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Calorie Counting Isn’t The Best For Weight Loss: Here’s What You Can Do Instead

The widely accepted notion that eating fewer calories will lead to weight loss has its drawbacks.

By Nandita Iyer
New Update
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Counting calories has always been a big part of diet culture. Often celebrities or Instagram famous influencers speak about extreme calorie deficit diets that have helped them lose weight. 

The term ‘calorie’ is often employed as a measure or a means of simplifying the understanding of a vast array of foods, nutrition levels and diets. The word is often used as a marketing tactic as well – with labels claiming a food item to be ‘low calorie’ or ‘zero calorie’. 

But can only counting calories or going on extreme calorie deficit diets help in weight loss? Or is it a potentially deceptive scheme?

Calorie Maths

At its core, a calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. Calories serve as a means to estimate the energy content of the diverse foods we consume, spanning cooked and raw items, plant-based proteins, carbohydrates and fats.

To understand how calories work, it's essential to understand some key terms like Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which represents the calories used by the body at rest for vital bodily functions, and thermic effect of food (TEF), which is the energy your body needs to digest and metabolise food.  Almost 75% of the daily calories we consume are dedicated to sustaining life through organ function, temperature regulation, respiration, circulation, brain function and more. Over and above the BMR and TEF, calories are used up in physical activity like body movements through the day and exercise. 

When we combine all these three expenditures (BMR + TEF + physical activity), we arrive at total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which in effect is the calories needed to maintain our current weight. 

Physical activity contributes only about 15-30% of the TDEE, depending on how sedentary or active you are and TEF is around 10% of TDEE.

The Calorie Counting Conundrum

The widely accepted notion is that consuming fewer calories than TDEE should lead to weight loss. However, this approach has its drawbacks and challenges, which is why more experts are challenging the long standing calories in-calories out theory when it comes to losing weight. 

  1. Accurately estimating calories is a significant challenge. Packaged foods, even with nutrition labels, may have up to a 20% discrepancy. Moreover, the body may not absorb all the calories from whole foods such as nuts, seeds and  vegetables, leading to potential inaccuracies. 

  2. Cultural and individual variations lead us to vastly underestimate the calories in foods such as thalis or mixed meals, especially when relying on apps. No two people use the exact same quantity of oil, cream or any other ingredients which add up to the calorie count of a dish. An Indian vegetarian thali with rice, roti, curries, dal and papad can clock up to 1500 calories, which in our understanding is a healthy balanced meal. 

  3. All calories are not the same. A 100 calories from a sugar-laden cola is not the same as 100 calories from a fruit which comes with fibre, micronutrients, natural sugar and a sense of satiety. An avocado has more calories than a cup of bhel puri, but that does not make it worse for health.  

  4. Calorie counting is not sustainable. Calorie restriction is often viewed as a short-term solution, and the weight lost during such periods is frequently regained.

  5. Daily calorie expenditure or TDEE is not a static number. It fluctuates with factors like sleep, stress, and menstrual cycles. 

  6. Reduced calorie in the long run leads to a slower metabolism as the body adapts to conserve energy. It’s how we start spending less money if our income goes down. The body’s goal is to survive despite all odds, and it senses a starvation situation when we eat too few calories.

  7. Counting calories over time leads to dysfunctional eating as we start to focus on numbers rather than eating foods that are better for us. We also lose connect with our hunger and fullness cues relying on calculators alone to tell us what and how much to eat. 

  8. Lastly, trying to outsmart your body to lose weight by counting calories and eating less is fighting a losing battle. The less you eat, your body will match your efforts by cutting down the BMR, so you will actually end up burning less calories at rest that you were before you started eating less. 

What Can We Do Instead? 

  1. Focus on eating wholesome meals made using protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates. It is nearly impossible to overeat this combination of homemade food. 

  2. Take extra effort to consume enough protein which is a minimum of 1-1.5g of protein per body weight. A diet rich in protein helps by increasing the feeling of satiety, preserving lean muscle mass, increasing calorie burning (TEF), better blood sugar control and fewer insulin spikes (insulin promotes fat storage) and reducing the craving for sugary foods.

  3. Eating enough fibre in the diet makes sure that you are keeping your gut microbiome diverse and active. A tip to achieve extra fibre in the diet is to add a cup of non-starchy veggies to each meal which adds fibre, micronutrients and bulk to your meals.

  4. Follow methods like intuitive eating where you recognise your body’s hunger and fullness cues and promote a long-term healthier relationship with food.

  5. There are considerations beyond calories and food. Factors like getting sufficient sleep, avoiding extreme cardio (makes you hungrier, leads to loss of muscle mass), and managing stress play crucial roles in weight management. Depriving oneself and engaging in yo-yo dieting can be counterproductive.

  6. You don’t need calorie counting to tell you that restaurant or takeaway meals are roughly 2-3 times calorie dense as  home food so eating out regularly is the surest way to gain weight. Try and eat maximum home cooked meals and make eating out as an occasional indulgence.  

Overall, shifting the emphasis from numerical tracking to mindful eating, nutritional awareness, and a holistic approach to health may be a better idea. Understanding that weight management involves a combination of factors beyond calories provides a more comprehensive and sustainable perspective on achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

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