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Weight Loss: Why calorie counting is not sustainable

Have you ever wondered why restrictive diets don’t work in the long run? The weight loss cliché we've all heard – 'eat fewer calories than you burn, and you'll lose weight' – sounds simple enough, but the reality is far from it. Many have embarked on this journey, only to find themselves trapped in a maze of calorie counting, with fleeting success and an all-too-familiar rebound effect. It's time to unravel the mystery of sustainable weight loss and discover why counting calories might not be the magic solution you've been seeking. The good news, there are sustainable ways to lose weight, and they come with a lot of additional benefits as well.

Note: This won’t be a post claiming that calories don’t matter. On a biochemical level taking in less energy (calories) than you need allows for the mobilisation of stored energy (fat) to fill the energy gap. The more stored energy (fat) you mobilise the faster you lose weight. However, I do argue that this reductionist approach to weight loss does not solve the root cause of the problem. Our bodies are extremely complex, and a simple mathematical formula (i.e., calories in – calories out) does not serve our health.

What is a calorie (kcal)?

Calories are the units used to determine how much energy our body can extract from a certain amount of food. For example, 1g of carbohydrates (carbs) and protein will give us ~4 kcal, while 1g of fat provides ~9kcal. Alcohol falls somewhere in the middle with ~7kcal per 1g.

To truly understand calories in food, we need to briefly delve into their history and how they were discovered. In 1916, Wilbur Atwater, an agriculturist, standardised how much heat energy (how many kilo calories or kcal) is released when a specific macronutrient is burned in a bomb calorimeter.

A calorie is the amount of energy needed to warm up 1kg of water by 1 degree Celsius. For example, burning 1g of protein will warm up 1L of water by 4 degrees Celsius.

Soon after this discovery, dietitians decided that all of nutrition can be deduced to some simple mathematics. Calculate how many calories someone needs (which is almost impossible to get exactly right) and ensure that the person gets enough calories from macronutrients.

In essence, ever since Atwood’s experience in the early 20th century most of what we think about food and weight loss has come from burning food in a closed underwater container and seeing how much it warms the surrounding water by.

Unfortunately, for the millions of people who have followed this methodology to drop their excess weight for good, our bodies are much more complex than a bomb calorimeter.

Standard bomb calorimeter
This is what a standard bomb calorimeter looks like on the inside

Not all calories are created equal.

Our bodies are extremely complex organisms made from various molecules, cells, tissues, organs, and systems. Not to mention, we’re also inhabited by trillions of bacteria which influence how our body works. Therefore, it’s not surprising that energy extraction from food is not as straightforward in our bodies as it is in a bomb calorimeter in a lab environment. Our metabolism is controlled by thousands of different processes which include messenger molecules such as hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitter, cells, vitamins, amino acids, amongst others. They all influence the rate of digestion, absorption, utilisation, storage, and energy production.

Due to this complexity calories on labels help us to see how much ‘energy’ there is in a certain food, however they have no way of telling us how much of that energy will be absorbed or utilised.

Not all calories we eat are actually absorbed by the body. Fibre, which is found in most unprocessed foods (and is technically a carbohydrate) is not absorbed by our bodies because we do not have the enzymes to break it down. So, if your meal has 5g of fibre per 100g, it means that 20kcal out of every 100g you eat will not be absorbed by the body.

Similarly, we absorb only 70 - 80% of the calories from protein. Our body requires energy to break down the nitrogen bonds which bind amino acids together to make protein chains - this is called the thermic effect of food. This means that you use up 20 - 30% of the energy you get from protein just to digest it (thermic because this energy is released as heat – think: meat sweats). While the thermic effect is 7-9% for carbs, and ~3% for fats, they are virtually never taken into consideration. Tell me if I’m wrong, but you probably never heard about the thermic effect of food?

You might be thinking, “less calories are absorbed? Great!”. It is great. However, it shows us two things:

1. You’ve been looking at calories wrong your whole life.

2. Counting calories is never going to be accurate.

There are further examples of caloric miscalculation (e.g., essential fatty acids) which makes calorie counting more guesstimating than actual counting.

Furthermore, where calories come from have a huge impact on what our body does with them. It is the food quality, not the quantity, that matters.

Why many people fail.

The actual problem (and the reason why many fail to lose weight) is because most people trying to lose weight don’t change what they eat (read: they continue to eat pizza, pastas, and all sorts of other ultra-processed foods in smaller quantities).

