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Do You Have to Count Calories to Lose Weight?

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It is often suggested that in order to lose weight or improve your body composition you need to watch what you eat – that makes sense; if you eat too much you’ll gain weight, not lose it. Many people choose to manage this by logging all of the foods they eat in a day and calculating overall intake – a process referred to as calorie counting.

But is this a necessary part of the weight loss cycle? In this article we’ll take a look at some of the more common pitfalls of monitoring energy intake. Read on to find out more…


Why do We Count Calories?

If you take in more energy than you burn off you start to put weight on – this is what’s called a positive energy balance. 

If you eat less than you burn off you’re in a negative energy balance and start to lose weight. And of course, if you eat the same amount as you burn you’ll maintain body weight – this is referred to as maintenance.

The concept of energy balancing is known as the calories in – calories out model, or CICO for short. Whilst it’s not the only hypothesis on weight management available, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to suggest that both body weight and composition is related to energy balance.

In order to effectively asses a person’s energy balance it needs to be measured. The Atwater system is a model that calculates the energy of food. It is based on the value in calories of the three macronutrients; carbs, fats and protein.

In this system carbs and proteins have a value of 4kcal per gram and fat has a value of 9kcal per gram. The only other energy-providing compound is that of ethanol (alcohol) which provides 7kcal per gram. No other nutrient provides calories or food energy.

So taking all of this into account, there’s a compelling argument for counting up the foods you eat.

But do you have to? Is there a way to lose weight and not count energy intake? Let’s take a look…


calorie-counter

Why You Don’t Have to Count Calories

The Atwater system provides a useful guide to energy intake, but isn’t exactly bullet proof. It is often criticized for the fact that the original research used systematized, controlled testing procedures as opposed to how the human body consumes, digests and ultimately receives energy.

As there’s no alternative to this system though, all platforms based on energy balance use this calculation.

#1. It Might Not Be Accurate

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition [1] found that when food intake was measured against controlled samples, Atwater system measurements were as much as 4.6g per kg of body weight – that can add up to a considerable amount. This led to a 32% over-estimation of the energy content of food which all of a sudden makes the precision of calorie counting less objective.

Additionally, trackers that have inbuilt algorithms to work out calorie intake might save you some time analyzing results, but they don’t have exhaustive lists of foods – you’ll therefore have to go with the nearest available option. This doesn’t guarantee that the calories or macros will be the same.


#2. It’s Hard to Keep Count

Calorie counting can be a time consuming habit. Not only that, but it is a laborsome chore that requires constant updating and analysis too. This is without factoring the time that it takes to measure and weigh each food if you’re trying to be super precise.

Additionally, whilst it is easy to calculate single food calorie counts, mixed meals can be very difficult – particularly if you don’t know the weight of ingredients. The best you can do then of course is guess – and that will make your data unreliable.


lose-weight-through-exercise

#3. It Could Cause Disordered Eating

Those with addictive personalities can become overly-obsessed with calorie counting, spending an unhealthy amount of time analyzing the minutiae of each meal in order to make it as healthy as possible.

Orthorexic nervosa is a condition in which an individual becomes obsessed or excessively preoccupied with eating healthy food, food preparation and irrational concerns over sources and hidden ingredients in food.

It is ultimately a disordered way of eating that is emotionally or mentally unhealthy.

One Turkish study found that not only can regualr counters become obsessed over calories, even dietitians can become obsessed o the point where orthorexia and irregular eating behavior becomes apparent [2].


#4. Your Baseline Might Be Off

There’s no point in calculating calories if you don’t how many you actually need to eat in order to lose, or even gain weight in the first place – essentially, how many calories you specifically need to fall into a positive or a negative energy balance.

Again, much of the energy balance equation is based on calculations. There are a number of different equations you can use that estimate your daily energy requirements. Whilst some of these are reliable and built around sound scientific principles, others are not as reliable.

For example, the Schofield equation – a method of working out daily energy needs recommended by the World Health Organisation – was found to be as much as 252kcal out when assessed against lab measures [3].

You can of course get an extremely accurate calculation of your daily energy requirements, but to do this you need to undergo a metabolic gas analysis test which is costly and time consuming.


 #5. You Might Not Be Honest

We’re not for one minute doubting your honesty, but research suggests that one of the main reasons people don’t lose weight is because they underestimate calories they eat and overestimate the amount exercise they participate in.

A study from The New England Journal of Medicine [4] reported that in a group of obese volunteers that had repeatedly failed to lose weight, under-reporting of food intake was as high as 47% – and exercise levels were over-reported by 51%. The more overweight they were, the further off they tended to be in their estimations.

Whether the reporting errors were simply a miscalculation of memory or something more deliberate, either way it makes calorie counting for weight loss potentially unreliable and flawed if not fully truthful.


couple-cooking-together

So What Could You Instead of Calorie Counting ?

Ultimately the best way to see progress is by your physique. If you’re losing fat you’re doing it right; if you’re gaining fat then it’s time to rethink your strategy.

Common approaches away from calorie counting include focusing simply on healthy eating. This means eating meals until content, not full, and focusing on a diet high in protein – the most satiating nutrient available. It is important to aim for colorful vegetables at each meal, and reducing sweet treats and cakes is also key in order to reduce the likelihood of overeating.

Whilst this is a less scientific approach – and certainly won’t suit everyone – an auto-regulation approach to diet can work.


Summary

Calorie counting gives you an idea of how much food energy you consume in relation to your daily energy requirements. It is built around the idea that a negative balance will result in weight loss and a positive balance will lead to weight gain.

Calorie counting can be used successfully and we’re not saying you shouldn’t use it at all – many people use food tracking effectively and this can of course help with weight loss and enhancements to body composition. But it’s not for everyone.

Equations and calculations may lead to unreliable results though, and successful inputting of data relies on truth and honesty of the user. It can also be a time consuming and a laborious task to input your food for the day, which can be off-putting to many people wanting to change their physique.

You don’t have to count calories to lose weight – many people have been on successful weight loss journeys without it. Ultimately you have to listen to your body and focus on healthy eating.


References

  1. Novotny, JA et al. Discrepancy between the Atwater factor predicted and empirically measured energy values of almonds in human diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012; 96(2): 296-301
  2. Asil, E et al. Orthorexia Nervosa in Turkish Dietitians. Ecology of Food and Nutrition. 2015; 54(4)
  3. Kamimura, MA et al. Are prediction equations reliable for estimating resting energy expenditure in chronic kidney disease patients? Nephrol Dial Transplant. 2010; 31(11)
  4. Lichtman, SW et al. Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. N Engl J Med. 1992; 327(27): 1893-8