Stop Counting Calories and the Calorie Myth
Stop Counting Calories! Why focusing on Food Quality is Key to a Healthy Weight
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In 1918, Lulu Hunt Peters, MD, wrote and published one of the first books on calorie counting. Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories was wildly popular and became the first weight loss book to reach international bestseller status. (1) It was also the first book to popularize calorie counting for weight loss.
In the book, Dr. Peters says that if you eat roughly 1,200 calories from any food group you desire, you’ll lose weight. With that, she started a trend that continues today. Namely, if you keep your daily calories within a mathematically calculated limit, you’ll drop those extra pounds. It doesn’t matter what types of foods you eat; the total calories consumed are all that matters.
All Calories are NOT Created Equal
We know now that all calories are not equal and that different types of food affect how the body processes calories. So, the biology of body fat and weight maintenance is too complex to be reduced to a simple mathematical formula.
The truth is your body automatically balances whatever quantity of calories we eat with whatever amount of calories we burn. Manually balancing calories fails 95% of the time long-term precisely because it tries to override basic biology. Yes, calories matter. But it’s not your job to balance them.
Factors Influencing How Your Body Processes Calories
Here are the three main factors influencing the way your body processes calories.
Your Gut Bacteria
Trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms reside in your gut. They make up your gut microbiome and have a LOT to do with nutrient and calorie absorption. And, incredibly, researchers have discovered a difference in the microbiomes of thin and obese individuals.
For example, Bacteroidetes and the Firmicute are the dominant types of beneficial bacteria in the human gut. But obesity appears to affect the balance of these two types of bacteria. Specifically, one study comparing the gut microbiota of obese and lean people revealed higher Firmicutes and lowered Bacteroidetes proportion in obesity” (2) and that levels of Bacteroidetes rise as body weight decreases. (3) Researchers theorize that this composition may affect the ease with which bacteria can break down and use calories from certain foods.
In addition, certain types of bacteria appear to have preferences for specific types of food. (4) This means that your cravings for certain foods may not be your own; instead, your gut bacteria may be to blame!
Your Set Point Weight
Once considered just a “theory,” set point weight is now well-established in animal and human research studies. We know now that the brain, hormones, and gut microbiome work together to keep you within range of your set point weight.
No matter how much or how little you eat or exercise, your body works to keep you within 10-15 pounds of your set point weight. So, if it seems like your body is fighting you for every pound you try to lose, it IS!
How does it do this? Well, if you go on a severe calorie-restricted diet, your body thinks you’re starving. So, it increases the hunger hormone ghrelin (5) and gradually decreases your resting metabolic rate. (6)
Resting metabolic rate (RMR) refers to those calories burned while at rest. Since it comprises 70% of your body’s daily energy expenditure, just a tiny drop in RMR can significantly slow your weight loss. But, unfortunately, it can also lead to significant weight gain after you start eating normally again.
The famed Minnesota starvation study clearly showed the set point’s adverse reaction toward semi-starvation dieting:
“The subjects lost 66% of their initial fat mass in response to 24 weeks of semi-starvation (i.e., at 50% reduced energy intake), but ad libitum re-feeding resulted in a regain of fat mass reaching 145% of the pre-starvation values (i.e., there was an overshooting of fat mass, known as the catch-up fat phenomenon)” (7)
Your Food Quality
Your diet also influences your body weight, but not in the way you might think. Research suggests that the number of calories you consume each day is not nearly as important as the quality of the calories.
Take the ongoing debate between a low-carb and a low-fat diet, for example. Which one is better? We’ve all heard stories about people who’ve lost a lot of weight on one of these diets, yet others didn’t do as well. Research suggests that the difference in these results may be due to the quality of the diet.
In 2018, Stanford University Researchers randomly assigned 609 participants to one of two dietary groups: low carb or low fat. Then, they tracked the progress of the individuals in each dietary group for 12 months. The results?
