It’s time to bury the world’s most misleading measure. For nearly a century, we’ve seen dieters try and fail using to lose weight by obsessively counting calories. Over these years, many diet fads have come and gone with this same idea of counting to cut lbs. While it may work as a short term fix, even research has now come to show that successful, long-term weight loss often eludes a simple “calories in/calories out” formula. The problem, of course, is that this formula is grossly oversimplified; food is not simply calories but information. This information is used to influence multiple biological pathways. Calorie for calorie, different foods influence the pathways in different ways which in the long term also controls our weight. This blog post aims to introduce just 6 things that are more important than counting calories. If you would like to dive deeper into nutrition check out our Nutrition & Health Coaching Course.

6 things that are more important than counting calories

Food Quality

Calorie counting doesn’t take into account the quality of the food you are eating. In fact, many turn to artificially-made low-calorie foods like snack bars, ready meals, artificial sugar-sweetened beverages, etc for their daily nutrient intake. Eating this way not only takes away from nurturing your body for health (i.e. let food be thy medicine) but it’s also being shown as not as effective for weight loss. Why? Connect the dots with points 2 and 5 below.

Even research is showing this – one study published in JAMA found that “people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while instead eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods and not worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes, lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year.”

Key takeaway: Bear in mind that when calorie counting first came out, we didn’t have much of the food you would find in supermarkets today. But over the years, just like the gluten-free aisle, low calorie and low fat has boomed. To help your journey, instead of choosing foods solely based on their caloric value, think about high-quality foods that are minimally processed i.e. the gold rule: if your grandmother would recognise it, go for it!

Micronutrients

The food we eat consists of macro and micronutrients. Macronutrients consist of protein, carbs and fats while the micronutrients consist of vitamins, minerals and microminerals. If you think about macros as your building blocks, the micronutrients are the project managers and workers who put these in their respective place.

Key takeaway: Micronutrients are responsible for linking the connections and ensuring the various areas in your body get the missing pieces they need to make energy, repair, build new muscle and so on. Because of this, they play a key role in keeping your body happy from your immune system to your gut health.

Sleep

A single night of bad sleep is enough to raise your insulin resistance, increase your cravings and drop your energy expenditure (i.e. calories out). Our digestive system too follows a circadian rhythm, performing key tasks during sleep. Late nights with late night snacks can affect certain digestive signals; ghrelin (spiking appetite) and leptin (promoting fat storage).

Lack of adequate sleep is also catabolic, meaning it can have a big impact on muscle gain/retention. Muscle mass helps you not only look good (toned) but also affects your metabolism (more muscle = higher metabolism). There’s a lot more to talk about in this point but as a final note, a lack of sleep is an additional stressor. Check out the next point for more on that.

For tips on sleep, we have a post here.

Key Takeaway: if you’re trying to lose weight or fat, sleep is essential

Stress

The body is programmed for survival, not weight loss. This directly feeds into our energy expenditure in a number of ways. One significant factor that can throw everything off – stress.

Stress manifests in many different ways and most of us are exposed to many on a daily basis.  Calorie cutting falls into this group.

Your body can handle calorie cutting for short periods when it can look to fat stores for energy. But when calories are reduced a significant amount for a prolonged period of time, your body will start to adjust accordingly, reducing the amount of energy being exerted. Chronic stress can actually cause the preservation of fat ‘just in case’.

Key takeaway: for successful weight loss and health in general, it should be a primary focus to manage stress every single day. Start with the ones you can control and remove. There’s no simple answer with diet as everyone responds differently. If you’ve been cutting calories for some time and feel that your progress has come to halt there’s a couple of options to try. Raising calories is a good first call, making sure that the ones you do consume are from nutrient-rich sources. If you’re training, increasing the number of rest days is another point of call. Remember that this process is dynamic, so what works for a while may not keep working. And don’t forget sleep! 

Gut & Digestive Health

The health of your digestive tract is paramount to health but also to weight loss. Research is only beginning to uncover the power of the bacteria that reside in the gut, forming our gut flora. Proper digestion and absorption of food is essential to weight and fat loss. As already mentioned, our body is a complex system of moving parts that cannot function properly without the right nutrients. If your body is deficient, it’s not going to perform.

Consider how often you suffer from symptoms of indigestion – bloating, reflux, gas, inconsistent bowel movements etc. If your diet is low in nutrients and high in processed foods, it could be the cause. What specifically causes digestive imbalance in these foods? High processed/refined omega 6 fats, artificial ingredients, sweeteners, transfats etc.

“Altogether, your gut is a huge chemical factory that helps to digest food, produce vitamins, regulate hormones, excrete toxins, produce healing compounds and keep your gut healthy” (source)

There are trillions of bacteria in your gut, and they collectively contain at least 100 times as many genes as you do. The links between chronic illness and an imbalanced microbiome keeps growing every day. Bacteria in the gut play a number of different roles:

  • they ferment fibre to produce short-chain fatty acids which are then used for energy.
  • Short-chain fatty acids also help with the absorption of certain nutrients
  • They synthesize vitamin B and K for our body to absorb
  • They control the integrity of our gut lining
  • They help support the immune system, 80% of which resides in the gut.

Key takeaway: Eat whole unprocessed foods, primarily fibre rich vegetables, add plenty of omega 3 fats and fermented foods. This, of course, is broad advice but a good starting point nonetheless. If you want to go more in depth, you might look at an elimination diet.

Chewing

Chewing falls into the food hygiene category i.e. not what you eat but how you eat. Chewing is a key part of the process for a couple of reasons:

    1. Chewing is part of the digestive cycle. First, chewing mechanically breaks down food into smaller parts making the rest of the process easier.
    2. Second, it helps more saliva to coat the food, which contains specific enzymes to
    3. By mechanically breaking down the food, you’re able to absorb more nutrients and energy from each bite.

Some simple tips to get you in the habit of chewing better:

  • Chew slowly and steadily
  • Chew until your mouthful of food is liquefied or lost all of its texture
  • Finish chewing and swallowing completely before taking another bite of food
  • Avoid fluids full stop or keep to a small sip

These points above serve as the first set of 7 points to consider. There’s actually a lot more – exercise, food label inaccuracy, macronutrients, your current metabolism, muscle mass, weight loss vs fat loss etc. We’ll cover that in a future blog.

As a summary, in an ideal scenario, all that complexity is handled “under the hood”. In nature, animals don’t calorie count or think about what to eat or how to move. For hundreds of thousands of years, we didn’t either. We’d just eat, move, sleep and somehow all the dots would connect. Modern food production, constant food availability and our 21st-century comfortable lifestyle (with plenty of sitting) means that we’ve lost track of this innate ability to follow our body’s natural rhythms. So what do I do?

Summary

So there you have it, 6 things that are more important than counting calories. Stay tuned as we continue the conversation in the next post. At the end of the day, you have to be in an overall deficit for the scale to move. But the calorie in/out equation has multiple factors to it that you can play with that doesn’t include counting calories. To break down the equation a bit more.

On the calories in side we have food and liquids.

On the calories out, we have BMR, exercise-activity, NEAT and TEF.

We’ll dig into this in later posts. Hopefully, the above has helped get you started!

If you would like to dive deeper into nutrition check out our Nutrition Courses.