The tide seems to have turned on the old saying “a calorie is a calorie.” More and more people are coming to their senses and realizing that this simplistic approach to energy metabolism does more harm than good.
But it’s hard to break old habits.
Many leaders in the nutrition world, even well-informed coaches and nutritionists, are still promoting the “eat less, move more” approach to fat loss. A recent commentary in the journal Public Health Nutrition tackles this idea head on and shows why “eat less, move more” is one of the worst pieces of nutrition advice you’ve ever heard.
The Faulty Calorie Equivalency Approach
The prevailing approach to fat loss is that counting calories should be a principal concern. This approach is based something called “thermodynamics,” which tell us that calories, regardless of their sources, are equivalent. According to thermodynamics, 1 calorie is the amount of energy required to increase the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
However, this fact has no relevance to what happens when we eat different foods even if they contain the same number of calories. For example, 100 calories worth of salmon is processed differently by the body than 100 calories of Oreo cookies, leading to a different amount of net calories being absorbed for each one. Plus, each food has a substantially different effect on hormones that affect hunger and how much you will eat such as leptin, glucagon, insulin, ghrelin.
For example, salmon is high in protein and omega-3 fat. High-protein foods require the body to burn as much as two times more calories after you eat them than foods that are predominantly carbohydrates. Fat is the highest in calories of all food types at 9 calories per gram. However, the omega-3 fat in salmon actually stimulate the burning of calories by enhancing the activity of something called uncoupling proteins. This leads to excess calories being burned by raising body temperature.
One hundred calories of Oreo cookies, on the other hand, have only 4 calories per gram, but because they are high in sugar and carbs, they stimulate food intake by activating a pathway in the brain called the hypocretin network. When the hypocretin network is active, hunger is increased and you experience cravings, while simultaneously lowering energy use and promoting sleep. The effect is that you eat more, but move less.
Calorie Focused Thinking & Dietary Fat
Calorie focused thinking is inherently biased against high-fat foods, which may be protective against obesity and related diseases, but supportive of starchy and sugary replacements, which are likely detrimental from a metabolic standpoint.
Public health messages tell people to decrease fat intake in favor of less calorie dense foods. This might not be such a problem if people replaced fat with vegetables, beans, and whole fruit, but the reality is that no one gravitates towards these foods, instead choosing rapidly absorbable, highly refined carbs.
The flaw in this plan is that when people eat high-carb foods, appetite is stimulated and they will actually eat many more calories than if they were given a high-fat food. For example, in one study, 6th graders were allowed to eat as much as they wanted of either cheese wedges or potato chips. A quantity of cheese offered about 50 percent more calories than an identical quantity of chips.
Results showed that children in the potato chip group consumed over three times more calories than those in the cheese group due to the higher starch and the lack of protein in the chips. Interestingly, this effect of eating more calories in the chip group was even more pronounced among overweight kids (that is, they ate the most calories overall).
Over the long-term, the same thing occurred in response to the public health campaigns of the 1980s and 90s to lower fat intake. People ate less fat and more carbs, which was associated with a greater total calorie intake than previously when their diets were higher in fat.
End result? A massive obesity and diabetes pandemic that is completely out of control around the world.
Calorie Focused Thinking & Refined Carbs
Calorie-focused thinking allows refined carbs and other ultra processed foods to be included in the diet without reservation as long as calorie intake is not exceeded. Metabolically this approach is a disaster.
Refined carbs are rapidly digested and absorbed, raising blood sugar briskly and triggering a similar rapid elevation in insulin. The rapid insulin elevation causes a correspondingly rapid drop in blood sugar and hypoglycemia. Food cravings result to restore fallen fuel levels, particularly for sweet foods.
In the short term, eating refined carbs promotes “eating more” and reinforces the loop of overconsumption of more refined foods. Over the long term, a diet high in refined carbs promotes resistance to the hormone leptin. Leptin is an appetite suppressing hormone secreted by fat cells that tells your brain to stop eating. When insulin resistance occurs or the body experiences chronic inflammation, the brain becomes resistant to leptin’s message to stop eating with the result being a drive to “eat more” and “move less.”
What accounts for obesity is not the number of calories in specific foods, but rather the concentration and type of carbs these foods contain. Total calorie balance is important in both ways of thinking, however, in one it’s possible to make dietary recommendations towards high-quality calorie sources that will NOT encourage obesity, whereas when you are stuck in calorie focused thinking, quality is ignored in favor of calorie counts.
Eat Less Move More? Good Idea That Is Biologically Implausible
Biologically, calorie intake and expenditure are coupled: When we eat fewer calories, we automatically move less. Our brains are incredibly sensitive to energy intake and any time we achieve a deficit of calories, we get lazy.
People often have the best of intentions and try to overcome this biological effect with exercise, forcing themselves to move more. Unfortunately, studies show even when people are actively trying to lose fat, appetite increases and they will compensate for calories burned during exercise by eating more afterwards. You go burn off 500 calories from a five mile run or a high-intensity workout, and boom, you inhale an extra sweet potato, a few glasses of wine, or chow down on some “healthy” dessert.
Shifting The Focus From Calorie Counting Does Not Mean Calories Don’t Matter Calorie intake does matter. An energy deficit is necessary to lose body fat. But we know from practical experience (and research) that a deficit results more from qualitative distinctions (eating more protein and vegetables) than conscious attempts at controlling our intake. We should not be focusing on hopelessly cutting calories but on trying to improve the quality of the food we eat. By planning meals around vegetables, nuts, fruit, beans, meat, fish, and eggs, you make “eating less and moving more” a possibility.
Here Are Ten Things To Try Instead Of Wasting Your Time Calorie Counting
#1: Focus on nutrient-rich whole foods instead of a rigid calorie focused view that only accounts for the energy while disregarding how your body responds to those calories.
#2: Plan EVERY meal (including breakfast) around high-quality protein (fish, eggs, meat, beans) for better satiety, reduced hunger, and steadier blood sugar and insulin levels.
#3: Use the thermic effect of food to your advantage. Avoid refined carbs and ultra processed foods in favor of vegetables, fruit, beans, and boiled grains.
#4: Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol in favor of water, coffee, and tea.
#5: Stop exercising to burn calories and start training for performance. Do exercise modes that promote lean mass, such as weight training and intervals.
#6: Don’t be afraid of healthy fat. Nuts, avocados, olive oil, seeds, and omega-3 fat from fish can promote better weight management.
#7: Food marketers love the idea that “a calorie is a calorie” because it puts soda, chips, and ice cream on the same playing field as broccoli and apples. Protect yourself with education from scientifically reputable sources.
#8: Make a conscious effort to be as active as possible in daily life. We know—you’re sick of hearing that you’re sitting too much, but studies consistently show that the more active people are, the leaner they are. Get a pedometer, take frequent walks, take the stairs, but whatever you do, you’ve got to get yourself moving throughout the day.
#9: Cope with your stress. Too much cortisol triggers hunger and cravings for processed foods, making it harder to stick with high-quality whole foods that give you the biggest bang for your calorie buck.
#10: Try time-restricted eating in which you eat only within a 10- or 12-hour period daily. New technology shows many people are eating 14, 16 or even 18 hours a day, which makes it SO much harder to achieve an energy deficit.