The common wisdom is that eating fewer calories will help you lose weight, but a nutritionist has explained the reverse is actually true.
Speaking to FEMAIL, Tamara Willner, a British nutritionist at NHS-backed healthy eating plan Second Nature, explained low-calorie diets and calorie counting is only a short term solution.
For results that last, it is important to consider the nutritional value of the food you are eating to ensure you stay fuller for longer.
This can mean eating food that is higher in calories than seemingly ‘healthy’, low-calorie diet food.
Here, Tamara Willner reveals the food swaps you can make if you want to drop the pounds and keep them off – and explains why low-calorie meals aren’t the key to weight loss success.
Tamara Willner explained low-calorie diets and calorie counting is only a short term solution. Tamara reveals the food swaps you can make if you want to drop the pounds and keep them off – including the ones pictured above
Calorie counting creates a damaging relationship with food
When counting calories, you have to carefully consider every single piece of food you eat. Those who have counted calories for years probably notice it’s the first thing they see when they look at food – ‘a banana, that’s about 100 calories’.
Sustained calorie counting has the potential to trigger or exacerbate eating disorders. Some evidence suggests over time more than one in three dieters develop disordered food habits with some going on to develop clinically diagnosed eating disorders.
For example, science suggests it can actually lead to binge-eating episodes. After overthinking our meals and food and restricting ourselves, we’re more prone to overeat in response to emotions.
This can develop into a dangerous, unhealthy cycle of restriction, binging, followed by more restriction, preventing us from losing weight and even causing us to gain weight in the long-term.
Whilst displaying these behaviours occasionally isn’t classed as an eating disorder, they can develop into the clinically diagnosed Binge Eating Disorder (BED) if they aren’t managed.
On top of this, calorie-counting promotes food labelling, particularly with words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘treat’, or ‘sin’. Attaching moral value to foods is unhealthy behaviour.
All foods provide different benefits and there are some we should try to eat more of regularly, and some we should enjoy occasionally. None are inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and using this terminology creates an unhealthy relationship with food, further promoting a binge mentality.
|Higher calorie, healthy||Lower calorie, unhealthy|
|Breakfast||Blueberry oatmeal pancakes with a spoon of natural yoghurt, 410 calories||2 slices of toast with low-fat spread, 280 calories|
|Drink||Coffee with full fat milk, 100 calories||Coffee with low-fat milk and artificial sweetener, 40 calories|
|Lunch||2 large halloumi and vegetable skewers, 380 calories||2 slices of ham, a handful of crisps, some lettuce and tomatoes|
|Snack||Apple slices with a large spoon of peanut butter, 220 calories||1 spoon of cottage cheese on a ryvita cracker with artificial sweetener, 110 calories|
|Dinner||Homemade butter chicken curry with green vegetables, 420 calories||Chicken breast with steamed broccoli and rice, 290 calories|
|Dessert||2 squares of 70+ dark chocolate, 100 calories||1 low-fat chocolate mousse, 75 calories|
|Results||– Keeps you fuller for longer
– Reduces sweet cravings
– Provides a variety of vitamins and minerals which support good sleep, energy levels, and bodily functions.
|– Hard to keep up in the long term
– Mostly bland, beige foods
– Low vitamin and fibre diversity – Leaves you hungry between meals
– Increases sweet cravings
All calories aren’t equal
Aside from the psychological effect that calorie counting can promote, it assumes that all calories are digested the same way and have similar effects on our body. This isn’t the case.
Not all calories are created equal and they shouldn’t be viewed as equal sources of energy.
How to break the habit of calorie-counting
For many of us, the behaviour of calorie-counting is ingrained in our daily lives and it can be a tough habit to break. Here are five steps to practise on repeat and break to cycle:
- Delete anything that promotes calorie-counting: Delete or throw away calorie-counting apps or calorie logging books. This removes triggers in our environment that might promote the behaviour.
- Eat enough: That’s not a typo! Making sure we’re eating three balanced meals a day that keeps us fuller for longer decreases our chances of cravings and binge episodes later in the day.
- Detach moral value from foods: Write down some foods you consider ‘bad’ according to calories. Next to each, write down the benefits of the food, which could be ‘keeps me full’ or ‘tastes delicious’. Then whenever you catch yourself calling these foods ‘bad’ refer to this list.
- Practise mindful eating: Try eating meals and snacks distraction-free (i.e not in front of the TV). Focus on the look, smell, flavour, and texture of your food whilst enjoying it. Slow down your eating, and try to listen to your internal hunger/fullness cues.
- Be kind to yourself: It’s challenging to ditch unhealthy habits that we’ve been practising for years or even decades. It takes time and persistence. Be kind to yourself if it doesn’t happen straight away.
If you feel you’ve developed disordered eating behaviours from calorie counting and struggle to stop, consult your clinician for support and medical advice.
To illustrate this, consider 500 calories of sweets and biscuits and 500 calories of chicken and avocado.
Despite the same number of calories, we’d gain many more vitamins, minerals, and fibre from the chicken and avocado. Getting enough varied vitamins and minerals in our diet contributes to good sleep, which has direct and indirect effects on our weight.
Plus the higher amount of protein and fats would keep us fuller for longer and reduce our cravings later in the day. If we experience fewer cravings and feelings of hunger over time, we’re much more likely to lose weight and keep it off.
On top of the fact not all calories provide equal benefits to us, they’re also not digested the same way in our bodies.
Recent research suggests the number of calories labelled on nuts, for example, isn’t actually the number of calories we’d take in from eating them.
Nuts are ‘high’ in calories as they contain relatively large amounts of fat, but when you eat whole nuts, some of the fat is protected by sturdy structures (plant cell walls) which our bodies can’t break down.
One study suggested we might actually be taking in 32% fewer calories than what’s listed on the packet labels (although this varies between individuals).
Contrastingly, if we were to eat a refined doughnut the calories from the fat would be accessible to our digestive system.
Treating all calories as equal also doesn’t account for long-term effects on our bodies. Eating too many refined carbohydrates, like doughnuts or white bread, for example, can lead to high blood sugars and promote fat storage.
In the short term, blood sugar spikes can leave you feeling low on energy and increase your cravings for sugary foods. In the long term, consistently high blood sugar levels can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
3. Does Calorie counting ever work?
We’re all unique, physically and psychologically, and so calorie counting can work for some people.
For example, a large, ongoing study demonstrated placing people on a very low-calorie diet for a while and then slowly reintroducing a healthy, balanced diet, led to significant weight loss and type 2 diabetes remission.
It’s not that energy balance isn’t important – it’s more there are much healthier and more sustainable ways to lose weight. Plus, the people in the study above are medically supervised and have expert advice at their fingertips.
Many of us who count calories end up achieving a calorie deficit (taking in fewer calories than we use up), and losing weight in the short-term but then our metabolism and hormones adjust to this ‘new normal’, promoting fat gain and increased appetite.
Evidence suggests a lower carbohydrate diet is an extremely effective alternative for weight loss, for those of us living in the real world.
As a lower-carbohydrate diet is naturally higher in protein and fat, you’re not left feeling hungry, which means you’re more likely to stick to your healthy eating plan in the long term.
In addition, there are other factors aside from our diet that are necessary to see long-term results, which calorie counting doesn’t consider. These include our sleep, stress, mindfulness habits, and motivation.