The Reason Counting Calories Doesn't Always Work for Weight Loss
New diet trends are rarely innovative. The latest fads appear different with their particular set of rules, banned foods, or daily carb allowance, but most diets use roughly the same mechanism: cutting calories.
People often lose weight on keto because they eat less food overall. Same goes for low-fat dieters. The latest health trend, Calories In, Calories Out (CICO), is actually just a new name for an old idea. The plan operates under the premise that you’ll drop pounds by consuming fewer calories than your body uses to perform its daily functions. It makes sense, right?
“The idea of calories in and calories out is absolutely the backbone of weight loss,” says Bethany Doerfler, MS, RDN, Clinical Dietitian at Northwestern University. “But metabolism and weight loss are so much more complex than that.”
Counting calories doesn’t always translate into long-term weight management. Even worse, the strategy could leave you feeling deprived and lead to disordered eating. Here’s what to consider before adopting the CICO approach.
Let’s start with the basics of calorie counting
Calories are units of energy–found in food–that fuel everyday activities. Breathing? Yup, that burns calories–as does eating and hitting the gym.
Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the amount of calories your body burns to stay alive. This figure is individual specific and determined by a number of factors including height, weight, and age. Online calculators offer an estimate, and some doctors use breathing machines that deliver more precise and customized BMRs.
Then, lifestyle factors like physical activity need to be accounted for since you’re probably not lying in bed all day. Again, online calculators and formulas offer rough estimates of how many calories your body uses.
Losing weight requires eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its activity level.
Not all calories are equal
It’s generally accepted that most diets work because of a calorie deficit, says Abby Langer, R.D.
“However, calories as we know them are so arbitrary,” she explains to Men’s Health. “The calorie was invented a really long time ago and isn’t necessarily accurate in terms of how our bodies metabolize each individual food.”
Research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that people absorb only about 75 percent of the calories found in almonds, according to a 2016 paper published in the journal Food & Function. (For what it’s worth, the study was funded by the Almond Board of California.)
“We’re learning so much more about how calories are absorbed,” says Langer.
Your body takes in more calories from food that’s been processed, or broken down from its natural form, she explains.
“So if you have a smoothie you’re going to absorb a significant portion of those calories compared to if you eat that food raw or cooked,” says Langer.
Emerging research shows our bodies handle ultra-processed items like chips or Twinkies differently than kale or bananas.
“Those [packaged snacks] are going to be viewed very differently on a cellular level,” says Doerfler.
The National Institute of Health found that ghrelin, a hormone that drives hunger, is higher when people consume ultra-processed foods compared to after eating a well-balanced diet, according to 2019 research published in Cell Metabolism.
Heavily-processed foods high in sugar, fat, and salt, may spike insulin levels and cause your body to store more fat, explains Doerfler.
Then, you have to consider the benefits of a fiber.
“Fiber-rich foods provide a certain level of satiety and fullness,” says Doerfler. The nutrient also promotes healthy gut bacteria, which scientists believe may determine a person’s weight.
Nutrition labels aren’t always accurate
Turn over a bag of Oreos and you’ll see that three cookies have 160 calories.
That might be true. Or, the cookies could contain as many as 192 calories per serving. That’s because the Food & Drug Administration allows discrepancies of up to 20 percent on nutrition labels.
A study of 24 snack foods found a four percent difference between the labeled and actual nutrition information, according to a 2014 paper published in Obesity.
Calorie counting can feel restrictive
Apps like MyFitnessPal are useful ways to monitor what you’re eating. People who spent just 15 minutes a day logging food lost about 10 percent of their body weight in one month, according to a February 2019 study published in the journal Obesity.
That said, counting calories can feel like a chore, lead to obsessive behavior, and even spark binge eating, says Langer.
“When you’re drilling everything down to numbers it takes away all the joy of food and disconnects us from nourishing our bodies,” she asserts. “This perpetuates diet culture by being punishing.”
Stressing over numbers can be a trigger to binge for people with eating disorders. If you have a history of disordered eating, consult a dietitian who can customize a plan that works for you.
And strict diets don’t take birthdays–or any other celebratory meal–into consideration.
“People are not quite so robotic,” says Doerfler. “Even if someone needs 1,200 calories a day to lose weight, most people are not adhering to that 100 percent of the time.”
But CICO can be a healthy way to lose weight–when done properly
Counting calories isn’t inherently problematic, says Doerfler. In fact, she believes Americans should identify weaknesses in their diets.
“I like that this diet has brought back to the forefront looking at calories and seeing where your high-calorie food comes from,” she says. “Almost all the time those calories come in the form of refined snack foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. The hope is that those calories would be used for smarter and healthier eating.”
Realizing that morning bagel with cream cheese tops more than 600 calories could inspire you to choose a satisfying meal that contains fewer calories, like oatmeal and peanut butter.
Ultimately, the best diet is one that doesn’t consume your every thought. Dieting becomes an issue when you refuse to eat even though you’re hungry, says Langer.
“If you have to pee you wouldn’t say, ‘No, I can’t pee for another three hours,'” she asserts.
Langer recommends listening to your body’s natural hunger cues and taking a more relaxed approach.
“Stop thinking of food as good or bad and just eat,” she says.
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