Individuals in both groups lost an average of 13 pounds. However, there was considerable weight loss variability among them. For example, some dropped 60+ pounds while others gained 15 or 20. The difference appeared to be the quality of the diet. (It is possible to choose to eat high- or low-quality foods on each diet.)
According to Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., professor of medicine and the lead author of the study:
“Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this study…is that the fundamental strategy for losing weight with either a low-fat or a low-carb approach is similar. Eat less sugar, less refined flour, and as many vegetables as possible. Go for whole foods, whether that is a wheatberry salad or grass-fed beef.” (8)
In other words, eating high-quality foods is better for weight loss.
Manage Your Weight With Quality Lifestyle Choices
The science is clear that the only way to obtain long-term weight loss is to lower your set point weight. You’ll then quickly and naturally lose weight. No struggle and no calorie counting required.
You can gradually lower your set point weight by making these quality lifestyle choices.
Focus on the Quality of the Foods You Eat
Try to cut back on eating processed foods, as research shows that they lead to higher calorie consumption and weight gain than those who ate minimally processed foods. (9) The reason? Heavily processed foods aren’t satiating, and they contain sugars and other ingredients that make us want to eat more.
Conversely, high-quality foods fill you up quickly and are highly satiating. So, though you’ll eat a LOT of food, you’ll probably consume fewer calories than if you ate low-quality processed and junk foods.
Quality choices: Throw out those heavily processed foods, sugars, and trans fats. Instead, fill your refrigerator and cupboards with whole foods. Nutrient-dense proteins. Non-starchy vegetables. Nuts. Seeds. Beans. Legumes. Low-sugar fruits. All are delicious set point-lowering choices.
Get Regular Exercise
Getting regular exercise is essential for your health and your weight.
As previously mentioned, calorie-restrictive dieting decreases the resting metabolic rate, slowing weight loss and leading to weight gain after the diet ends. But research suggests that exercise may be the solution.
Here is what a study published in Sports Medicine showed:
“Resting metabolic rate is depressed in previously sedentary obese individuals on a very low-calorie diet, but it quickly returns to the predieting level when exercise of sufficient frequency, intensity, and duration is undertaken while dieting. These findings suggest caloric intake and daily exercise can modulate resting metabolic rate. Exercise of adequate intensity and duration may also enhance resting metabolic rate.” (10)
Read that again. It suggests exercise may enhance your resting metabolic rate even if you haven’t been on a very low-calorie diet! But, of course, training must be of “adequate intensity and duration” for this to work.
What is the appropriate amount of intensity and duration of exercise for weight loss?
A small study of 30 men and women showed that their resting metabolic rates increased in just four weeks of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). (11) HIIT is a cardiovascular exercise alternating short bouts of intense anaerobic exercise with less intense exercise.
HIIT sessions typically last just 20 minutes or less, yet numerous research studies show that it is more effective at burning fat than steady-state cardiovascular exercise. (12)
Improve the Quality of Your Sleep
Getting an adequate amount of uninterrupted sleep is vital for weight management. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with weight gain.
There are several ways poor sleep can affect your weight. Research shows that lack of sleep can increase levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, potentially causing you to eat more food when you’re sleep-deprived than you would normally. (13)
Other studies suggest that getting an inadequate amount of sleep leads to increased consumption of unhealthy calorie-rich snacks. (14)
This suggests that you prioritize quality sleep if you want to manage your weight successfully—no more late-night work, TV watching, or browsing the internet. Instead, try to go to bed at the same time every night and arise at the same time every morning. Adhering to a set bedtime schedule trains your body to be ready for sleep as soon as your head hits the pillow.
But if you still struggle with poor-quality sleep, see your doctor for an evaluation.
Reduce Your Stress Levels
Chronic stress is also associated with weight gain, particularly in the abdomen. This is because chronic stress increases circulating cortisol levels, a factor linked to increased belly fat. (15)
Further, cortisol may trigger cravings for high-fat, sugary “comfort foods, and according to Harvard Medical School:
“Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress-related responses and emotions. These foods really are “comfort” foods in that they seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people’s stress-induced craving for those foods.” (16)
So, make a point of reducing stress whenever you can. Meditation. Breath-work. Yoga. Taking a brisk walk. All are great ways to relieve stress.
