Counting Your Calories? It Might Not Be The Best Way To Track Nutrition

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The nutrition facts label on the side of a cereal box is photographed in Washington. (J. David Ake, File/AP)
The nutrition facts label on the side of a cereal box is photographed in Washington. (J. David Ake, File/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Not all calories are the same, so why are we still using them as the measure for nutrition?

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Peter Wilson, London-based freelance writer.

Susan Roberts, professor of nutrition and psychiatry, Tufts University (@TuftsNutrition). Founder of the iDiet weight management program. Co-author of "The Instinct Diet: Use Your Five Food Instincts to Lose Weight and Keep it Off."

'Death Of The Calorie'? What Happened?

It used to be pretty simple — at least on the surface. For more than 100 years, the calorie has been instrumental in how we understand food, diet and nutrition.

The mantra? Burn more calories than you consume. That's the key to weight loss. But it's much more complicated than that, Peter Wilson argues.

"Calorie counting simply doesn't work. And worse than that it leaves people struggling with their weight full of shame and guilt thinking it's their fault," he told On Point's Meghna Chakrabarti. "Because what we're telling them is that if you are not losing weight the way you'd like to then you're either too greedy or you're too lazy, you're eating too much or you're not doing enough exercise, and it's a lot more complicated than that."

The Origins And History Of A Flawed System

So how did we get here? Wilson says our obsession with the calorie comes from German research conducted in the 1800s that was brought to the public by American agricultural chemist Wilbur Atwater.

"He knew very little about modern science, but he came up with these numbers — the estimate that a gram of fat, on average, contains nine calories, and that a gram of protein or carbohydrate contains four calories," Wilson said. "Now here we are 120 years later, those numbers have been proven to be wrong, but they are so embedded into our thinking and our health system that the United Nations, the World Health Organization, governments around the world say, 'Well, it's just too hard to change now.' We've got databases everywhere, it's written on every label you see. Those numbers are just not accurate."

Wilson also says our measuring and labeling of calories — on food packaging containers, on exercise machines, on wearable fitness trackers — is flawed.

"The reality is those numbers are almost always wrong. Every bit of research that's conducted finds that they're almost never within 10 percent of the real number."

So should we scrap the system entirely?

Not quite, says Susan Roberts.

"I think when it comes to calories we need to hold two thoughts in our head. One is that calorie counting really doesn't work for most people for weight loss. I actually think it sabotages weight loss from most people," Roberts said. "But on the other hand I still like the calories as a system and I actually don't think that they're that inaccurate."

Roberts says, big picture, the calorie system is still helpful, even if it's not the system on which we should entirely base our weight loss or nutrition programs.

"At the 10,000-foot level, imagine this: You go into a restaurant and one of the entrees is 600 calories, and the other is 4,000 calories, and you see those differences in restaurants. So, if you eat the 600 calories, you come out, and tomorrow you have not gained body fat. If you eat the 4,000, tomorrow morning you've got a pound more body fat around your stomach than you had last night. At that level, I think the calories are worth keeping."

How do we proceed?

Roberts shared some of her own experience with weight loss and the program she recommends for dieters:

"We do take calories into account but we have an enormous number of self-selection menus in which we've got everybody's favorite tastes. But the composition is tweaked so that they're less hunger promoting and they keep you full for longer, and then we have behavioral support every week to help them retrain their brain. We've done studies and it's not rocket science, you just build the science into the menus. People can pick which things they want. The cravings drop off the map because they're full. They develop habits because they do these things repetitively, and it works much better in calorie counting."

And Wilson, sharing his own weight loss journey, says this is the only story he's ever done "that has actually extended my life expectancy."

"I'd been told that I was pre-diabetic, I had to lose weight urgently and I just couldn't really do it," he said. "When I was asked by 1843 Magazine to looking into the calorie, for this story I started speaking to people like Professor Roberts and other people with a more nuanced, intelligent approach to calories. And I basically just changed the way I think about food.

"I started only eating when I'm hungry ... and began to eat food just as a healthy fuel, which it's supposed to be. I got rid of all the low-cal, diet, sort of low-fat products that I've always eaten, thinking I was doing the right thing. I went back to sort of whole cream milk, leaving fat on on bacon and some meat, which in turn made me feel more full and less hungry. I started eating some fermented foods. I kept drinking alcohol. I cut out soft drinks 100 percent, and I've lost 28 pounds without any hunger involved, any willpower involved, just thinking a bit differently about what I'm doing with food."

From The Reading List

The Economist: "Death of the Calorie" — "The first time that Salvador Camacho thought he was going to die he was sitting in his father’s Chrysler sedan with a friend listening to music. The 22-year-old engineering student was parked near his home in the central Mexican city of Toluca and in the fading evening light he didn’t notice two tattooed men approach. Tori Amos’s hit, 'Bliss,' had just started playing when the gang members pointed guns at the young men.

"So began a 24-hour ordeal. Strong willed and solidly built, Camacho was singled out as the more stubborn of the pair. He was blindfolded and beaten. One robber eventually threw him to the ground, put a gun to the back of his head and told him it was time to die. He passed out, waking in a field with his hands tied behind his back, almost naked.

