Does calorie counting make sense?

RightFood4U Blog Does Calorie Counting Make Sense - Nutrition Programmes - Bray Wicklow Dublin
Ilona Madden - RightFood4U - Nutrition Programmes - Bray Wicklow Dublin

Written by Ilona Madden

January 10, 2020

At the moment there is discussion around again whether it would help curb the obesity crisis and get people to eat less by adding the calorie count to the menu.

However, from what I have been observing this is not addressing the real issue!

We are constantly told, that we need to “eat less and exercise more” and “to create an energy deficit” to lose weight.

What this does in the heads of people is to “blame”: either others or oneself to be overeating or having no discipline or willpower!

What I want to ask though is WHY are people over-eating in the first place?

Our bodies have fantastic mechanisms in place to stay in balance (= homeostasis). We have a satiety hormone called LEPTIN, which is supposed to tell us that we are FULL. Why is this hormone not kicking in?

Why do our bodies not recognise that there is already a huge fat reserve in the body – and still tells us to keep eating?

Here are some facts:

  1. It is very hard to overeat on broccoli, but you can easily overeat on white toast and mashed potatoes.
  2. When you eat something sugary, you are more likely to be hungry again soon after.
  3. The combination of sugar and fat in one food item (for example cheesecake) is not only highly addictive, but it is more fattening.(Studies show that it’s mainly the combination of those two food groups that lead to weight gain! And if we look into nature, most natural foods would not come in that combination! But it is very prevalent in processed foods.)
  1. Every time you eat carbohydrates you need to release insulin. And insulin is a fat-storing hormone. In cavemen times, when sweet foods were available, it was the time to eat and to store what we’ve eaten. Those two things had to go hand in hand. Skinny people would simply not have survived, which is why we have more mechanisms in place to store fat.
  1. Dopamine hits – require more and more sugar! Sugar is highly addictive and triggers the release of “Happy Hormones”, but like with any other addiction, the more you eat the less responsive the body gets and the more you need to eat of it. In other words, if you want to get the same “high” from sugar, you will have to keep eating more and more.
  1. Leptin resistance: Over time, through frequent over-eating, our bodies do not recognise the satiety hormone leptin any more, i.e. you don’t recognise that you are already full. And only a certain amount of willpower will be able to help. Willpower is hard to maintain for a long time – especially if you experience real hunger feelings. The problem is then, either you blame yourself for lack of willpower or you feel others are judging you for lack of willpower. While all along it’s really a hormonal issue.
  1. Calories give no indication on nutritional value! I think everyone who gives nutrition advice – even if they believe in a calorie deficit – would agree that a slice of salmon and vegetables would have more nutrients that a muffin even if both have a similar amount of calories. (And if they don’t, they do not deserve to give any nutrition advice!)

Why add empty calories when you can have delicious food packed with nutrients that our bodies need?

And often it’s not only empty calories but also a lot of refined and processed “franken-foods” are clearly harmful to the body. Why fill your body with calories that are harmful?

That’s why I say:

It is way more important to look at the QUALITY of the calories we consume then the QUANTITY!

 This is also the reason, why I think it’s a good idea that some restaurants, especially the fast-food restaurants and coffee shops that always have the same menu, should have information on amounts of calories.

A long time ago, I used to eat a muffin with my cappuccino as part of the special deal, but once I saw that the muffin actually had nearly 400 calories, I stopped eating it!

And if someone chooses in McDonald’s the salad or veg option over the fries because they see the calorie count, yes, fine, that’s still a better choice – even though it might not be a good choice to go to McDonald’s in the first place.

However, in restaurants that are preparing their foods from scratch, I think it is an absolutely ridiculous idea!

Restaurants that buy local, seasonal and fresh produce might change their menu on a daily basis. Regardless of how many calories that meal might have it will all be REAL food which is packed with nutrients. Eating out once in a while for a special occasion is not going to suddenly lead to an increase in your weight!

The chefs are putting in a lot of care to prepare something for you that is tasty, and if that requires 1 or 2 tablespoons of butter should be determined by how it tastes and not how many calories it has.

Food should be about enjoyment. Eating out with friends should be about enjoyment. Eating fresh, real food is not going to lead to weight gain on one occasion.

I would also always suggest going for a starter and a filling and satisfying main course. Usually, you are then full by the time dessert comes around and it will be easier to say “no”. On the other hand you might go for a salad, and then you want the dessert if you were only concerned about your calories. And you might then be hungry again an hour later! And you would have got your sugar fix (and all that comes with it – see above). Whereas with a proper meal, you would also have had the right nutrients!

Eating out with friends and family is an occasion. It should be fully enjoyed. The relaxation and joy you get out of night or lunch out with friends and good food is way more important than a few calories.

Another aspect of calorie counting is that when you only look at the principle of “CALORIE IN – CALORIE OUT”  you are feeding the following thought processes such as “I’ve just done a great workout, I reward myself with a donut”, “O my kids are so active, it’s no problem if they eat a lot of sweets”, “Go on have those chips, you’ve just walked 2k! You can afford it!”

You cannot out-train a bad diet! However, I hear so many of my clients when they start working with me telling me: “I know I had this cake, but I did also walk for 30min”, or they keep telling me that they will take up this new exercise regime – not for the fun of it or the benefits that come with exercise, but simply so that they think they can eat more. Sometimes, I even wonder if gym owners and coaches actually want you to believe in the “calorie in and calorie out”-theory, because that’s what keeps bringing them new members. If you merely join a gym to lose weight, you are already on the wrong track. People have actually asked me why I go to the gym, saying “You don’t need to go to the gym, you are so slim”.

I would even go so far as to say that the calorie-counting way of thinking about losing weight is counter-productive. I believe that focusing on calories is what is leading to yo-yo dieting and the whole diet culture and industry!

My approach and that of other Nutritional Therapists and Functional Medicine Practitioners is always to look at the nutritional value, the nutrients and what they do in the body. This is really what healthy eating is about!

This is also a really good video to watch on the topic of Calorie counting, that gives other insights and thoughts on calorie counting, and also on the ketogenic diet.


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