Is counting calories the best way to lose weight?

Counting calories has been the main way to lose weight for decades. But many other factors regulate our weight, making the calorie model outdated.

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I was first introduced to counting calories at Weight Watchers when I was 7 years old.

I weighed 7 stone and my parents were advised to send me to Weight Watchers for Kids. I have been obsessed with counting calories ever since.

When I started studying nutrition, I couldn’t believe that calories actually weren’t a very helpful way of losing weight.  But the more I understood how the body works, the more it seemed such an outdated model.

However the calorie myth remains one of the most obsessive and long lasting beliefs around food and weight loss. 

The mantra that ‘a calorie is a calorie’, wherever it’s coming from, still gets churned out on a daily basis.

Yes a calorie equals 4184 Joules of energy. But what that means when a calorie enters your body is totally different.  

Is a 200 calorie Krispy Crème donut better for weight loss than a 400 calorie avocado? If you’re counting calories, the answer is YES. But we know that doesn’t make any sense.

While we can estimate the calorie content of a meal, working out what those calories do once they’re inside the body is much more complicated.

Why should we ditch counting calories for good?

  • Calories are most definitely not equal. Foods are complex mixtures of chemicals and nutrients. A simple banana has a mix of vitamins, minerals, sugars, enzymes and micronutrients. Fructose and glucose have the same number of calories, but have different effects on your hormones, metabolism and appetite. The ‘thermic effect’ of protein is higher than carbs and fat, meaning that you’ll extract fewer calories from it. And to complicate it further foods react differently when mixed together (the energy released from a cheese sandwich may be different to that released from the separate components!).
  • Biochemistry. Your body is not a calorie bank account. What you eat and then expend is not that simple. Your body is a complex machine that uses many different processes to regulate metabolism, fat storage and energy expenditure. Food goes through different metabolic pathways that impact how, what and when you eat, despite the calories a food contains. 
  • Basal metabolic rate – this is the rate at which your body uses up energy to stay alive (without any additional exercise). And it’s different for everyone, depending on fitness levels, muscle/fat ratio, age, genetics, daily activity levels, digestion, stress levels and more - so how can you impose a standard daily calorie intake for all?
  • Digestion – eating uses up energy, but the type of food you eat uses up different amounts. Protein for example takes more energy to digest than carbohydrates. Fibre slows everything down, and reduces calorie absorption, and our gut microbes have a huge role to play in breaking down foods and determining how many calories we end up taking from food. 
  • Absorption – the calories in a food are not always absorbed. For instance, the calories in sweetcorn may come straight out the other end, so they won’t count! If you lack certain enzymes, you won’t digest the food properly therefore won’t take in those calories. And as well as your gut microbes helping to absorb your nutrients, If you have any inflammation or underlying infections in your gut then that will also have an effect on how many calories you’re absorbing from your food.
  • Cooking and processing – your body will need to work harder to digest food that hasn’t been cooked or processed. So that means that calories from cooked and processed foods are more easily accessible. We are actually eating fewer calories than we used to on average, but our calories are coming from more processed foods which makes them more fattening.  This study compared eating two cheese sandwiches of exactly same calories, one was made with whole grains and cheddar cheese, the other from refined grains and processed cheese. Those who ate the whole grain unprocessed sandwich burned twice as many calories digesting it. 
  • Genetics – if two people ate the same food, they would not get the same number of calories from it. Our genes determine how well we digest and absorb foods, and therefore the extraction of calories from foods.
  • Satiety – if you eat your calories from foods that don’t fill you up for long, you’re going to eat more. There’s no doubt that despite fat being more ‘calorific’, eating more fat and protein make you feel fuller than eating carbohydrates. That’s because they take longer to digest and have less of an impact on your blood sugar. Add in the hunger hormone ghrelin (which is also affected by your sleep!) and the satiety hormone leptin (affected by how much fat you’re carrying) and counting calories starts getting very complex.
  • Blood Sugar Balance – the calories from refined carbohydrates will raise your blood sugar faster. This stimulates more insulin production. Insulin takes away that glucose and stores it as fat. If you eat more complex carbs with protein and healthy fats, your blood sugar will be more stable, you’ll produce less insulin and therefore store less fat. So the same number of calories work differently in different foods. 
  • Stress – the body has a survival mechanism, which is designed to adjust your metabolism and store fat - super useful in times of famine! When you reduce your calories, the body adjusts to ‘low power mode’ to conserve energy. You may well lose weight initially but when you start increasing the calories again, you usually find your body has adapted (slowed) your metabolism and the weight piles on again.
  • Timing – it’s not just what you’re eating, but when you eat your calories may have a bigger impact than we ever thought. Intermittent fasting has been proven to burn more fat whilst not slowing down your metabolism. 
  • Hormones – if you’re a woman, you’ll know how your hormones affect your appetite and ability to lose weight. Cortisol will not only kick in to adjust your metabolism, but it also likes to store fat around your middle (for emergencies!), which is very hard to shift however many calories you’re ingesting. Thyroid hormones are responsible for your metabolic rate too, so if your thyroid function isn’t optimal, your ability to burn calories for energy will be affected. Add in sex hormone fluctuations and counting calories get very complicated!

