While many people make a New Year’s resolution to improve their health by eating less and counting calories, the actual science behind effective weight loss is far more complex.
We all have unique bodies with different metabolisms and individual needs. If losing weight and keeping it off were really as simple as counting calories, obesity wouldn’t be a global pandemic at the moment.
It’s not just about following a mathematical formula of: body weight equals calories in and calories out. Calories do count, but they are far from the whole picture.
The devil’s in the detail
Numerous studies show that diets based on the same amount of calories but differ in macronutrient composition – different proportions of fat, protein and carbohydrates – result in different degrees of weight loss success.
That’s because the calories-in-versus-calories-out energy balance theory of weight loss fails to consider the hormonal effect of the food we eat.
While counting the calories can initially help you to lose weight, the positive results eventually taper off, with most people regaining some or all of the weight they initially lost.
In fact, this calorie-counting approach can even cause weight gain, as severe restrictions cause levels of cortisol – a stress hormone – to rise. This can result in an increase in appetite and a hormonally-mediated propensity to store excess calories as fat, rather than metabolise them for energy or heat.
If tracking what you consume becomes a headache – do the following:
Instead of counting calories, eat smaller portions
Most people underestimate calories in large meals. Bigger portions have more calories and if we help ourselves to more we will eat more food.
Instead of counting calories, consider your macronutrient ratios and timing
When you eat your carbs can be just as important as the source. Try to limit your intake to before an after hard sessions or after long, easy sessions to keep your body in fat-burning state for the remainder of the day, without compromising your training intensity and performance.
Instead of counting calories, make sure you consume the right foods
Nutrient-dense sources of whole natural foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains are better than processed and manufactured sources that lack nutrients, like white bread, ice cream and soft drinks.
Additional tips that can help with serving up ideal-sized portions include:
- Use smaller dishes at meal times.
- Wait for 15 minutes before going back for a second helping to allow the hunger-satiety feedback loop to run its course.
- Don’t eat out of a bag or carton.
- Keep food out of reach outside of mealtimes to avoid mindless snacking.
- Beware of sugar-laden snacks such as crackers, cookies and pretzels. You end up eating more of these mini-sized snacks than you realise.
More than just the quantity of calories you consume, it’s the quality of those calories matter most in terms of keeping you healthy, losing weight and maintaining your results.
Foods that contain fibre, protein and fat gigest more slowly and will make you feel fuller for longer than processed carbohydrates. So, rather than becoming obsessed with calories, ditch the meal mathematics and rather focus on the quality of food you eat.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.