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Published: June 8, 2024

Has Counting Calories Failed You? Here’s What You Can Do Instead

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Obesity is a growing problem.

Obesity is a pressing problem for millions, and it’s getting worse. Findings from the New England Journal of Medicine suggest that, by 2030, nearly 1 in 2 American adults will have obesity. With obesity being a risk factor for many other chronic diseases and health problems, it is crucial for us to turn this around. So why haven’t we? Why do obesity rates keep increasing, even as our knowledge of nutrition expands? Why does maintaining a healthy BMI continue to be a problem for so many people? Let’s start by considering the weight loss advice that’s most commonly provided.

The calorie theory of obesity.

If you’ve made efforts to manage your weight, or know someone who has, you’re probably familiar with calorie-counting. Many diets, protocols, and programs emphasize the importance of tracking and consuming less calories when it comes to losing weight. The theory is that obesity is caused from eating too many calories, so, if we simply reduce calories, we will reverse obesity. As a result, the generic, outdated maxim we often hear is to “just eat less and exercise more,” but this has steered people wrong for decades. This was initially championed by the “Godfather of Modern Fitness,” Jack LaLanne, and the notion has led to a modern-day weight-loss industry that overemphasizes the calorie restriction model.

The calorie theory of obesity, and what it implies about losing weight, is misguiding millions. Calorie-counting simply does not work well as a sustainable weight loss strategy for many people. Those who have attempted calorie-counting for years often find themselves struggling to make progress. If they have made progress, they usually find it difficult to maintain, and it can come at the expense of their overall health and well-being. 

An oversimplified view. 

Why has something with so little success persisted for so long? The calorie restriction mode of weight loss is enticing due to its simplicity. It’s based on energy balance. A calorie is a unit of energy, so the idea is that, if you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. The energy balance equation illustrates that calorie intake minus calorie output equals a change in body fat. That’s it.

Using this model, if someone wants to lose weight, they would first turn to a formula that uses Basal Metabolic Rate and activity levels to determine daily caloric expenditure— how much energy is spent each day. Then they would set a daily calorie goal that’s less than their daily expenditure, thereby creating a calorie deficit. With that goal in mind, they would track everything they ate everyday — down to specific measurements — and typically use an app to calculate their daily calories consumed. The bigger the calorie deficit, the more weight will be lost, or so this theory suggests.

Understanding the human body.

The human body is more complex than simple addition and subtraction. It’s not as simple as a piggy bank with coins going in and out. There is more to the story of our physiology that calorie-counting misses. In fact, it misses the most important part of the story. This is why the most problematic part of calorie-counting is not what it claims, but what it ignores.

For one, it ignores the impact of calories and nutrition on our metabolism and hormones. This is because calorie restriction works against the body’s inherent motives. It denies the body, rather than supporting it. Most people who experience weight loss using this method gain it back, because calorie restriction decreases metabolism and increases hunger over time. With less energy coming in, the body eventually slows down its metabolism so that it expends less energy each day to adapt to the decreased caloric intake. It’s intelligent like that. At the same time, the body increases hunger hormones and decreases satiety hormones to strengthen the drive to eat— our appetite. In other words, the body puts the breaks on burning calories while encouraging you to consume more calories as a survival mechanism that takes place in a shortage of sustenance. The result, of course, is an unsustainable strategy that can impair health, quality of life, and, yes, even weight loss in the long term.

The case for quality over quantity.

These are just a couple of things that are not accounted for in the antiquated calorie-counting paradigm that has been failing people for decades. The other problem is the overwhelming focus on nutritional quantity, which disregards the most important factor of nutrition: quality.

Our bodies are composed of dynamic, adaptive, and interconnected systems. These systems are informed by what we eat.  Everything we consume contains instructions for the body to carry out. These instructions impact everything from cellular functions to metabolic pathways and hormonal responses. Every morsel of food contains a physiological blueprint.

So the whole “a calorie is a calorie” argument is undeniable, but it’s also irrelevant. It’s like saying oxygen is oxygen. It’s a fact, but it’s not helpful, because the response from your body depends on the nutritional content of what you’re eating, not just how many units of energy it contains.

Your body is going to respond to one hundred calories of broccoli very differently than to one hundred calories of pastry. Despite having the same number of calories, these foods have different instructions for the body. They will metabolize differently. For example, the pastry, as a processed carbohydrate, will increase blood sugar far more than the broccoli, and lead to a heightened insulin response that will instruct the body to store sugar, initiating a process by which body fat is accumulated. 

Hormones are usually at the root of weight loss difficulties. Insulin, the “storage hormone,” ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” leptin, the “satiety hormone,” and cortisol, the “stress hormone,” are critical factors in weight management and overall health. These hormones are all impacted by the quality of the food we are eating, along with other lifestyle factors that have nothing to do with caloric intake. These are what we refer to as primary foods.

When your body can trust you, you can trust your body. 

When you focus on the quality of nutrition you’re consuming- primarily meaning real, whole foods- your body’s hormonal response is well-regulated, hunger cues are controlled, and blood sugar is more stable. This is simply because you’re eating food that your body recognizes. These are foods that your body is well-equipped to digest. It knows what to do with them. Since these foods are nutrient-dense, you will naturally feel more satiated and the quantity of your food intake will adjust with little effort or willpower on your part. In other words, when you focus on quality, the quantity will take care of itself.

The Standard American Diet (SAD) contains processed foods that the body did not evolve to consume — usually packed with added sugar and refined carbohydrates. This way of eating causes blood sugar fluctuations, inflammatory responses, and hormonal imbalances that severely impact our health and make it extremely difficult to manage weight. This is leading to record numbers of obesity, insulin resistance, prediabetes, and type 2 diabetes in the United States, as well as in other countries introducing these processed foods at scale. All of these conditions are largely preventable, but they will continue to increase unless things change.

A focus on wellness.

The focus needs to be on health and wellness. Your body will respond to your lifestyle, so focus on living a life of complete nourishment for your mind, body, and soul— the rest will follow. It can backfire when we focus solely on weight loss methods, such as calorie restriction, without paying attention to our overall well-being. It’s not sustainable. It’s also a path that can negatively impact your mental health, quality of life, and relationship with food. Any progress that comes at the expense of your joy, fulfillment, and happiness is not really progress at all. Make sure you’re eating in a way that honors your bio-individuality and aligns with a lifestyle that allows you to feel your best.

Bio-individuality and the importance of primary foods — the things that nourish us that aren’t on our plates — are two of the key subjects we teach in our Health Coach Training Program curriculum. Along with our unparalleled nutrition education, this is the recipe for changing your life and helping others to do the same through a successful career as a Health Coach. 


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