April 24, 2019

Our mothers did it, and likely we all did it. Just about every woman carrying even a small amount of extra weight has done it.

Count calories.

It’s a monumental waste of effort and opportunity. At Healthy Inspirations, we focus on food, not calories. Let us explain why.

Counting calories started with the simple premise that if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. That’s definitely true, but using just those two parameters – eat less and exercise more – fails to recognise that the human body is a lot more complicated than the calorie version of a bank account.

Energy balance

We all need a certain amount of energy to move and to survive. We get this energy from food, or from energy stored in our muscle and fat cells. It’s true that if we balance input with expenditure, our weight remains stable. The problem is that not all input or all expenditure is the result of what we eat or the exercise we do. The human body is far more complex than that!

Even if we balance energy and maintain stable weight, it’s important to recognise that energy balance determines body weight, but not body composition. Consider two women standing on the scales. Both are 170cm tall, and both weigh 70 kilos. One wears a size 10 while the other wears a size 16 – of the same brand. What’s going on?

Their body compositions are different. One is strong and athletic, with firm muscles and low body fat. The other is weak and inactive with high body fat.  Their different body compositions are influenced by age and sex hormones, protein intake, exercise style/frequency/intensity, medication use, genetic predisposition, sleep and more.

Calorie Intake

Back to calories. Simply counting them is not as accurate as most people think. Relying on counting calorie intake is an unreliable way to determine what happens in your body. There are many influences that have little to do with a simple maths equation.

  1. Inaccurate. The calories in any food are an estimate and based on averages. The true calorie count could be 10% – 50% different to what’s stated on the label, in a calorie database, or on your fitness tracker.
  2. Absorption.
    • The calories in some foods are almost completely absorbed, while in other foods a significant proportion passes through the body.
    • Your gut bacteria can affect the absorption rate of calories.
    • Your macronutrient intake, age, and health status also play a role.
  3. Preparation. Cooking, chopping or blending food increases the calories absorbed.
  4. Appetite. Hormones control hunger, satiety and appetite.
  5. Food choices. The foods you choose are influenced by availability and palatability, the energy density and nutrition density of the food, and your sleep quality, education, culture, and socioeconomic status.
  6. Psychological factors. Your stress, mindset, perceived control, self-esteem, and sleep quality are all important factors influencing your calorie intake.

Calorie Expenditure

Mostly, we think about exercise but what most people don’t realise is that a one hour walk or jog uses only 100-200 calories. Your resting metabolic rate is the biggest calorie-burner – in a 24-hour period around 10 times that of the walk or jog.

There are other factors, too, that affect your calorie-burn:

  1. Specific genes. Some people are designed to burn more calories than others. Epigenetics, or how your genes express themselves, also plays a role.
  2. Sleep deprivation. Even just one night of poor sleep reduces the number of calories you’ll burn.
  3. Brown fat. Those with more brown fat burn more calories. Brown fat contains more mitochondria (the power generators that convert nutrients to fuel) than white fat, and is switched on when you get cold and when you exercise.
  4. BMR. Your Basal Metabolic Rate, or the energy burned at rest, depends on the combination of body size, hormonal status, dieting history, genetic factors, health status, sleep quality, and age.
  5. Exercise. It’s not the same for everyone, and depends on exercise ability, intensity, duration, frequency, type, environment, hormonal status, sleep quality.
  6. Non-exercise activity. This is influenced by your health status, energy status, stress levels, hormonal status, occupation, leisure activities, and genetic factors.
  7. Digestion. The thermic effect of food, or the calories expended simply metabolising food, is influenced by your food’s macronutrient make-up and by food processing.
  8. Under- or over-eating. When you under-eat, your metabolism slows and you burn fewer calories. When you over-eat, your metabolism increases and you burn more calories.

So, it’s complicated!

Overweight and obesity are complex issues, and in turn they require a solution that acknowledges, and develops strategies for dealing with, the complexities.

If you’re counting calories, Stop! The calories are factored in by our dietitian so that you don’t need to count. We’ll guide you through developing an eating and exercise plan that suits your tastes, lifestyle, exercise preferences, cultural influences and, most importantly, your body’s responses.

Eating real food, moving, and never being hungry sounds a lot more appealing than counting, and it’s more effective, too.