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.
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.
- 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?)
- 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.
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
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