Why Counting Calories is Out
Don’t let the title fool you completely — cutting calories is still one of the most effective ways to lose weight. But the old notion that “a calorie is a calorie” and in order to lose weight we simply need to eat less and exercise more has some major flaws.
This oversimplified way of thinking about weight loss often fails, which many people with ongoing weight struggles discover. In fact, chronic dieting and calorie restriction can actually backfire because it slows down metabolism.
Here are a few reasons why calories are only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to weight loss.
A calorie is NOT just a calorie when it comes to losing weight
Foods have different metabolic effects on the body. For example, 100 grams of fructose is not equal to 100 grams of glucose in terms of what happens once they are ingested. Fructose is only processed in the liver while glucose can be utilized by all bodily tissues. Additionally, compared to glucose, high amounts of fructose are more likely to increase insulin resistance and levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol — that’s the “bad” cholesterol. Fructose is also more likely to cause you to feel hungrier sooner.
Another problem with the idea that all calories are created equal is demonstrated by the effectiveness of certain diets that focus on macronutrient ratios (how much fat, protein and carbohydrates are consumed). Low-carbohydrate diets have been shown in many randomized trials to result in weight loss without purposeful calorie restriction. This is evidence that certain foods and macronutrient ratios promote satiety and naturally curb over-eating without the need for counting calories or portion control.
Losing weight is influenced by your microbiome
Recent research has shown that body weight is influenced by the trillions of bacteria that reside in our digestive tract (mostly in the large intestine). The presence or absence of specific types of bacteria as well as a lack of microbial diversity in the gut is linked with obesity. This is likely due to the effects these bacteria have on the food we eat and the ability of certain strains to release or inhibit inflammatory messengers in the body.
Gut bacteria also produce chemicals that influence appetite-regulating hormones, such as leptin and ghrelin. The best way to support a healthy microbiome with diet is to minimize sugar and processed foods and focus instead on fiber-rich foods such as whole grains and vegetables, as well as on fermented foods — such as sauerkraut and yogurt — and those high in polyphenols — such as dark chocolate and green tea.
Non–food factors affect losing weight
Practicing daily stress reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga or spending time outdoors has numerous health benefits, but did you know it may help your waistline, too? Chronic stress leads to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to weight gain through its negative influence on insulin levels, food cravings and sleep. Additionally, lack of adequate sleep (7 or more hours per night) is a risk factor for obesity in and of itself. Sleep deprivation appears to increase sugar cravings and negatively influences leptin and ghrelin. It also lowers the ability to exert self-control over food choices and can lead to physical inactivity due to daytime fatigue.
There is no doubt that maintaining a healthy body weight is important to overall health due to a lowered risk of diabetes, heart disease, depression and certain cancers. However, we now know that achieving weight loss involves much more than calorie restriction. Success also largely depends what foods we eat, the timing of our meals, the health of our microbiome, the amount (and type) of exercise we engage in, how well we manage our stress and how much sleep we get. In stubborn cases, other factors such as an undiagnosed thyroid condition, food sensitivities or exposure to environmental toxins may be playing a role. Your medical doctor and a nutrition professional can help you explore these factors if you find that weight loss is difficult for you.