"Camacho survived but, traumatised, he sank into depression. Soon he was drinking heavily and binge eating. His weight ballooned from a trim 70kg to 103kg.

"That led to his second near-death experience, eight years later, in 2007. He remembers waking up and blinking at bright lights: he was being wheeled on a stretcher into a hospital emergency ward, with an attack of severe arrhythmia, or irregular heart beat. 'A cardiologist told me that if I didn’t lose weight and get my health under control I would be dead in five years,' he says.

"That second crisis forced Camacho belatedly to deal with the trauma of the first. To help with what he now understands was post-traumatic stress disorder, he started having counselling and taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. To address his physical health, he tried to lose weight. This effort propelled him to the centre of one of the most fraught scientific debates of our age: the calorie wars, a fierce disagreement about diet and weight control.

"Today, more than a decade after his cardiologist’s stark warning, Camacho lives in the Swiss city of Basel. He is relaxed and confident, except when two topics come up. When he recounts his kidnapping his gaze drops, his smile vanishes and he becomes noticeably quieter, although he says his panic attacks have virtually disappeared. The other touchy topic is weight control, which causes him to shake his head in anger at what he and millions of other dieters have gone through. 'It’s just ridiculous,' he says with exasperation and a touch of venom. 'People are living with real pain and guilt and all they get is advice that is confused or just plain wrong.'

"The guidance that Camacho’s doctors gave him, along with a string of nutritionists and his own online research, was unanimous. It would be familiar to the millions of people who have ever tried to diet. 'Everybody tells you that to lose weight you have to eat less and move more,' he says, 'and the way to do that is to count your calories.' "

Bloomberg: "Opinion: The Case Against Counting Calories" — "Over the last couple of years, scientific studies have cast doubt on the simple and elegant idea of calorie counting. No one’s disputing the physics of it: A calorie is nothing but a measurement of the energy stored in food, and indeed, if you eat too few calories, you will start burning up your own tissue. What’s being called into question is the conventional wisdom that to lose weight, people should readjust their ratio of calories eaten to calories burned.

"For example, a spate of recent studies have shown people who start exercise programs fail to lose much weight. One study found that people who did lose large amounts of weight later gained 70 percent of it back, even though they continued to consume fewer calories. The problem is that we’re not in charge of running our bodies. Even with modern food labeling and calorie-counting apps, forces beyond our conscious control keep fiddling with how many calories we burn each day, and how hungry we feel.

"The longstanding illusion of control has implications for America’s health care policy, since obesity is tied to the major killers — heart disease; diabetes; and, to a lesser extent, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Many Americans wrongly think that the two-thirds of their fellow citizens who are overweight or obese are to blame for eating too many calories.

"But a recent study out of Stanford University suggests that the solution to obesity isn’t what people have been led to believe. Researchers divided 609 overweight volunteers into two groups. They were instructed to eat as much food as they wanted, either on a low-carbohydrate/high-fat diet or a low-fat/high-carbohydrate diet. They were told not to count calories or control portions, but simply to avoid soda and other sugary drinks, white bread, and industrial junk foods (even if, as is so often the case, it was advertised as 'low-fat' or 'low-carb')."

Popular Science: "Sloppy calorie counting can still help you lose weight" — "Tracking every morsel that enters your mouth sounds exhausting to a lot of people. It feels like it takes forever and it means constantly monitoring yourself—and who even knows how many grams a floret of broccoli weighs?

"A new study in the journal Obesity suggests that it actually takes less time than you’d think: only about 23 minutes per day at the start, on average, going down to just 15 minutes once you’re used to calorie counting. But even 15 minutes can feel like a burden if you're doing something you hate.

"So let’s not focus on the time it takes. Let’s focus on a side of calorie counting that a lot of people detest: the need to meticulously track your food. Few people want to weigh every ounce of meat or rice or fruit they consume, and for some, that’s not even logistically feasible. For those folks, this study has some good news. The people who lost the most weight (shedding at least ten percent of their body mass) weren’t necessarily those who spent the most minutes per day logging their diet. They were the people who logged the most frequently."

Newsweek: "What is Intuitive Eating? The Science of the Diet in Which No Food Is Off-Limits" — "Diets for weight loss usually involve restriction. The 5:2 diet relies on restricting calories, and the ketogenic diet relies on restricting particular types of food.

"However, research suggests that restrictive dieting can lead to a higher body mass index (BMI) over time, and a greater future likelihood of being overweight. There is also evidence suggesting that food restriction can lead to a preoccupation with food, guilt about eating and higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress. So if diets don’t always help you lose weight and could contribute to psychological problems, what other solutions are there? Recently there has been an increased focus on the concept of 'intuitive eating.'

"Intuitive eating was popularized by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who published a book on the subject and developed a website dedicated to the topic.

"The goal of eating intuitively is to listen to your body and allow it to guide you on when and how much to eat, rather than being influenced by your environment, emotions or the rules prescribed by diets. The concept is similar to mindful eating, and the terms are often used interchangeably."

Brian Hardzinski produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on April 08, 2019.

This program aired on April 8, 2019.



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