Be Kind to Yourself
In your journey to improve the quality of your lifestyle and manage your weight, you must be kind to yourself.
Eating a cookie, forgetting to workout, or falling into bed at 3 am are not signs that you’re a failure. Instead, they show that you’re human. So, give yourself a break and extend yourself the same loving kindness you show everyone else.
You’re worth it!
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1- Heffernan C. The History Of Calorie Counting. Inside Bodybuilding. May 13, 2021. Accessed Aug 31, 2021. https://insidebodybuilding.com/the-history-of-calorie-counting/
2- Tseng C, Wu C. The gut microbiome in obesity, Journal of the Formosan Medical Association, Volume 118, Supplement 1, 2019, Pages S3-S9, ISSN 0929-6646, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfma.2018.07.009.
3- Ley RE, Turnbaugh PJ, Klein S, Gordon JI. Microbial ecology: human gut microbes associated with obesity. Nature. 2006 Dec 21;444(7122):1022-3. doi: 10.1038/4441022a. PMID: 17183309.
4- Strait-Wustl J. Gut Bacteria Prefer to Chow Down on Certain Dietary Fibers. Futurity. Sept 20, 2019. Accessed Aug 31, 2021. https://www.futurity.org/gut-bacteria-dietary-fibers-2165472/
5- Cummings DE, Weigle DS, Frayo RS, Breen PA, Ma MK, Dellinger EP, Purnell JQ. Plasma Ghrelin Levels after Diet-Induced Weight Loss or Gastric Bypass Surgery. N Engl J Med 2002; 346:1623-1630. May 23, 2002. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa012908
6- Molé PA. Impact of energy intake and exercise on resting metabolic rate. Sports Med. 1990 Aug;10(2):72-87. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199010020-00002. PMID: 2204100.
7- Müller MJ, Bosy-Westphal A, Heymsfield SB. Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight?. F1000 Med Rep. 2010;2:59. Published 2010 Aug 9. doi:10.3410/M2-59
8- Armitage H. Low-fat or low-carb? It’s a draw, study finds. Stanford Medicine News Center. Feb 20, 2018. Accessed Aug 31, 2021. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2018/02/low-fat-or-low-carb-its-a-draw-study-finds.html
9- National Institute of Health. NIH study finds heavily processed foods cause overeating and weight gain. NIH News Release. May 16, 2019. Accessed Sep 1, 2021. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-study-finds-heavily-processed-foods-cause-overeating-weight-gain
10- Molé PA. Impact of energy intake and exercise on resting metabolic rate. Sports Med. 1990 Aug;10(2):72-87. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199010020-00002. PMID: 2204100.
11- Schubert MM, Clarke HE, Seay RF, Spain KK. Impact of 4 weeks of interval training on resting metabolic rate, fitness, and health-related outcomes. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2017 Oct;42(10):1073-1081. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2017-0268. Epub 2017 Jun 20. PMID: 28633001.
12- Tremblay A, Simoneau JA, Bouchard C. Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism. Metabolism. 1994 Jul;43(7):814-8. doi: 10.1016/0026-0495(94)90259-3. PMID: 8028502.
13- Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med. 2004; 1:e62.
14- Nedeltcheva AV, Kilkus JM, Imperial J, Kasza K, Schoeller DA, Penev PD. Sleep curtailment is accompanied by increased intake of calories from snacks. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jan;89(1):126-33. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.26574. Epub 2008 Dec 3. PMID: 19056602; PMCID: PMC2615460.
15- van der Valk ES, Savas M, van Rossum EFC. Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?. Curr Obes Rep. 2018;7(2):193-203. doi:10.1007/s13679-018-0306-y
16- Harvard Health Publishing. Why stress causes people to overeat.Harvard Medical School. Feb 15, 2021. Accessed Sep 2, 2021.