The Calorie Fallacy: Why Counting Calories Isn’t an Effective Weight-Loss…


Haub, a nutrition professor at Kansas State University, wants to show his students that weight control isn’t just about counting calories. So the professor ate a 1,800-calorie diet consisting of a Twinkie every three hours for ten weeks. Doritos, Little Debbies, sugary cereal, and other junk food were among his favorites.

When he first started, Haub weighed 201 pounds, which was considered overweight for his height. He had shed 27 pounds by the end of his snacking binge, placing him at a trim 174 pounds. Haub’s eating plan was dubbed the Twinkie Diet by the media when the tale went viral.

Those who heard the news were sure to stock up on the spongy yellow sweets. However, Haub’s goal was not to persuade people to eat more Twinkies. He made the point that he had ingested 800 less calories per day than was required to maintain his weight. In other words, counting calories is the secret to weight loss: if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. That’s all there is to it.

For more than a century, Haub’s message has become accepted wisdom. Many experts believe it all comes down to simple math: calories in minus calories out. Countless millions of people who are overweight or obese pay attention to this message and diligently check their calorie consumption. However, many people finally learn that all of their counting has been for naught.

The fact that calorie counts aren’t always correct is one factor.

In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows nutrition label values to be incorrect by up to 20%, with the most common error being an undercount. This means that ice cream labeled as having 180 calories per serving may actually have 215 calories. The widespread problem of exaggerated serving sizes exacerbates the situation. If you eat a cup of ice cream instead of 2/3 cup (the standard serving size), you could consume up to 325 calories instead of the 180 mentioned on the label.

Because of the way our systems digest particular foods, listed calories may be incorrect. Take, for example, almonds. They carry up to 170 calories per ounce, according to nutrition labeling. However, this figure ignores the fact that almonds pass through the intestines partially undigested. As a result, just 170 calories are absorbed by the body. According to study, the actual total is 129, which is a significant discrepancy.

Calorie counts aren’t available for everything we consume, so we have to rely on our own estimates sometimes. These figures are frequently untrustworthy, according to study. In a poll of 2,200 adults, for example, customers’ estimates of calories in popular restaurant items ranging from pancakes to onion rings were on average 165 calories lower than reality.

Unconscious biases can affect our calorie calculations even more. There’s the “health halo” bias, for example, which causes us to underestimate the calories in items that are touted as healthy.

Meanwhile, online calculators can estimate how many calories you burn each day, but this is only an estimate. Wearable technologies are potentially a possibility, although studies suggest that their results are unreliable.

The calculation is complicated, comprising how much energy we need for basic operations like breathing and circulation at rest (known as basal metabolic rate, or BMR); how much energy we burn during everyday activities and exercise; and how much energy we burn through digestion (the thermic effect of food). A variety of additional parameters, such as age, gender, weight, and body fat percentage, all play a role.

Given the difficulties in precisely determining how many calories we require and how many we consume, monitoring calories as a weight-loss approach is unrealistic.

Calorie counting is challenging enough without adding to the challenge. But there’s a deeper issue: calorie counting ignores other factors that influence how much we weigh.

Biological processes start in as we cut calories and lose weight, preserving body fat and protecting us from famine. A change in metabolism is one such adaptation. A lighter person’s body has a lower BMR than a heavier person’s. As we lose weight, we burn less calories than would be predicted for someone of our size—a phenomenon known as adaptive thermogenesis.

In other words, as our bodies grow more fuel efficient, it becomes more difficult to lose weight and keep it off while eating the same number of calories. Unfortunately, this evolutionary gift, which was created to keep us alive in times of shortage, is not something we can turn off or return when we no longer require it.

Weight control is also influenced by our genetic composition. Look no farther than those perplexing people who appear to be able to eat whatever they want and never gain a pound. According to conventional thinking, such people are endowed with “excellent genes,” and research involving twins demonstrates that genes do influence how our bodies respond to calories.

For example, in one study, researchers tracked the movements of 12 pairs of male identical twins for four months. (Yes, the twins were on board!) The participants were given 1,000 calories per day more than they normally would, and their physical activity was restricted. They gained weight, as one could expect. However, the weight ranged from roughly 10 to 30 pounds.

Furthermore, the weight gain differential between twins in a pair was significantly smaller than between other twin pairs. In other words, each set of twins gained weight at a similar rate, implying that genetic variables play a role in how readily we gain weight. Similar research reveals that our ability to reduce weight is influenced by our DNA.

The combination of bacteria in our gut is another another likely cause to weight gain. The microbiota is a population of bacteria, viruses, and other microbes that aid in the digestion and extraction of energy from food. Obese people’s microbiota differs from that of thin persons, according to studies.

Though the research is still in its early stages, it implies that depending on the makeup of one’s microbiota, two people can eat the same amount of the same food and have distinct weight impacts. Those whose gut microorganisms extract more energy from meals may be more prone to gain weight because our weight is determined by the calories we absorb rather than the ones we intake.

Calorie counting can help with weight loss in the short term, and it may also help in the long run for some people. However, for the vast majority of individuals, it not only fails but also has the potential to hurt them. To begin with, it can take away from the pleasure of eating by turning meals into a tiresome exercise in counting and measuring food. This habit can be stressful, and it may lead to an unhealthy connection with food, making it even more difficult to reach and maintain a healthy weight.

Furthermore, a calorie fixation can lead to unhealthy food choices and eating behaviors. A low-calorie diet isn’t always a healthy one—50 calories of broccoli isn’t the same as 50 calories of jelly beans—and a low-calorie diet isn’t always a healthy one. Focusing just on calories may result in your body receiving too little of what it requires and too much of what it does not.

So, what’s the other option? While it’s important to keep an eye on calories in general, don’t obsess over them. Rather, focus on the overall quality of your diet, focusing on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seafood, and lean meats, while avoiding overly processed items like chips, cookies, fried foods, and sugary beverages.

It’s an understatement to say that our bodies’ weight-control processes are intricate. There’s still a lot that scientists don’t know after decades of inquiry. So it contradicts logic to think that a 19th-century food-scoring system would be suitable for reflecting this intricacy. Despite this, calorie tracking and calorie math remain staples of weight-loss programs.

It’s not surprising that our society’s obsession with this ineffective and error-prone metric has resulted in such bad outcomes. What’s astonishing is that we continue to place so much emphasis on it.

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