The Thin Evidence of Counting Calories

It’s not the quantity that counts.

If you’re one of 45 million Americans planning a low-calorie, quick-fix diet to solve your weight or health problem, take some advice: Don’t. Many doctors, nutritionists and food marketers actively promote restrictive eating, but there are good reasons to take a different approach.

According to Scientific American, the source of your calories is more important than just how many you eat. In fact, what makes us fat is not necessarily just a calorie imbalance but also a hormonal divergence, with the prime suspect being the quality of the foods we consume.

A Faulty Beginning

In 1921, Lulu Hunt Peters wrote the first American blockbuster diet book, Diet and Health, With Key to the Calories. Since then, restricting calories has been the main form of “dieting.” Peters wrote, “A person can eat what they like—candy, pie, cake, fat meat, butter, cream—but they need to count calories!”

Seventy years later, not much had changed. The American Journal of Medicine said that between 1980 and 1990, Americans were consuming 4 percent fewer calories and 11 percent less fats than before, and fat-free food consumption rose from 19 percent to 76 percent. Yet over the same decade, obesity in America rose a bewildering 31 percent.

Now we are over 90 years on, and the long-held notion of calorie restriction still hovers at a dismal 95 percent long-term failure rate; often, it proves harmful. Yet people continue to count their calories—and eat “low calorie” pre-packaged pies, cakes and so on as they do.

A Hormonal Issue?

Calories are important factors in weight loss and weight maintenance. But food quality is more important. More and more experts are seeing that it is better to consume quality food than to reduce calories. Unfortunately in America, convenience food is found in every nook and cranny. The average American now consumes 2,481 calories a day, about 23 percent more than in 1970.

As a person becomes conscious of weight gain, he often cuts back on calories. Instead of reaching for healthier, more natural foods, many turn to more processed, low-calorie options, with unexpected results. They do not stop to realize that a given calorie’s worth of salmon, olive oil, white rice or boxed cereal each has a different effect in the body. Whole foods inhibit appetite and promote energy, while processed foods promote hunger and energy storage.

Dr. David Ludwig, author of Always Hungry, writes that we have to think about obesity in terms of what makes us overeat: “When you’re gaining weight, something has triggered your fat cells to store too much energy, which doesn’t leave enough for the rest of the body. That ‘something’ is often the hormone insulin.”

While generally there is no one whole-food nutrient to blame for insulin trouble and weight gain, Ludwig correctly singles out refined grains, starches and sugars (found in many low-calorie foods) as the principal drivers. When your body’s insulin response is out of control, cutting back further on calories can actually make the problem worse. The excess insulin secretion causes cells to retain fat rather than using it to fuel the body. As few as 10 or 20 calories stored as excess fat each day can lead to obesity over decades.

Some experts still insist that all grains are problematic, but this is not true if they are complex and unprocessed. It’s the hyper-processed, overly stimulating foods with their intense taste and textures that are unhealthy and create food addictions. They also put the brakes on satiating hormonal signals, slow down your metabolism, cause thyroid hormones to drop and cortisol levels to rise, and activate fat-storage enzymes. The end result: excess body fat storage.

Journal Your Way to Health

Our bodies are complex and intricate creations. Since we must store nutrients continually in the body, we also have to eat a balanced, nutritious daily diet. Depriving the body of healthy food—or much food at all—in order to lose weight is the worst thing to do.

Natural foods, which have the highest nutritional content, do not need nutrition labels because they are often the lowest in calories anyway. But even natural meat and dairy foods that have higher calorie counts will nourish your body when consumed with the proper balance. To make sure you eat enough natural foods, you have to understand your eating habits. The easiest way to do so is not to relentlessly track every calorie based on its packaging and labels, but to instead keep a simple daily food journal. Note what you eat and how much, as well as perhaps when and why. This can be as simple as leaving a notepad out near the kitchen or in a kitchen drawer and jotting down, 3 cups spaghetti, 2 cups broccoli, 1 glass water.

The Creator of the human body also designed the food that fuels it. Humanly manufactured and mass-produced products simply are not proper fuel. God’s principle in eating, as with many other aspects of life, is always balance. Whether you have a weight or health problem, you don’t need to restrict your calories. You can undo decades of unbalanced and excessive eating by sticking to a wide variety of high-quality, fresh, natural, unprocessed foods. As you adjust your expectations and your taste buds to this type of eating, you will find it to be free of unpleasant side effects, filling, easily sustained and much tastier!