Are Calories All That Matter In Weight Loss?

Nutrition advice, especially when it comes to weight loss, is very common these days. What’s more, it can be contentious and confusing. There are competing opinions everywhere.

It wasn’t so long ago that we were being told low fat was the way to go. More recently it’s been low carb, and now there’s the ketogenic diet which is high in fat. Atkins, Paleo, Carnivore, vegan, ….and the list goes on.

It’s hard to navigate the landscape. How can you know what works?

There used to be a time when all that seemed to matter was calories. “Exercise more and eat less” in order to create a calorie deficit, and that should see you lose the weight you want.

Yes, calories do matter and are important for weight loss. If you eat and absorb a load more than you use, your body will store some away for later.

But calories are not the be all and end all of weight loss, because the human body is not as simple or as linear as a simple equation.

We now know that our different genetic make up, combined with our underlying health and metabolic flexibility, makes a difference to how our body processes what we eat. And this can show up as excess weight, or not.

This may explain why your best friend or your colleague sitting across the office from you can eat a ton more than you can, yet not have to worry about their clothes seemingly shrinking in the wash over the weekend!

Here are 3 factors other than a simple calorie count that are also important when considering weight loss.

1. Quality of calories

When we think about calories, we’re essentially considering the energy value of the food. The body needs energy or fuel in order to function, and this measured in the form of calories. These calories come from what are known as macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates and fat. These are broken down by the body and converted into ATP, which is the fuel that the body uses.

However, the body needs more than just calories. It also needs an ample amount of nutrients by way of vitamins and minerals, in order to function properly.

Vitamins and minerals are used extensively for the millions of processes that occur in the body. For example, protein is broken down by the body into singular units called amino acids. One of those amino acids, carnitine, is used by the body in metabolising fat. Without sufficient carnitine, which comes from meat, fish, poultry and milk, the body’s ability to burn fat can be compromised, and this can itself impact on one’s ability to lose weight.

Here’s another example. A small avocado contains about 200 calories, which is similar to an original glazed doughnut. The doughnut is likely to use up more nutrients in the body to process it than is contained in the doughnut itself. However, the avocado contributes vitamins C, E, K, B5 and B6, folate, and copper, all nutrients which are used in the body to help with the energy production cycle.

The quality of the calories consumed is therefore also an important consideration and can make a significant difference to how your body responds when attempting to lose fat.

2. Are you eating enough?

This may seem like a paradox, especially since one of the most common beliefs surrounding weight loss is that the less you eat, then the more weight you’ll lose.

Significantly undereating may work at the beginning, but if carried on for an extended period of time, eating too little may backfire.

Through a process of “metabolic adaptation”, persistent undereating can result in weight loss that triggers the body to reduce its metabolism so that fewer calories are now needed to sustain the same level of bodyweight. Moreover, research further suggests that this may persist over the long-term, predisposing to weight regain.

Another aspect is not eating enough of the right foods. This may show up as what appears to be weight loss sabotaging behaviour, of giving in to food cravings. Food cravings can often be a sign that the body needs food because its blood sugar levels have dropped too low, from either eating too little, or not eating enough of the right foods.

Under these circumstances, we may wonder why we don’t seem to have enough willpower to resist the mid-afternoon sugary snack, when in fact, the brain no longer has the energy it needs to help sustain that willpower. Hence the cravings, to satisfy the body’s biochemical needs, including a replenishing of willpower.

3. Food is more than just fuel

It is widely accepted that food is fuel. But food is more than that. It is also connection.

We connect with friends and family over lunches or dinners. Good feelings may be anchored to certain foods, such as Grandma’s lasagne or a bar of chocolate we associated to happy days as a toddler. So we may learn to self-soothe or self-medicate with these foods, without realising that that’s what we’re doing. Then at other times, food helps us to celebrate.

Some people turn to food when feeling stressed. From a physiological perspective, “fight or flight” hormones drive blood sugar up to provide energy to handle the stressor. This can be translated as the need to eat sweet or sugary foods or drinks, or refined carbohydrates that turn quickly into sugar in the bloodstream, such as crisps. A similar scenario occurs when we’re tired.

The bottom line is that too many calories are consumed, not for the energy that the body needs, but because of underlying emotions that we may not be conscious of. And all these feelings interact with our gastrointestinal, nervous and hormonal systems; all of which influence our behaviour and hence, our calorie intake.

So the next time you find yourself reaching for those extra calories, consider what messages your body may be trying to convey. For example:

  • Do you need to improve the quality of what you’re eating to ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs? This is even more important if you’re working out or are highly active.
  • Could you benefit from supporting your stress resilience, through activities such as meditation, deep breathing or going for a walk?
  • Are you lacking sleep or needing better quality sleep? You may have to drill down further on this. For example, is your sleep disrupted due to too much caffeine especially after 2 p.m.? Or eating too late at night? Or drinking alcohol that helps you fall asleep quickly but compromises deep sleep?
  • Have you been skipping meals or leaving it too long before having breakfast? Sometimes, your body’s needs may be masked by grabbing that coffee first thing in the morning, to provide false energy.
  • Could your body be needing a different proportion of each of the macronutrients, protein, fat and carbohydrates? For example, might your body need more protein and fewer carbohydrates, or less fat? It can be worth experimenting with this, because doing the same thing over and over again will yield the same results.

Why not book a consultation for a general review of your nutrition with Veronica Lim who is partnered with PTF as our nutritionist.

Email to book.

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