Why counting calories may not be the best way to lose weight

For decades, people have been using diets based on a calorie deficit or eating fewer calories to reduce the fat stored in their bodies and get healthier. This approach is now understood to be a short-term and ineffective way of changing your body and can have negative long-term consequences.


The evidence is in

Research has shown that people who go through repeated cycles of weight loss and regain are likelier to weigh more than others who don’t use restrictive diets. The term yo-yo dieting refers to this pattern of weight-loss followed by regaining, which can, unfortunately, be more than the amount lost in the first instance.

It is often true that reducing the number of calories a person eats can initially result in a more dramatic loss than other approaches. The types of foods reduced often don’t factor as much as the number of calories consumed, leading people to think that they can eat whatever foods they want as long as they restrict the total calories. However, these dieters generally regain weight when they return to eating the amount they want without restriction, frequently becoming heavier than they were initially.

Many people believe you can use exercise alone to remove fat from your body and even spot and remove fat by doing specific exercises without changing your eating habits. Accumulating research shows that exercise alone without dietary changes is unlikely to have lasting results and can increase body weight in the long term.

It is now apparent that the concept of 'calories in and calories out' is misleading as the human body is so much more complex than that, and everybody’s body is different. The idea of calories is also tricky as the amount of energy extracted from a portion of food depends on several factors such as how processed it is, what it is eaten with when it is consumed, and how that individual’s body manages fats, carbohydrates and proteins.

The food matrix 

Cooking food breaks down the structure or ‘'food matrix', making the energy in it more accessible for our body to absorb, so a cooked piece of celery can have six times the amount of the equivalent raw celery. Ground nuts can often provide many more calories than nuts eaten whole. Grinding whole nuts breaks open all the tiny fat cells in the structure of the nut making the fats easy to access and digest in the gut, absorbing more calories.

Calorie absorption

Each person’s ability to absorb nutrients is also markedly distinctive, meaning that someone with poor digestion may not be absorbing many calories from their food. Some people are estimated to absorb as much as 50% more energy from the same food as others. Although they consume the same food, they will find it easier to gain weight and more challenging to lose it.

We are all different

People are all different, and our genes, environment, experiences, health history, diet, nutrient status, lifestyle habits throughout our lives, and current age influence how we burn or store energy. Some trends occur at different life stages that may be relevant, for example, losing muscle mass and becoming less sensitive to insulin as we age. However, there will be some people who are more or less inclined to follow these trends and working with a qualified nutritional therapist can decipher whether there may be other aspects of overall health to consider alongside these, such as thyroid function, insulin resistance or nutrient depletions.

Eating more nutrient-dense foods can help people to feel more energised, helping to lift mood and increase movement and motivation to improve health.

Fat doesn’t make you fat

The low-fat diet was a dominant public health message for several decades and is still engrained in many people’s minds who find it difficult to see food in an alternative way. It makes sense, right? Eating fat will make you fat. However, this isn’t how the human body works, and low-fat diets have been shown in research to be less effective than low-carbohydrate and high-protein diets.

Several nutrients essential for human health are fat soluble, meaning they are absorbed into the body with fat, including vitamin A, vitamin E, and vitamin D. A reduced intake of these vitamins can impact other nutrient pathways; for example, calcium absorption and metabolism are dependent on adequate vitamin D which many people living in the northern hemisphere will find difficult to produce from sunlight exposure alone. Eating a very low-fat diet, avoiding full-fat dairy, oily fish and eggs can restrict dietary intake leading to a reduced ability to absorb and utilise calcium.

Fats are an essential part of the diet contributing to multiple aspects of health, including hormonal, cellular, skin, joint and bone health, mental health and cognition, and inflammation. Eating healthy fats can also slow the rate at which carbohydrates are absorbed into the blood, preventing glucose spikes, which helps the body manage glucose more efficiently and maintain sensitivity to insulin.

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid not made within the body that must come from food and has a critical role in multiple areas, including reducing inflammation and the immune system. The richest source of Omega-3 is oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, salmon and herring. Other good sources are flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds, grass-fed beef, eggs and soya beans. Healthy fats should be included as part of a balanced diet, and avoiding all fats can have adverse effects on health.

What is the alternative? 

So, what can you do instead to lose or manage your weight and prevent weight gain? Many professionals working in nutrition are now encouraging their clients to focus on the number of nutrients in food rather than the number of calories. Nutrient-dense foods tend to be lower in calories and higher in the nutrients needed to utilise and metabolise food. This approach often increases fibre intake, helping people feel fuller for longer and improving gut health, assisting the body to digest and absorb food effectively.

Balancing the macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein, and fats can stimulate processes in the body, including switching off hunger hormones, encouraging the body to burn rather than store energy. Therefore, understanding how to manage the appropriate portions of different foods whilst considering age, health status, and activity level can put the client in charge of their own choices rather than following a prescriptive diet that can make everyday life difficult.

A calorie-controlled diet means restricting food intake every day, resulting in a disordered and chaotic eating pattern with little understanding of how the body processes food and what the body needs to function optimally.

Moving away from restrictions and 'diet' foods that contain artificial additives and lack beneficial nutrients and adding nourishing foods can be a more enjoyable approach to weight management. The more nourishment you add, the less space you’ll have on your plate for the foods lacking in nutrients. Eating more nutrient-dense foods can help people to feel more energised, helping to lift mood and increase movement and motivation to improve health.

Nutritional therapists have an in-depth understanding of the complexities involved in energy metabolism and body composition. If you’d like to speak to me about how I could help you to balance your diet, whether to improve your overall health or to switch from calorie counting to nutrient counting, please get in touch.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Halesworth IP19 & Beccles NR34
Written by Rebecca Leonard, BSc Hons, BA Hons, NTPDip, mBANT, mCNHC
Halesworth IP19 & Beccles NR34

I offer one-to-one nutritional therapy consultations helping people to improve their health and find ways in which they can manage specific health conditions. Some of the health conditions that can be supported with nutrition and lifestyle changes include gut health issues, immune issues, thyroid conditions and hormonal imbalances. 

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