Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Work

We’ve all heard that the key to losing weight is to simply burn more calories than you take in. Calories in < Calories out. Part of this thinking is that consumed calories, regardless of their sources are equivalent; i.e., a calorie is a calorie. Historically, calorie-focused thinking has been biased against high-fat foods, many of which may be beneficial against obesity and related diseases, and in favor of starchy and sugary replacements, which are likely leading to obesity and chronic disease.

Many (most) of the “diets” and public health initiatives are based around tracking your calories. This is simply not a healthy way to live, much less lose weight. These programs treat calories like units of body weight and units of body weight like a reflection of health. So if you are overweight, simply consume fewer calories than you burn and you will achieve healthier weights and better health. Wrong.

Although such logic might make sense on the surface, reality is not quite so simple and existing evidence challenges calorie-focused weight loss plans. A plan focused more on food quality, rather than caloric quantity, may help better explain and better address the growing problems of excess weight, or more precisely excess fat and related conditions that come along with it.

By this logic, a calories worth of salmon, olive oil, white rice or vodka would each be equivalent and each expected to have the same implications for body weight and health. But a calories worth of salmon (largely protein) and a calories worth of olive oil (purely fat) have very different biological effects from a calories worth of white rice (refined carbohydrate) or a calories worth of vodka (mostly alcohol) particularly with regard to body weight/body fatness.

Some calories introduce metabolic pathways and hormones that squelch appetite and promote energy use, others stimulate pathways that promote hunger and energy storage. Even controlling for total calorie intake and energy expenditure from physical activity (calorie in / calorie out), differences in calories have different implications for obesity. A calories worth of one food is not the same a calories worth of another.

The following list was taken from a University of Cambridge commentary on Public Health Nutrition.

Here are some common notions from a calorie-focused logic:

  • A calorie is a calorie
  • Eating less and moving more to achieve calorie deficit will produce weight loss
  • Consuming more calories than expended causes obesity
  • High-calorie foods/diets (i.e. high-fat foods/diets) are undesirable
  • Low-calorie foods/diets (i.e. low-fat foods/diets) are desirable
  • Low-fat foods without empty calories are best

What science and real-life tests show:

  • Calories from protein, fat, carbohydrate and alcohol each stimulate different physiological pathways and have different metabolic effects
  • Trying to under consume calories (without paying attention to qualitative differences in calorie sources) will result in hunger and fatigue, generally with little weight/fat loss in the short term and rebound weight gain in the long term
  • Energy consumption and expenditure are dependently linked; consuming more calories than needed results in energy expenditure (e.g. reduced metabolic efficiency) and/or reduced appetite and subsequent intake. If calories are consumed in excess of calories expended in some kind of sustained way, then such imbalance is the result not the cause of developing obesity (and of the hormonal changes that underlie it)
  • Many foods that are higher in fat may protect against obesity, lead to favorable metabolic indicators and help protect against chronic diseases and early mortality.
  • Low-fat foods and diets are often high in the most rapidly absorbable sugars and starches, which may be distinctly detrimental for obesity and related diseases
  • Even for foods that have vitamins, minerals, fiber, and various other constituents believed to be healthy, if they are concentrated sources of rapidly absorbable sugars and starches, they are likely to cause metabolic dysfunction and harm

I recognize that there has been some progress in shifting dietary focus toward actual foods, there is still too much focus on eating “too much”.  Focusing on the calories available from specific foods fails to recognize the metabolic effects of foods themselves. Foods that are highly processed and made up of mostly sugars and starches should not be part of any normal diet. Such carbohydrates may induce hormonal changes that might, in turn, help produce overeating and inactivity.

So unhealthy foods may be the double-whammy. Those who consume them might not only become obese by eating them but also see an increased appetite and lack of motivation as a result.

We should be improving the quality of the foods available that provide our calories. We should be promoting foods that do not prompt, or even program us to overeat. Working towards improving the quality of foods that are produced and working to support the consumption of whole/minimally processed products will change the current trend of overweight people in the world.

If nothing else, it would be nice if calorie tracking programs like Weight Watchers and public health initiatives did not continue to promote messages that create and blame victims. Not only are they making people feel like they are failing, they are keeping people sick.

I'll say it again. Eat whole foods in their most natural form and your weight and health with normalize and you will feel amazing as the result!

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Wishing you optimal health and peak performance,

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