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Calories - Counting Calories and their myth for weight loss

I saw a statement by the President of Weight Watchers stating how the points system had been dropped and counting calories was not the solution to weight loss the company once thought (see end of article for full quote). To any practitioner who has worked with people one on one then this comes as no surprise.

Calories and weight

Calories are a unit of energy and represents how much "energy" is within a given food. The studies would say that each gram of Protein or carbohydrate gives 4 calories (Kcal) each while alcohol provides 7 and Fat 9 calories. The theory then goes that the human body needs a certain amount of calories to survive each day and the body will either take fat stores to make up a deficit or put on fat if you over consume calorie intake incase there is a famine later on in life. This simplistic version assumes is based on the undeniable law that energy cannot just disappear. So to lose weight you can create a 500 calories deficit each day which creates a pound of body fat loss a week (0.5kg).

The calories weight loss model sounds perfect! The only problem is it does not work in the field of real life. I have seen many a person rant on TV, blogs or You Tube about the underpinning science of this but simply put it does not work in real life.

Problems with the theory

The main issue I have with the calories model I have is that it does not work! Aside from this technicality here are some points to think about

Calories are not created equally - The reason weight watchers dropped their system was that when all calories are equal 100 calories of cake becomes equal to 100 calories of vegetables. At the same time 100calories of protein is no different to 100 calories of carbs, fat or alcohol. It is obvious to all and anyone that cake and vegetables are not the same and neither would be the calories from different sources.

Ignoring micro nutrients and the effect of food - The calories model makes no allowance for the micro nutrients within food, e.g. vitamins and minerals. These obviously have a huge role to play.If by cutting down on food per se (to reduce calories) also reduces vitamin intake how does this affect the body?

Ignores hormonal impact on the body - The body is alot more than a giant calorie calculating machine. The calories model conveniently forgets this though and thus cannot explain why one person gains fat and another does not or vice versa why one person loses fat on a certain protocol and another does not. It does not account for how the body's hormone system is affected by reduction in calories, low blood sugar and so forth. It cannot explain why one person is fatter than the other when on the outside all things appear similar.

It cannot account for the lack of weight loss in runners, ill people and you! - Ever seen an overweight marathon runner? I have seen plenty! Check out the London marathon this year and you will see many (Not the guys winning it, I mean normal runners) a runner who is not that lean. Surely, if you are running many miles a week that will burn enough calories to return back to normal body fat levels? When people are ill and cannot eat you will more often than not, not find too much fat is lost. On a better and more personal note, how long have you eaten few calories yet not got the results you desire?

Problems with assumptions on calories in verses calories out - The calories model assumes that you must need a certain amount of calories to live. The theory does not really accommodate changes in dally need nor does it account for digestion efficiency. If you eat 200 grams of food then how do you know if you have actually absorbed all that food and used it for energy? It seems highly unlikely that you will absorbs 100% of the food you eat, especially with the state of most people's digestive systems.

Asks the body to be quite accurate or else! - Doing the maths, if you were to eat 150 calories a day too much, every day (roughly 7% too much a day) then in 5 years time you would have gained almost 80 pounds of fat (5 and half stone - 35Kg). All this from an large banana a a day!

Why not run ourselves into ground?? - If there were no body protecting mechanism then the people who are very lean would be in danger of running themselves into the ground by just a few days of crazy exercise and poor eating.

How calories fits into the equation

Despite the numerous points against the calories equation there are some merits to it. It is involved within the equation somewhere along the lines. Here is my take on it:

  • Cutting calories for the sake of it does not work and brings into play the reasons outlined above. This applies to the vast majority of the population.
  • Using excessive aerobic training is another way of cutting calories and in general does not work and in many makes body fat worse.
  • The types of foods you eat, the ratios you consume them in and the avoidance of sensitive foods is of primary importance to getting results. In other words, If you are not eating right it is unlikely you will get results.
  • The majority of people cannot cut calories - This debate is fairly redundant for the majority of the population because they cannot cut calories even when they want to. They are over ridden with hunger, food cravings, irritability, low energy, mood problems and cannot resist the abundance of food that is now on every street corner.
  • Cutting calories if you have blocking factors is beyond a disaster - If you have blocking factors, which are, non nutritional reasons that you cannot lose weight then dropping calories (whether right calories or wrong ones) is problematic. Instead you need to get into deeper health building options and strategies.
  • If the body wants to play along then reducing calories will get results in some people. For people with a friendly body or one that is primed to lose body fat then they can drop intake and lose fat. How this relates to long term behaviours of course would be the next step to evaluate once results have been obtained.

The quote from the Head of Weight Watchers (Source)


"David Kirchoff, president of Weight Watchers, the world's largest diet company, recently said on their website: "Calorie counting has become unhelpful. When we have a 100-calorie apple in one hand and a 100-calorie pack of cookies in the other, and we view them as being 'the same' because the calories are the same, it says everything that needs to be said about the limitations of just using calories in guiding food choices."

Kirchoff and Weight Watchers have eliminated the company's popular "Points" system, which encouraged dieters to lose weight by eating any foods as long as they kept the portions small. The new system tries to encourage dieters to consume more natural, less processed food"

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