Is calorie counting bad for your mood and motivation?

Ilona Madden - RightFood4U - Nutrition Programmes - Bray Wicklow Dublin

Written by Ilona Madden

June 29, 2020

I am often asked why I don’t believe in recommending calorie counting in order to lose weight.

The “Calorie Deficit” principle is a very easy way to comprehend: “The energy you put into your body needs to go somewhere, and if you don’t use it up, it will be stored as fat”.  But luckily, our bodies are much much more complex than just this!

Of course, if you are constantly overeating and not using up that energy, it needs to go somewhere into storage.

That is actually how our bodies are designed to work. In cavemen times, this would have meant survival. The skinny people like me would not have survived a famine. In fact, our bodies have more mechanisms in place to store fat than to release fat.

However, the 3 questions I want to ask are those?

  • Why do we as humans tend to overeat on calories?

  • How does a calorie deficit affect your overall metabolism?

  • What do the calories actually do in your body?

Question 1: Why do we over-eat?

Our bodies actually have a “satiety” hormone called Leptin which should tell us when we are full. So, in theory, we should know when we’re full and stop eating.

And why do our bodies not realise that there is all that stored fat there so that in theory it wouldn’t need to eat?

Answer: The foods around us nowadays are so different from the foods that were around when we were cavemen:

Highly processed, sugary and fast-releasing carbohydrates and additives that can be addictive.

It is so easy to overeat on chocolate, doughnuts, white toast and spaghetti.

Don’t forget that sugar was rare in cavemen times, so when you came across it, it lit up the happy hormone dopamine in the brain, encouraging you to eat more of it. And this dopamine still gets lit up when we eat sugar, but you need to eat more and more and more in order to get the same dopamine hit. Emotional eaters usually need more to get that dopamine fix.

You could also ask, what are you really hungry for? Are you eating because you are feeling lonely? Are there other things you could do to avoid that emotion? (that could be anything from therapy to relaxation to joining a club etc)

Processed foods, constant over-eating, obesity itself, but also stress and lack of sleep can also mess up your leptin (satiety hormone) and your ghrelin (hunger hormone). So, quite often we could feel constantly hungry and don’t realise anymore when we are full.

Another flaw of energy in – energy out, is that so often, after some exercise, especially when it’s been quite tough, we feel we need to “reward” ourselves, and because we’re hungry after training and because we then crave something sugary, we can easily over-eat and put in way more energy than we’ve just supposedly lost.


Question 2:  Why constant “deprivation” and “starving” can mess up your metabolism.

If you are only creating an energy deficit through a diet, you can easily just lose muscle mass, as this is what the body would “burn” first automatically. Especially when it’s not well adapted to burning fat.

When you are losing muscle, it brings down your overall metabolism and that means when you go back to eating “normal” your metabolism has slowed down and your body requires less calories overall. That’s why so many people gain more weight after a calorie-restricted diet.

Therefore, whenever you do restrict calories, it is vital to keep exercising and building muscle at the same time and also giving your body sufficient amounts of protein so that it doesn’t need to get the “protein” from muscles.

I am a total fan of exercising and would highly recommend it but not to lose “calories” but rather because it should put you in a good mood and you are less likely to overeat.

Now what I see is people just going for the exercise because they have to. And this causes extra stress.

And the last thing you want to add is stress to the equation (and being on a diet can be a stress in itself!!), because that just raises the cortisol, which in turn raises blood sugar. Any diabetic who measures blood sugar can tell you that. And what do you need to get the sugar out of the blood? You will need Insulin (which is a fat storing hormone!) – more about that in the next part.

Stress alone can prevent you from burning fat, as your body feels under threat and will hang on to every bit of energy that is available. That on top of all the cravings this is a real disaster.

Back to the messing up of the metabolism:

I have seen so many women especially in or past the menopause who hardly eat anything and still can’t lose weight. They come to me telling me “I promise I really did not have anything else than what’s in the food diary” – they automatically assume nobody believes them. And I have heard it, when I discuss my opinion on the calorie deficit with others that they might say something like “well, your clients probably don’t tell you about the sneaky donut they had.”

I do believe my clients because I hear it over and over again and other experts see it as well. These women have a totally messed up metabolism from years of yo-yo dieting and starving themselves.

Here’s the clue: If you are starving yourself, i.e. stop eating before you are really full, your body thinks there’s a famine coming along and the body simply slows down metabolism overall.

During a famine, it was of advantage to have a slow metabolism because this meant survival!

The slowing down happens via the thyroid. There are so many undiagnosed cases of an underactive thyroid worldwide. As I have an underactive thyroid myself, I follow a lot of experts worldwide, and this is the number one topic, that a general GP thyroid test often doesn’t detect this, or that it can take years to detect. As a Nutritional Therapist, I can help interpret and organise very specific and full panel thyroid tests, which in many cases needs to be addressed with specific nutrients and possibly thyroid hormones.

As it can take months or longer to even diagnose an underactive thyroid and low metabolism, a lot of women especially live with the guilt and blame. They’re hardly eating anything and are running to the gym. They ask me “should I try to be even stricter or exercise more?”

Your body needs to feel that there is plenty of food available.

Remember the beginning of the lock-down? We all ate and bought way more than we needed because our subconscious mind thought there was a real threat of a food shortage.

If you do need to go for longer periods without eating, you’re better off with a snack containing protein such as nuts for example. They keep you fuller for longer, and while they’re higher in calories, you are less likely to overeat on them and you’re less likely to crave something sugary half an hour later.


Question 3: What does the calorie do in your body?

