The secret to weight loss, so they say, is mathematical. Simply put, the amount of calories you put into your body has to be less than the amount of calories you use. If calories in minus calories out equals a negative number, you will lose weight. If it is a positive number, you put weight on. As a result, many of us count calories, writing down everything we eat and doing complicated additions and subtractions just to make sure we lose weight. But when we pop on the scale, nothing has happened. Or, if it has, it is the opposite of what we expected: we put weight on! So how is this possible? Is the mathematical equation wrong, or are we doing something wrong? Unfortunately, it is more likely to be the latter. Here’s why calorie counting goes wrong for many of us.
You’re Counting It All Wrong
First of all, it is highly likely that you are counting your calories completely wrong. The International Food Information Council Foundation has reported that some 67% of people take calories into consideration when they buy their food, yet 90% don’t really know what they need. Plus, research shows we lie to ourselves as well.
Although the U.S. food supply produces 3,900 calories for each person per day, men claim to eat an average of 2,618 daily calories, while women report eating only 1,877.
The reality is that we round our calories off downwards, when we should round them off upwards. We estimate our portions and generally get our portions wrong. There is a whole list of reasons as to why people think they only consume a certain amount of calories but, in fact, consume far more.
Not All Calories Are Created Equally
One of the reasons why people like calories is because they are a simple number, and it enables you to calculate exactly how much you are able to consume of a certain food. Unfortunately, the calories in a lean protein like turkey, for instance, are not the same as the calories in butter. So just because two foods may have the same calorie amount, it doesn’t mean that the same thing happens in your body. One of the reasons for this is what is known as the thermic effect of food.
There was a study years ago on people who ate two different grilled cheese sandwiches: white bread with American cheese and whole-grain with cheddar cheese. Although the calorie counts were identical, the people who ate the healthier sandwich burned more calories.
The reason for this is that your body has to work harder in order to digest the healthier food, and when it works harder, it burns more calories. You also have to consider the fact that certain calories, such as those found in protein, keep you feeling fuller for longer. If, for instance, you eat a packet of chips, you will feel hungry again after about 10 minutes. Eat the same amount of calories in a healthy meal, and you could go for a few hours before having to eat again.
You Are Stuck in a Confirmation Bias
A confirmation bias is a psychological effect in which you essentially tell yourself what you want to hear, and you believe it. How often have you heard an overweight person say that they genuinely only eat salad, yet the weight isn’t coming off? They aren’t purposefully lying, not even telling a little white lie. They genuinely don’t remember that they also ate several chocolate bars, cookies, and other snack foods. This is known as the confirmation bias.
Whatever diet the person used to lose weight, they started it because they believed it would help them lose weight. They wanted it to work, which means they were more likely to overlook anything that might prove it wouldn’t (a confirmation bias). Likewise, if they start calorie counting with the idea that it won’t work, they’re more likely to give a weak effort or purposely fail.
Your Body Is Working Against You
It is likely that you have heard of ‘starvation mode’, which is the idea that, if you stop feeding your body what it is used to, it will start to conserve as much energy as possible. This, unfortunately, is a true effect. It means that, while you may lose quite a bit of weight from counting calories at first, you will soon stop seeing those types of results, and your weight loss will stagnate or even stop altogether.
During calorie restriction, the body “defends” its body weight by lowering resting metabolic rate and reducing spontaneous physical activity. To keep weight loss going, you often have to lower food intake even more (to counteract the reduced metabolic rate).
This effect is surprisingly small and you can actually counteract it by doing simple things like twiddling your thumbs, shaking your feet, and shivering. But the reality is that your hormones are telling your body that food is scarce. Hormones don’t understand the desire to lose weight, they simply react to factors inside your body, unfortunately.
Counting Calories Simply Doesn’t Work
Last but not least, there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that counting calories simply doesn’t work. We have been blinded by the idea that it is all about simple mathematics, but there are actually so many different factors at play. While calculating your eating is important, it is far more about eating the right things than about how much you eat.
Eat more nutrient- and water-dense foods, like fruits and vegetables, as they contain far fewer calories per unit of volume than calorie-dense foods like cooked rice or butter. And research shows that we tend to eat about the same weight of food at meals, so piling on raw veggies instead of macaroni and cheese will satisfy you for fewer calories.
So should you throw calorie counting out the window? No, because it is all too easy to eat bad things instead. But what is more important is that you change your lifestyle so that you eat healthy things, in the right portions.