The Calorie Theory

Dieticians, doctors, slimming clubs and other health professionals have been blindly following the 'Calorie Theory' for decades. This theory assumes that any excess calories are turned into fat at the rate of 1lb for every excess 3,500 calories.

But there is no evidence that this is true. Leading obesity researcher Zoe Harcombe, author of The Obesity Epidemic has been searching high and low for where this theory came from. None of the health organisations she approached could provide anything to back this up!

In fact only one reference can be found for a study of 12 people who lost an average of 11 pounds on a 600 calorie per day deficit over a year, which is significantly lower than the 62.6 pounds they should have lost if the formula were correct.

'The laws of thermodynamics cannot be applied to a complex system such as the body as simply as they often are', Zoe says.

How to lose weight sensibly and sustainably

So if you’re trying to lose some weight, stop counting calories and focus more on these principles;

  1. Choose quality over quantity. Instead of the number of calories a food has, focus on the quality of the calories instead. Don’t consume easy calories, choose whole unprocessed foods that are nutrient dense.
  2. Get your macro’s right - increase protein, healthy fats and reduce carbs. This will help you get more nutrients, stay fuller so you eat less and ensure insulin is not getting the chance to constantly store fat.
  3. Try intermittent fasting to encourage fat burning and insulin sensitivity. An easy way to do this is Time Restricted Eating.
  4. Try to limit your snacking. This just encourages more insulin production and fat storing.
  5. Rebalance your hormones - get yourself tested so you know what your hormones are doing and where you need to focus.
  6. Look after your gut - slow down to eat, chew properly, increase the diversity of your diet, include pre and probiotics, and make sure you're fully hydrated.
  7. Manage your stress - balance your cortisol by prioritising your self care. This will encourage your body to relax and let go of stored fat.
  8. Prioritise your sleep - lack of sleep can lead to increased hunger hormones (ghrelin) and more cravings.
  9. Move smarter exercise to balance your hormones, focus on moving more (and sitting less) during your day.
  10. Listen to your body - there is no one size fits all diet. Work out what’s best for you!

I don’t know about you, but I for one am SO glad I don’t have to ever worry about counting calories again. I’ve had a life time of it!

Let me know if you need help with your health or hormones this year.

Nicki Williams

Hormone Nutritionist, speaker & author - helping women to rebalance their hormones, reclaim their health and feel better than ever, www.happyhormonesforlife.com

After failing to find any medical help for her symptoms of exhaustion, weight gain & hormone issues in her early 40’s, Nicki discovered that she could turn things around using diet, lifestyle and natural supplements. She is now an award-winning nutritionist, author, speaker and founder of Happy Hormones For Life, helping women all over the world with her hormone and health testing, online programmes, workshops & individual & group coaching.