There’s 3 points I’d like to focus on: Insulin, Nutrients, and Gut health

  1. Nutrients

Low calorie recommendation puts no emphasis on the nutrient content. The worse thing I recently heard, was someone giving the advice not to eat oily fish but stick to the white fish instead, as it is lower in calories. We need our essential fatty acids for our brains, our mood and our motivation. I believe that many people might be struggling to stick long term to a low calorie diet because they are reducing all fats from their diets. Many studies show a connection between the importance of essential fats and a healthy mind. After all most of our brain is actual pure fat and cholesterol!

Also low fat products just contain more sugar and leave you hungry again soon after. Full fat products keep you fuller for longer and more satisfied.

But your brain doesn’t just need fat for functioning optimally and for making you feel well. It also needs lots of minerals and vitamins which is gets from good quality calories only.

But obviously, your whole body needs nutrients to function properly. See the minerals and vitamins as building blocks for everything, from your skin, to your muscles, your hormones, your neurotransmitters – everything that has any function in your body needs nutrients, so where else other than food is your body supposed to get it from?

Therefore, I always say, make every calorie count. Don’t eat empty calories that have no nutritional value.

Some foods especially high sugary foods can also rob you of vitamin C and magnesium for example.

Artificial sweeteners can have a huge detrimental effect on your gut flora, and destroying a lot of the good bacteria.

Remember there is no “neutral” food, everything you eat is either nourishing your body, or it is harmful to your body.

2. Gut health

When it comes to overall health and your mental wellbeing and motivation, you can’t avoid looking at the gut as well. We have known that for quite some time now that 70% of our immune system sits in our gut, however, in recent times, there is more and more research coming out about the role of our gut microbiota and our brains. Although instinctively, we’ve always talked about gut feelings and butterflies in the tummy. Most of us feel it in our tummies or further down when we are nervous.

Just looking at calories only doesn’t show you whether the food you are eating is feeding or destroying healthy gut bacteria. Your gut bacteria can make you feel unmotivated and sluggish. Your gut bacteria can process short chain fatty acids that give you energy. A yeast overgrowth could be responsible for excessive sugar cravings. An unhealthy gut could be responsible for many allergies and autoimmune disease. An unhealthy gut could lead to mal-absorption of nutrients. So, you could be eating the best of diets but simply not absorbing your food properly.

A Nutritional Therapist can organise and interpret stool tests that can show how your gut bacteria are doing and how you can address whatever comes up in the test.

3. Insulin / Blood sugar balance

The most important thing I recommend to all my clients is to get their blood sugar balanced. An unbalanced blood sugar leads to extra stress on the body overall, it leads to reduced energy and energy slumps, it can cause anxiety, it can lead to insulin resistance and ultimately diabetes, it can lead to high triglycerides and heart disease, it can damage the arteries, and it is linked to Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

What causes an unbalanced blood sugar? Constant eating or over-eating of sugars and fast releasing carbohydrates. Every time you eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose and end up in the blood. But the body doesn’t like too much sugar in the blood, so it requires insulin to move out from the blood into the cells.

However, the other function of insulin is that it is also fat-storing hormone and it is preventing from releasing stored fat!

All cleverly designed to help cavemen get through the next famine, but not helpful for us today.

And a typical diet – which would not even be considered as a bad diet – such as having cereal for breakfast, a fruit for snack, a sandwich and vegetable soup for lunch, maybe another fruit snack in the afternoon and a dinner with potatoes or pasta simply requires a constant insulin response.

Protein and fat do not require insulin, slow releasing carbohydrates require less insulin and fasting helps bring insulin under control and helps tap into the fat storing mode.

The other problem that happens with sugary food is that because there is so much insulin required – in fact an unnatural amount of it – it overshoots the target, and about 1-2 hours after your sugary meal you will feel hungry again! Because your blood sugar has gone too low. This causes extra stress on your body and causes you to crave something sugary again. And you’re setting yourself up for the blood sugar roller coaster.

The more frequent you require insulin, the more likely you are to store fat around the middle. And unfortunately, women as they get older and past menopause become more and more sensitive to insulin, and tend to store the fat around the middle, which is nearly impossible to lose, unless you drastically reduce carbohydrates.

I also recommend fasting. When you are practising intermittent fasting for example, you might only have two very big and filling meals (full of vegetables, good sources of protein and good fats). In contrast to constantly feeling deprived, your body feels safe and does not slow down metabolism, but rather uses the time to heal your body and to actually tap into the fat reserves. The benefits from fasting are a topic for a whole separate blog, yet it is important to understand that for your body it is better to eat all your calories within a certain time frame (ideally only 8 hours), which again shows that it’s not just calories in vs calories out.

Another thing, I can’t understand for example, is when I was training for the marathon, I actually gained weight. Now, I know this was mainly muscle gain. I could physically not eat much more than I was already eating, and yet I was using up so many more calories, that if that theory was true, I should have ended up as a skeleton.

On the other hand, many people who are not counting calories could be overeating regularly and yet at some stage they just don’t gain more weight anymore. Many people keep their weight the same with no calorie counting.

Now, I completely, appreciate that most people who give advice on creating a calorie deficit to help lose weight, also recommend a low sugar diet and recommend eating more vegetables.

However, the difference is the focus. I believe that calorie counting alone leaves people stuck in this being “on” or “off a diet” mentality and that it does not create long term sustainable healthy eating habits.

It certainly does not take into account the complexities of our bodies, and often leaves the person receiving the advice blaming themselves and feeling like a failure.

Knowing the connection between feeling well and motivated and the diet you are eating, I think it is absolutely vital to get away from just focusing on calories and that we need to move towards nutrients.

I firmly belief that the person who wants to lose weight needs to feel empowered, motivated and most importantly happy in themselves to have the drive to stick to any healthy eating plan.

Focusing on calories alone does not give that empowerment and motivation, quite the opposite it can be detrimental to your overall health and mental wellbeing.

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