Everyone knows how to lose weight, right? You eat fewer calories than you burn until you reach your goal weight. According to a recent survey by the International Food Information Council, old-fashioned calorie counting has supplanted all other weight loss diets in 2020.
Few people question the “calories in vs. calories out” diet dogma. It is the basic strategy that underlies even the latest, technology-driven weight loss programs. But while calorie counting is based on fundamental biological truths, it greatly simplifies the complex mechanisms that determine human body weight, according to both research and registered nutritionists. Take a closer look to see if calorie counting really works for permanent weight loss and if it is the right approach for you.
What is a calorie
According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), a calorie is an exact unit of energy; More specifically, it is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram (g) of water by 1 degree Celsius. The “calories” in food are actually kilocalories, or 1,000 of those tiny units. Fats are the highest calorie foods we eat, at around 9 kilocalories (kcal) per gram. Carbohydrates and protein are each around 4 kcal per gram. At the most basic level, eating fewer calories than you burn results in weight loss.
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What is a calorie deficit?
“Calorie deficit” is a term you hear a lot every time you talk about weight loss. This is just another way of saying that you are burning more calories than you need to be to maintain your current body weight. “But remember, it’s nearly impossible to know exactly how many calories someone needs,” says Simone Wilson, RD, a registered nutritionist and owner of Simone Theresa Nutrition in Philadelphia. It depends on variables like gender, age, activity level, and weight. “Whatever equation you use to estimate this, it is just that – a rough estimate.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a deficit of 500 calories per day for weight loss. Over a week, that adds up to 3,500 calories, the amount long believed to be equal to 1 pound (lb) of fat (although this math has been increasingly questioned). The CDC recommends that you create a deficit through a mix of more activity like walking and eating swaps like drinking sparkling water instead of ginger ale.
Does Calorie Counting Work?
The thing is, calorie counting doesn’t take into account the fact that calories are not interchangeable. The quality of the calories you eat is just as important, if not more, than the quantity.
If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you know firsthand that creating (and staying) a calorie deficit is harder than it seems. “Counting calories can result in snacks that meet your calorie goal but make you hungry soon after,” said Samantha Cassetty, RD, a registered in-house nutritionist and former nutrition director for Good Housekeeping.
“If you look at 500 calories of chocolate cake, it won’t have the same effect on your body and your feelings as if you eat a balanced meal that contains different food groups [and the same number of calories]”Says Wilson. A brown rice and broccoli chicken breast may have the same amount of calories as a piece of cake, but the chicken will keep you full and energetic for hours because your body digests things like protein and fiber more slowly, while the sugar in the cake can cause blood sugar to fluctuate (Sugars) that cause hunger, she says.
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What is metabolism and why is it important?
One factor over which a dieter has little control is how many calories their body burns at rest. Informally, this is known as your metabolism. And when it comes to calorie restriction, the news on metabolism isn’t good: research shows that calorie restriction can cause your body to compensate in other ways. A study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science in September 2017 found that “short-term reductions in energy intake are counteracted by mechanisms that reduce metabolic rate and increase caloric intake, thereby ensuring that lost weight is regained. For example, even a year after dieting, hormonal mechanisms that stimulate appetite are raised. ”It may be advisable to limit your calorie deficit to around 250 calories (instead of the usual 500) and lose the desired weight at a slower pace protects the metabolism and is more tolerable in the long term.
Body composition also plays a role here: muscles burn more calories than fat even at rest, according to the Mayo Clinic. Research has found that two and a half months of weight training can add 3 pounds to lean weight and reduce fat by 4 pounds. So be sure to burn calories on cardio, but add weight training too.
Other factors that affect calorie consumption
Another thing that many people may not consider is that a variety of other factors can affect caloric intake. For example, according to a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in November 2016, people eat more and choose higher-calorie foods when they don’t get enough sleep. Previous research has found that calorie restriction can increase cortisol, a stress hormone that, according to Today’s Dietitian, induces cravings for high-calorie foods.
Another major starvation factor for many people is ultra-processed foods, which are industrially made with multiple ingredients and additives. A 2016 study published in BMJ Open suggests that these foods account for 89.7 percent of the added sugar in the American diet. And excess sugar, which is high in calories, makes it difficult to follow a calorie controlled diet. When you have a sugary meal or snack, your blood sugar spikes and then crashes, leaving you hungry just a few hours after you eat it. In a study published in Nature Metabolism in April 2021, people who experienced this drop in blood sugar ate an average of 312 more calories during the day than those who had more stable blood sugar. It is an eating behavior that can easily sabotage any weight loss effort.
On the other hand, there are many nutrients that make it easier to save calories. Previous research has shown that fiber intake is linked to lower body weight. Other studies show that eating a higher-protein diet over a longer period of time makes you feel full and feel more full than a low-protein diet. The most accomplished calorie counters include with every meal as well as with every snack. It can be helpful to think of a food in terms of its energy density or the amount of calories it provides in a given volume. One tablespoon (tablespoon) of butter with 96 calories per USDA is a high energy density food. Broccoli is a low energy density food – you would have to eat more than 3 cups of the vegetable to consume 100 calories. Research shows that a diet rich in low-energy foods is associated with better nutritional quality and lower body weight.
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Does Counting Calories Help You Lose Weight?
If you want to achieve a healthy body weight, calorie counting is a possible strategy. “It can help someone raise awareness and learn about nutrition,” says Wilson. She says it can help people realize that a tiny amount of peanut butter has the same number of calories (or more than) a satisfactory serving of leafy greens. Both Cassetty and Wilson agree that counting calories should always be accompanied by learning to eat well.
“Counting calories can work. If you do it in a way that promotes a calorie deficit, you will lose weight. But it doesn’t always encourage making the healthiest or most satisfying choices. If you’re not careful, it can backfire, ”says Cassetty.
Remember, counting calories isn’t the only way to lose weight, and it isn’t a practice that works for everyone. Especially people with a history of eating disorders should avoid this strategy. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that participants who used food monitoring tools exhibited more compulsive behavior than those who didn’t. “Counting calories is counterproductive for most people,” says Wilson. “If it works, it usually only works for a short time.” She advises her customers to learn how to consistently choose balanced meals and snacks that instead support their goals. “If you’re just counting calories, your diet is likely to be lacking in micronutrients,” she adds.
You can make small adjustments to your current diet and lifestyle that will add up over time. As you gradually move to a plant-based diet consisting mostly of whole foods based on low energy density foods, you will slowly lose weight if you are overweight without counting calories.