As we run to enjoy the fleeting summer sun, many of us will also be looking to drop those pesky pounds we gained during the lockdown.
And after we’ve been told for years that the secret is to eat less and move more, counting calories may seem like the only way to lose weight.
However, keeping an eye on supermarket food labels isn’t always the simple solution it seems.
In fact, keeping an eye on calories can be detrimental to your health, causing eating disorders and conditioning your body to adapt to an unsustainable diet plan.
Also, you can’t always take what’s on nutrition labels as gospel, or just assume that all calorie foods are created equally.
Here, Tamara Willner, a nutritionist with the government-backed Second Nature healthy eating plan, explains why counting calories often doesn’t lead to sustainable weight loss, and why eating more might be even better for our waistlines.
Keeping an account can trigger eating disorders
When counting calories, you need to carefully consider each food you eat.
Those who have been counting calories for years will probably notice that this is the first thing they see when looking at food: “a banana, that’s about 100 calories.”
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Sustained calorie counting has the potential to trigger or exacerbate eating disorders.
Some evidence suggests that over time, more than one in three dieters develop disordered eating habits, and some go on to develop clinically diagnosed eating disorders.
For example, science suggests that it can actually lead to binge eating.
After overthinking our meals and foods and restricting ourselves, we are more likely to overeat in response to emotions.
This can turn into a dangerous and unhealthy cycle of restriction, bingeing, followed by further restriction, preventing us from losing weight and even causing us to gain weight in the long term.
While displaying these behaviors occasionally is not classified as an eating disorder, they can develop into clinically diagnosed binge eating disorder (BED) if left unchecked.
In addition to this, calorie counting promotes food labeling, particularly with words like “good,” “bad,” “sweet,” or “sin.” Giving moral value to food is unhealthy behavior.
All foods provide different benefits and there are some that we should try to eat more regularly and some that we should enjoy from time to time.
Neither is inherently “good” or “bad,” and using this terminology creates an unhealthy relationship with food, further promoting a binge-eating mentality.
Some high-calorie foods help you sleep and keep you full
Aside from the psychological effect that calorie counting can promote, all calories are supposed to be digested in the same way and have similar effects on our body. This is not the case.
Not all calories are the same and should not be viewed as equal energy sources.
To illustrate this, consider 500 calories from candy and cookies and 500 calories from chicken and avocado.
Despite the same number of calories, we would get a lot more vitamins, minerals, and fiber from chicken and avocado.
Getting enough varied vitamins and minerals in our diet contributes to good sleep, which has direct and indirect effects on our weight.
Plus, the higher amount of protein and fat would keep us fuller longer and reduce our cravings later in the day.
If we experience fewer cravings and feelings of hunger over time, we are much more likely to lose weight and not regain it.
Don’t take food labels as a gospel
In addition to the fact that not all calories provide us with the same benefits, they are not digested in the same way in our body either.
Recent research suggests that the number of calories labeled in walnuts, for example, is not actually the number of calories we take in from eating them.
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Walnuts are ‘high’ in calories as they contain relatively large amounts of fat, but when you eat whole walnuts, some of the fat is protected by tough structures (plant cell walls) that our bodies cannot break down.
One study suggested that we may actually be eating 32 percent fewer calories than those listed on package labels (although this varies from person to person).
On the contrary, if we were to eat a refined donut, the calories from fat would be accessible to our digestive system.
Treating all calories as equal also does not take into account the long-term effects on our bodies.
Eating too many refined carbohydrates, like donuts or white bread, for example, can lead to high blood sugar levels and promote fat storage.
In the short term, spikes in blood sugar can leave you feeling low on energy and increase your cravings for sugary foods.
In the long term, consistently high blood sugar levels can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Try a low carb diet for sustained success
We are all unique, physically and psychologically, so counting calories can work for some people.
For example, a large ongoing study showed that placing people on a very low calorie diet for a time and then slowly reintroducing a healthy, balanced diet led to significant weight loss and remission of type 2 diabetes.
It’s not that energy balance isn’t important, what’s more, there are much healthier and more sustainable ways to lose weight.
In addition, the people in the above study are supervised by a doctor and have expert advice at their fingertips.
Many of us who count calories end up achieving a calorie deficit (consuming fewer calories than we expend) and losing weight in the short term, but then our metabolism and hormones adjust to this ‘new normal’, promoting fat gain and increased appetite
Evidence suggests that a low-carb diet is an extremely effective weight loss alternative for those of us who live in the real world.
Since a low-carb diet is naturally higher in protein and fat, it won’t leave you hungry, which means you’re more likely to stick with your healthy eating plan in the long term.
In addition, there are other factors besides our diet that are necessary to see long-term results, which the calorie count does not consider. These include our sleep, stress, mindfulness habits, and motivation.
How to break the habit of counting calories
For many of us, the calorie counting behavior is ingrained in our daily lives and can be a difficult habit to break. Here are five steps to practice repeating and jumping to the loop:
Eliminate anything that promotes calorie counting.
Eliminate or discard calorie counting apps or calorie log books. This removes triggers from our environment that could promote the behavior.
Make sure you eat enough
That is not a typo! Ensuring we eat three balanced meals a day that keep us satisfied longer lowers our chances of having cravings and binge-eating episodes later in the day.
Separate the moral value of food
List some foods that you consider “bad” based on calories. Next to each one, write the benefits of the food, which could be “it keeps me full” or “it tastes delicious.” So whenever you find yourself saying these foods are “bad,” check out this list.
Practice mindful eating
Try to eat meals and snacks without distraction (that is, not in front of the TV). Focus on the look, smell, taste, and texture of your food while you enjoy it. Slow down your eating and try to listen to your internal hunger / satiety signals.
Be kind to yourself
It is a challenge to get rid of the unhealthy habits that we have been practicing for years or even decades. It takes time and perseverance. Be kind to yourself if it doesn’t happen right away.
If you feel like you’ve developed disordered eating behaviors from calorie counting and are having a hard time stopping, see your doctor for medical advice and support.
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