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Why counting calories doesn’t always work

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

The conventional wisdom is that if you want to lose weight, all you need to do is eat less (reduce your calories) and move more.


If this were sound and solid advice, then we would all be thin and healthy. However, this advice doesn’t work for everyone.


In today’s article, I’m going to share with you some of the latest findings about how calories work.


Calorie counting can be a useful tool in weight loss particularly if you struggle with portion control.


However, there are some watch outs to be aware of when calorie counting that may be sabotaging your best efforts.


If you’ve tried calorie counting in the past and it hasn’t worked for you, then this article may help explain why.


1. All calories are not created equally


Let’s take an example. 100 calories from broccoli and 100 calories from a soft drink.


It is true that in a laboratory setting, 100 calories of energy can be obtained from both broccoli and a soft drink.


However, when you look at the make up of each of these foods, a different story emerges.


The calories from the soft drink are mostly from sugar, causing blood sugar spikes and an insulin release that increases the storage of belly fat, inflammation, blood pressure and a whole host of other bodily responses.


Additionally, it impacts your hunger and satiety signals, causing you to feel hungry again in no time.


There are no vitamins, minerals, or phytonutrients in the soft drink to help you process the calories you are consuming. They are empty calories.


The calories form the broccoli are ‘real’ carbohydrates (yes, veggies are carbs!), are full of fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients providing antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds and lots of other health benefits.


Also, eating broccoli doesn’t affect your blood sugar in the same way, avoiding the jittery highs and low of sugar imbalance.


When explained this way, we can all say that this is common sense. But unfortunately, the diet industry propagates the myth of simply counting calories (no matter the source) resulting in us losing sight of this common-sense fact.


2. Calorie Counters are inaccurate


Calorie counting apps and tools are designed around averages of food calorific density and are estimated to be off by as much as 20-30%.


Even food labels have a margin of 20% inaccuracies on label calorie counts.


And restaurants (if they have calories on their menu’s) can be off by as much as 100-300 calories per food item.

The result is that most of us are consuming more calories that we think or are aware of.


3. Everyone absorbs calories differently


Another factor to consider is that we don’t absorb all the calories we consume.

In fact, it’s recently been demonstrated that we absorb fewer calories from nuts and seeds than previously thought and more from fibre rich foods.


Our unique gut bacteria also impact how we absorb calories.


Cooking, blending, chopping and other forms of food preparation make more calories available for absorption than appears on a food label.


In fact, learning to cook and extracting more nutrients from our food has been theorised as one of the reasons why the human species has survived and evolved.


4. If I exercise (and burn calories), I can eat more


I’m sure you’ve heard the expression you can’t outrun (or out exercise) a bad diet.


While exercise is crucially important for us on so many levels, the truth is that you can’t “earn” that dessert/ takeaway/ glass of wine by going for a run.


New research by Dr Herman Pontzer in his book, Burn: The Misunderstood Science of Metabolism, shows that if we burn more energy in one area (exercise), our bodies will adjust by spending less energy in another – neutralising that run.


One of the reasons weight loss can be slower or static is because of this calorie trade off mentality - resulting in eating treat foods that should be avoided, regardless of whether you've exercised or not.


What next?


When trying to lose weight, there is no debate that you need to watch the quantity of food you eat and counting calories can be a useful tool when you understand the limitations.


We now know some of those limitations are that all calories are not created equal. We absorb calories differently. Calorie counting tools are flawed. And you can’t outrun a bad diet.


The good news is, there is a better and easier way!


By focusing on food quality and eating a ‘real’ food diet (with little or no processed and sugary foods), you don’t have to count calories or watch the volume of food you eat.


When your body is getting all the nutrients and nourishment it needs, it should automatically regulate your weight.


Combining this dietary approach with movement you enjoy (you don't have to go to the gym or run for miles) along with improving your sleep and stress levels, I have seen many clients transform how they look and feel. Without ever feeling hungry or deprived.


If you’re exhausted from being on the never-ending diet rollercoaster and are ready for a different approach that doesn’t involve calorie counting our spending hours in the gym, then contact Margaret Kavanagh Nutrition for a free consultation.


It’s time to get on the road from feeling exhausted to energised. You deserve to win at work AND thrive in life.





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