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The Dark Side of Calories

The Dark Side of Calories

Yes, in those Star Wars times I thought that’d be a great title for explaining why you should stop counting calories. As in, now.

The conventional weight-loss guides tell you that it’s easy-peasy: the surplus amount of calories you eat is what you’ll gain and vice versa. They’ll tell you that to lose weight you need to just cut down on your calories and BAM, you’re halfway there.

So if you eat a snickers bar all you need to do is go for a 6km run and those well-enjoyed calories will be gone like Puff the Magic Dragon.
I suggest that this is not an ideal measure to go by when your goal is to make a sustainable change in your lifestyle. I counted calories for years, and it never worked. For two reasons:

  1. We don’t get fat by eating fat
  2. Unless you have the willpower of a Yorkshire Terrier, you’ll binge eat

Wait…. We don’t get fat by eating fat? Sounds almost too good to be true. It’s not Let’s have a look at those two reasons:

1. We don’t get fat by eating fat

Food is not just about calories. The body’s hormonal responses to carbs, protein and fat are different.
A calorie is defined as the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius, and it is usually measured through incineration.
Example: a strawberry goes into what’s called a “bomb calorimeter” and gets incinerated. The bomb measures the heat produced, which then represents the amount of energy of the strawberry. Wonderful, right?
Now, human stomachs don’t exactly work like a calorimeter (or a toaster, for that matter). The problem with this way of measuring is that not all the energy in foods is completely digested or absorbed. The number of calories actually absorbed vary according to the individual as well as the type of food.
In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2008, US Department of Agriculture researcher David Baer found that from whole almonds the body absorbs about 20% less calories than the value calculated with the traditional method. Essentially this has to do with how whole nuts are absorbed by the body – because with whole nuts, a significant amount of the fat ends up coming out your butt. Pretty sweet – now if you believe in counting calories you can go and get yourself 20% more almonds. Score!
But that’s not the only reason.
In a metabolic study by Pawan and Keckwick, subjects (the fancy scientific way of saying “people” in a study) were divided into three groups and given calorically equal diets for a week. Those diets included 90% of the three different macronutrients: protein, fat and carbohydrates.
They then observed the outcomes of these different diets. Subjects reacted very differently to the diets.
Out of protein, fat and carbs, which one do you think produced the biggest change in weight loss?

Here are the results:

1000 calories, of which 90% was fat:
Weight loss of 408g/day

1000 calories, of which 90% was protein:
Weight loss of 272g/day

1000 calories, of which 90% was:
Weight gain of 108g/day

That’s right: you don’t get fat by eating fat. You get fat by eating sugar. Now that’s a pretty clear proof against conventional theory.
In other words – you’re better off sustaining a diet of eating pure butter or egg whites than one eating sugar or bread. Now it doesn’t take much logic to think that none of these are optimal. Our bodies need all macronutrients. But let’s stop being so scared of fat – after trying out various “diets” myself, in the lifestyle I sustain now fat has as essential a role as Lily has to Marshall. Butter is in every corner of my cooking.

2. Unless you have the willpower of a Yorkshire Terrier, you’ll binge eat on a low calorie diet

In my years of weight-scale addiction (yes, it’s a thing) and dieting, I used a website to count calories – I typed in everything I ate, which served two purposes: I knew what I consumed and I knew I had to type it in every time I ate something. It’s no self-confidence boost telling your MacBook that you just consumed a takeout pizza and two packs of gummy bears. Admittedly, that did reduce the amount of salty fish (a delicious Danish liquorice sweet that only Danes understand) I ate on a daily basis.

Now this seems relatively simple and in theory should work, right? It felt great to write down that I just ate a tuna salad full of nutritious veggies (although typing in all the types of vegetables took ages).
But for various reasons, this method just doesn’t work – at least for me and everybody I know that’s been on a low-calorie diet.
Putting everything I consume through a scale just to track every bite I eat during the day is simply just way too time consuming for what I get out of it.
What’s worse – when I then went through a few days of successful dieting and stepped on the scale, I’d happily conclude that I lost a pound during the last two days (which might by the way be related to a lot of temporary changes such as the amount of water in my body, so really this was not a great measure) and think alright, then it won’t be too bad if I eat a few salty fish. Problem is, after I ate it, I’d tend to want more. I’d end up eating the whole pack – wonderful at the moment, but that much liquorice and sugar at once will make your teeth feel funny and your stomach turn.
About the psychological part, which plays a larger role in weight loss than most of us think - I’d see this “falling back” as a failure, which made it much harder to stick to the diet in the future.
This just doesn’t work out in the long run. It’s alright to eat the “bad stuff” now and then, but if you do it planned you’ll be much more likely to be able to sustain your way of living. More on that later.

Do you agree? Have you tried low-calorie diets? Did they work for you?


This article is a small part of the soon-to-be-released book The 1-Hour Goddess: A Woman’s Guide to Happiness: Quit Cardio, Lose Fat and Get Fit by Lifting. You can read more about the book here.

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