There is a new wave of nutritional scientists, researchers, and doctors who believe that obesity is most often a symptom of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome refers to a clustering of metabolic dysregulations including insulin resistance showing as raised fasting glucose, high triglyceride to HDL ratio, central obesity, and high blood pressure [1]. The diagnosis of metabolic syndrome includes having 3 or more of the 5 physiological markers[2]:

• Abdominal adiposity || waist circumference in men ≥102 cm and in women ≥88 cm.

• Raised triglycerides || >150 mg/dL (1·7 mmol/L)

• Reduced HDL cholesterol || <40 mg/dL (1·03 mmol/L) in men. <50 mg/dL (1·29 mmol/L) in women.

• Raised blood pressure || Systolic ≥130 mm Hg. Diastolic ≥85 mm Hg.

• Raised fasting glucose || ≥110 mg/dL (6.1 mmol/L)

For good metabolic health you want all your biomarkers to be in the healthy range. As soon as any of those markers creeps up into the diagnostic criteria level, you’re becoming metabolically dysfunctional. This means that you are not only increasing your risk of diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and early death, you are also inhibiting how well your body extracts and utilises energy from food. In other words, your health gets worse, and your weight starts to increase.

The most startling evidence to this is in the data. In 2019, researchers found that only 19% of individuals in the US are metabolically healthy and 81% have metabolic dysfunction [3]. There, 74% of men and 68% of women are either overweight or obese [4]. While correlation does not mean causation, we’d have to be amiss to ignore this data. Sadly, this also means that ~30% of people of ‘healthy’ weight have metabolic syndrome as well. This may suggest that metabolic syndrome can and does come before the onset of weight gain.

In England, 67% of men and 60% of women are either overweight or obese [5] while, as of 2010, 42% of individuals had metabolic syndrome [6]. These numbers are not quite as staggering as in the US; however, the UK’s diet is not too dissimilar from the US and 2023 metabolic syndrome numbers could be much higher.

Data seems to point to the fact that going into a calorie deficit but continuing to eat unhealthy food which leads metabolic dysfunction does not solve the root cause of the problem. That is why when I work with my clients, I focus on fixing their metabolic health first. They then always lose the excess weight - with the added benefit of many other positive health effects (e.g., increased energy levels and better mood) and decreased risk of chronic diseases.

Why 8/10 people put the weight back on.

You probably know people who have gone on strict caloric deficits and lost weight. How many of them put the weight back on? According to the data, roughly 8 / 10 (80%) of people are successful in long term weight loss [7].

The reason this happens to so many people is etched in our DNA. Our bodies are very efficient machines when they’re working well. They’re also adapted to ensure that we survive many different climates and conditions. There’s a reason we’re the only species that can live in every corner of the world! When food is plenty, we’re able to efficiently store fat for a rainy day. Most of us will never experience that rainy day. When there is no food, our body can slow down its metabolism to put off our starving to death for as long as possible.

When we suddenly reduce our caloric intake by hundreds of calories our bodies are quickly to sense it and jump into conservation mode. This decreases our basal metabolic rate (BMR) or the calories we burn to simply stay alive [8]

Suddenly, we need less calories, so our diet isn’t working quite as well, or we plateau. This happens a lot and is one of the reasons why people give up or say their diet isn’t working. However, there is worse news to come for those people. While our body is quick to decrease our BMR, our hormones play catch-up leading to an increase in the signals for energy intake.

This means that when you hit your weight goal, decide to stop the diet, and go back to eating what you were before, you're consuming more calories than your body needs to maintain its weight. The result? You’re back to square one.

At this stage, many people give up, believing that it's impossible to lose weight, or they embark on a journey of different yo-yo diets that seem to work—until they don't.

Conclusion: There is a better way to lose weight.

What if I told you that you can lose all your excess weight without counting a single calorie or having to go hungry all the time? If you’ve struggled with weight for years and tried lots of diets with very little to show for it, you may be thinking this is too good to be true. Hear me out.

Losing weight is not complicated once you fix your metabolic health. Our body has a hormone regulated thermostat for a healthy metabolism and weight. The reason we put on weight is because our thermostat becomes dysfunctional when our metabolic health becomes dysfunctional. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for this. However, we can work on fixing your metabolic health as fast as possible. By doing that, we fix your internal weight thermostat, and you begin to lose weight [9].

How do we fix metabolic health? We teach you how, when, and what to eat. A healthy, balanced diet is the key. We give you the tools and strategies to fix your metabolic health, lose weight and keep it off for good.


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