One of the hottest debates in the nutrition world is whether or not calorie counting is the best way to lose weight. We’ve all heard the expression “a calorie is a calorie.” And to a certain extent, there’s no arguing with this, as a dietary calorie that comes from a twinkie versus a dietary calorie that comes from broccoli both contain 4184 Joules of energy. However, how each of these calories function in our body is not quite so simple.
The human body is an incredibly complex biochemical web of processes that are effected and controlled by hormones, and this is where the very real differences in calories come into play. The type of calories you eat have a major impact on the processes that control appetite, the foods you crave, and much more.
So, how does this relate to counting calories? In my experience as a Nutritionist, I have found calorie counting to be generally a helpful weight loss tool. However, it is essential that, alongside calorie counting, you have a real understanding of why the quality of food matters just as much (if not even more) that the quantity. For those who already have adopted a healthy diet model and want to take the weight loss efforts up a notch, calorie counting can become even more beneficial.
First and foremost, let’s look at some specific ways that a calorie is not just a calorie.
Calories and metabolism
Every food has a thermic effect, meaning that each food affects energy expenditure differently, due to the energy needed to digest and metabolize that food’s nutrients. According to a study conducted by the Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, the Thermic effect of all three macro-nutrients is as follows:
- Fat: 2-3%
- Carbohydrates: 6-8%
- Protein: 25-35%
Obviously, we have a clear winner here when it comes to which macronutrient most profoundly effects our metabolic rate (the rate at which we burn calories). This means that protein requires more energy (calories) to metabolize than carbs or fat, so it majorly boosts our metabolism and, therefore, our weight loss.
Glucose vs. Fructose
These two sugars are metabolized very differently by the body. Fructose can only be processed by the liver, while glucose can actually be metabolized by all of our bodies’ tissues. For example, ghrelin is our “hunger hormone,” and its production is increased with fructose consumption much more-so than with glucose. This means that we are more likely to overeat and succumb to cravings if we have a diet high in fructose.
Similarly, glucose has a bigger impact on the satiety center of our brain, meaning we feel fuller longer as compared to fructose (again, generally causing us to eat more).
Lastly, high fructose consumption has been shown to lead to increased belly fat, insulin resistance
and high triglyceride levels.
Foods high in glucose include vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans, legumes and whole grains. Foods high in fructose that should be largely avoided include sodas, processed baked goods, candy, agave syrup, fruit juice, applesauce and dried fruits (among others). Remember that fructose from whole, fresh fruit is much less worrisome, as it comes along with fiber and other important nutrients that slow down the absorption of fructose, and contain other benefits.
We are much more likely to overeat certain foods than others, depending on how full they make us feel. For example, it’s easy to stuff yourself full of 1,000 calories worth of ice cream and cake, while eating 1,000 calories worth of grass fed steak and roasted vegetables would be tough. This is because the protein and good fat from steak and vegetables has a much higher satiety index, referring to certain foods that increase our feelings of fullness and reduce hunger.
Therefore, a diet high in foods with a low satiety index will usually lead to overeating and weight gain, and vice versa. Foods with a low satiety index include refined carbs such as baked goods and processed sugars, while foods with a high satiety index include starchy vegetables, whole grains and legumes, red meat, eggs and fruit.
Eating certain foods will automatically cut calories, without even trying
If you are eating foods with a high satiety index, especially plenty of good protein sources, studies show that you will naturally consume less calories, without even having to count. Lower carbohydrate and higher protein and fat diet models will leave us feeling fuller and with far fewer sugar cravings, while low fat diets generally contain a lot of carbohydrates that don’t fill us up.
Everybody’s nutritional needs are slightly different, but trying out a lower carbohydrate diet model that includes an abundance of vegetables, fresh fruits, protein and good fats such as avocado, coconut and olive oil, and grass fed butter will likely help you to lose weight.
I’m confused, should I be counting calories?
While it’s never healthy to become obsessive, the short answer to the question: “will counting calories help me lose weight” is probably a “yes.”
The good news is, many people find that they also lose weight by simply making dietary changes alone (like the ones outlined here in PS1000, especially if coming from a diet high in refined carbohydrates/sugars and low in fruits and veggies. For those who have already adopted the type of eating style discussed here and have found that your weight loss is still stunted, then counting calories is very likely to help. Keep in mind that even healthy foods such as nuts, avocado and raw dairy are fairly high in calories, so if you are eating too much of certain foods, this could be problematic.
Calorie counting should be one tool of many to develop a nutrient dense diet that promotes general health, disease prevention and weight loss. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be something you do forever; in fact, once you have a better idea of the caloric value of your foods, you might decide to try without it. The key to success is the proper combination of quality and quantity, not one over the other.