorite processed, carb base, snack of choice).

Different foods and environments affect us in different ways and that may drive us to eat more despite our best intentions. Unfortunately Calorie counting doesn’t really help us with that.

The message is confused further as some articles which brand Calorie counts as a waste of time are often hinting at some (unwritten) bigger questions.

Namely:

  1. Whether the food we eat might exacerbate fatness in some people who are more susceptible to obesity (i.e. is obesity a disease caused by faulty hormone regulation and fat storage?)

Or,

  1. Should we all be following ‘insert name of current dietary fad here’ to cure the obesity epidemic? (These ones are easy to spot as they will usually be followed by an advert for the author’s current publication where you will find ALL the answers).

Both of these are huge questions (way too big to tackle in a single blog post) which we don’t have all the answers to just yet.

Calorie counting has also had a bad rap for its inaccuracies.  It’s not an exact science. We know this. That said, from my experience, you don’t really need a totally precise measure in real life.  You need to create a calorie deficit to lose weight and counting Calories can still provide you with a good estimate of your intake.  It’s more like a rough guide, which can be useful to give you an idea of how much you are eating, helping you stay on track.

And the people who claim to have lost weight without creating a Calorie deficit?

I’m afraid it’s just not true.

When people go on a diet, they are likely to eat less food, even if they don’t realize it.  Dietary restrictions often mean less variety and less variety means that people tend to eat less. This is particularly true when people cut out a whole food group, for example, carbohydrate.   The fact is, most people are rubbish at estimating and reporting their dietary intake.  Even dietitians! People who tell you they have lost weight without cutting calories, have cut their calories (or increased their energy expenditure). They just don’t know it.

Bottom Line

We know that simply telling people to eat less and exercise more doesn’t work. If weight management was just a case of knowledge and self control then I’m sure obesity wouldn’t have reached the epidemic proportions that it has. It’s a complex behavior driven problem and you can ask anyone working in health promotion, changing behavior is a tricky business.

However, in weight management, Calories DO count. If you eat fewer calories than you expend, you will lose weight. Lots of people find counting calories a great way to help them manage their intake.  It’s a tool, one of many that you can use, if you wish, to help you manage your weight.

Tip! If you want to try calorie counting, try out an online app like my Fitness Pal or My Diet Diary

Resources

  • Buchholz AC, Schoeller DA (2004) Is a calorie a calorie? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol 79(5):899S-906S
  • Schoeller DA (2009) The energy balance equation: looking back and looking forward are two very different views. Nutrition Reviews. 67(5):249-54
  • Schoeller DA, Buchholz AC (2005) Energetics of obesity and weight control: does diet composition matter? Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 105(5 Suppl 1):S24-8
  • Westerterp KR (2010) Physical activity, food intake, and body weight regulation: insights from doubly labeled water studies. Nutritional Reviews. 68(3):148-54
  • Tappy L (2004) Metabolic consequences of overfeeding in humans. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 7(6):623-8
  • Bray GA, Smith SR, de Jonge L, et al. (2012) Effect of dietary protein content on weight gain, energy expenditure, and body composition during overeating: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 4;307(1) 47-55
  • Horton TJ, Drougas H, Brachey A, Reed GW, Peters JC, Hill JO. (1995) Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: different effects on energy storage. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 62(1):19-29.
  • Cohen D.A. (2008) Obesity and the built environment: changes in environmental cues cause energy imbalances. International Journal of Obesity. 32 Suppl 7:S137-42
  • Hetherington M.M. (2007) Cues to overeat: psychological factors influencing overconsumption. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 66(1):113-23
  • Mela D.J. (2012) Determinants of food choice: Relationships with obesity and weight control. Obesity Research. 9(11): 249S-255S
  • Mela D.J. (2006) Eating for pleasure or just wanting to eat? Reconsidering sensory hedonic responses as a driver of obesity. Appetite. 47(1):10-7
  • Novotny J.A., Gebauer S.K., Baer D.J. (2012) Discrepancy between the Atwater factor predicted and empirically measured energy values of almonds in human diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 96(2):296-301
  • Zou M.L., Moughan P.J., Awati, A., Livesey, G. (2007) Accuracy of the Atwater factors and related food energy conversion factors with low-fat, high-fiber diets when energy intake is reduced spontaneously. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 86(6):1649-56
  • Raynor H.A., Epstien L.H. (2001) Dietary variety, energy regulation and obesity. Psychological Bulletin 127(3):325-41
  • Larson DE, Rising R, Ferraro RT, Ravussin E. (2005) Spontaneous overfeeding with a “cafeteria diet” in men: effects on 24-hour energy expenditure and substrate oxidation. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders. 19(5):331-7
  • Millen AE, Tooze JA, Subar AF, Kahle LL, Schatzkin A, Krebs-Smith SM. (2009) Differences between food group reports of low-energy reporters and non-low-energy reporters on a food frequency questionnaire. Journal of the American Dietetic Association.109(7):1194-203
  • Champagne CM, Bray GA, Kurtz AA, et al. (2002) Energy intake and energy expenditure: a controlled study comparing dietitians and non-dietitians. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 102(10):1428-32
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5 Responses

  1. Carole
    October 07, 2013 at 9:11 am

    At last – some sense!! Too many people misjudge the amount they eat. How many times do you hear people saying “I can’t lose weight but yet I hardly eat anything?!” Calorie counting app is a great eyeopener and highly recommended!!

    Great article, keep them coming

  2. Lindsay @ The Lean Green Bean
    October 11, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    loved this post :)

    • helen
      October 12, 2013 at 12:30 am

      Thanks Lindsay. I’m still trying to find my groove….this blogging malarkey is fun, but not easy! :)

  3. Bain
    July 18, 2014 at 6:19 am

    Yet some people who are eating fewer calories than they are burning still do not lose weight. Clearly there are other non-calorie-count issues at work. Is it the content of the calories? Is it a body’s reaction to near-starvation as a child? Is it one of the “non-caloric weight gain” reasons identified by the Institute for the Psychology of Eating?

    I agree this is a useful tool for some people. But it’s not the definitive answer for everyone.

    • helen
      July 18, 2014 at 8:42 am

      Hi! Yep, calories can be more tricky to implement where there are health issues such as severe eating disorders or starvation at play as fluid retention can complicate weight readings. I’d love to read that article from the Psychology of Eating if you have a link? Sounds interesting! Calorie counting isn’t for everyone and whether its appropriate or useful is really down to individual circumstance.

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