There’s been a lot of discussion recently regarding calorie counting. It is one of the most used methods of weight control and numerous apps exist to help people record and monitor their calorie intake. The average woman/man needs approximately 2,000/2,500 kcalories (ie energy) a day to maintain their weight, so consuming less calories than this (in theory) should help people to lose weight.
Public Health England have been actively campaigning for a greater awareness of calories to help combat rising obesity levels, particularly when it comes to snacks between meals, which is when many people end up consuming more calories than they realise.
The counter argument to counting calories is that it is ineffective for long term weight control and can result in an obsessive focus on food. It can also lead to the consumption of ‘lower dietary quality’ type of foods because the emphasis is on calorie intake as opposed to nutrient intake.
Overweight and Obesity
But, we need to do something to tackle the rising levels of obesity and overweight throughout the world. The latest WHO report highlights that obesity rates worldwide have tripled since 1975 and that in 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight, with over 650 million of this group were obese. Obesity is a risk factor for several chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes type 2 and even certain cancers. So, it’s a major issue from a public health perspective and one which needs to be addressed.
Diets and restricted energy intake
The advice to reduce energy intake is based on a simple equation that excessive energy consumed translates into the excessive fat accumulation. It’s also the same principle behind telling people to ‘move more’, which assumes that increased energy output will reduce fat accumulation.
Let’s be very clear, most diets whether they involve calorie counting, carbohydrate restriction, high protein ‘clean eating’, ‘detoxing’ work in the short term for most people. All these diets are ultimately a form of energy restriction as they involve less energy being consumed. The issue is finding a solution for the longer term.
Asking people to eat less and move more for the rest of their lives, is not generally a recipe (!) for long term success.
The statistics on weight loss are depressing. While fiercely debated, there is an approximately 10-15% chance of maintaining a weight loss over a period of 3-5 years, with most people putting the weight back on within 2 years and sometimes ending up heavier than before they started dieting.
It should be highlighted too there are many, many factors which can contribute to obesity – genetics, hormonal, medical, environmental, socio-economic. Some of these factors make it easier to consume extra calories while some, such as certain medications and medical conditions, contribute to weight gain independent of energy intake. The advice to ‘Eat less and move more’ is simplistic and does not consider the complexity of obesity.
Rather than just focusing on calorie counting as being ineffective for weight loss, it might be fairer to say that diets in general do not work for long term weight loss. Not only are diets are linked to a ‘yo yo’ cycle of weight gain and weight loss, but they increase the risk of developing a disordered relationship to food. Should we be talking about ditching the diet as opposed to ditching calorie counting?!
The quality of food in our diet
It is known that the quality of our diet has a strong influence on our health. There have been some studies to show that switching to a more nutritious diet, even in the absence of weight loss, can improve our health. It is generally assumed that the improvement in health markers when following a diet is directly related to weight loss. It is therefore very positive to find studies linking healthier diets to improved health outcomes independent of any weight loss. It’s also likely that improving the quality of your diet might help to prevent further weight gain.
But calories possibly do still count!
It could be argued that diet quality and calories are somewhat linked. Selecting foods which are high in nutrients naturally leads to a slightly lower calorie consumption because these foods either contain less calories, or tend to be more filling, so we end up consuming smaller portions with the added benefit of increasing our intake of fibre, vitamins and minerals. Equally, seeing the calories displayed on foods with a lower nutrient profile helps to raise awareness that these foods need to be moderated as opposed to being consumed daily.
Focusing on diet quality possibly leads naturally to less calories being consumed!
Eating more vegetables. Vegetables are low in calories and high in volume. They help to keep us feeling sated (full) while bursting with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to support our health.
Switching to wholegrains. While wholegrains have the same number of calories as refined grains, their higher fibre content helps to keep us feeling full, leading to us either eat smaller quantities or not needing to snack so often. They also have a superior nutrient profile than white refined grains in terms of vitamins and minerals.
Being aware that my daily calorie allocation for snacks was 400 calories, might certainly make me think twice about consuming a large slice of cake containing 650 calories. Or equally I might savour it but then balance my daily intake by having a lighter supper!
The perfect balance – calorie awareness and diet quality
It’s clear that the focus from a public health perspective should be on diet quality and healthy eating behaviours as opposed to energy restriction and calorie counting. This also has the advantage of taking the pressure and stress off weight loss while improving our health outcomes. Yet an awareness of the calorie content of our foods is not necessarily a negative point, provided it plays a role in supporting us in selecting healthier options, balancing our intake and eating a varied diet.