You can chow down on those Cheetos as long as you log an extra 30 minutes on the treadmill, right? Um, no. Sorry to burst your caloric-counting bubble, but it’s not so simple.
“Calories in versus calories out” has become a sort of one-size-fits-all mantra for those wanting to fit into that one-size-too-small dress. This widespread theory has bred a generation of calorie-counting devotees that can rationalize eating anything as long as they keep below their daily calorie limit—or put in extra time at the gym.
Out of the calorie-obsessed culture sprouted the uplifting idea of "everything in moderation," which may have started as a way to help people feel less obsessed with food, but has spiraled into a free pass to "treat yourself" to a supersized ice cream sundae every week.
What’s the Deal?
“Caloric theory is woefully inadequate and dramatically incomplete,” says Marc David, an expert in nutritional psychology and founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating in Boulder, Colo. “In the way nutritional science understands calorie burning as it relates to weight, it’s very primitive.”
Though David admits there are useful aspects to the theory, he believes that it oversimplifies the understanding of weight. “The mass media wants to make it ‘Here’s what everybody should do and here is the simple answer,” says David. “But weight is much more complex and involves many other factors.”
One problem with counting calories is that you are (wrongly) assuming that all calories are created equal. Eating fewer calories won't do your health any favors if all those calories come from reduced-fat potato chips and Tasti D-Lite.
A study conducted at Harvard School of Public Health focused on which diet and lifestyle factors prevent weight gain in the first place. “We found that the conventional wisdom to focus only on total calories, or even on total fat or sugars, will be less effective than focusing on the quality of the overall diet,” says lead author of the study Darius Mozaffarian, M.D., a cardiologist and epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
The results showed that, when it comes to losing weight, it’s actually more about quality than quantity when it comes to what you put in your mouth. “Eating more of several specific foods was actually associated with relative weight loss,” says Dr. Mozaffarian. “This indicates that the path to eating fewer calories is not to simply count calories, but to focus on consuming a more healthy diet in general.”
Dr. Mozaffarian points out that a major problem with caloric theory is that people chose the wrong targets for "good" versus "bad" foods. They select foods as "good" based on low calories, fat or sugar per serving rather than overall dietary quality and health effects. A good example is nuts, which have 165 calories per serving but have actually been proven to aid in weight loss. Soda, on the other hand, has fewer (120) calories per serving, but has been linked to weight gain.
“Or a much more common example is people choosing reduced-fat potato chips or crackers to lower calories when all they are doing is reducing the healthy vegetable oils and leaving starch and salt,” says Dr. Mozaffarian. “’Fat-free’ bagels, other white breads, and ‘sugar-free’ refined breakfast cereals are also considered healthy when they are simply refined grains that have similar effects as eating table sugar—or perhaps even worse given their added salt.”
And then there's the popular weight-loss mantra “everything in moderation.” As in: Go on, girl, eat that cake…just don’t eat the whole cake. "Everything in moderation’ can mean anything to anyone, providing a free pass to eat whatever you want,” says Dr. Mozaffarian. Not to mention that the general public's perception of portion sizes is so skewed that "only one" piece of cake could really be the equivalent of say, three.
Even if you eat small portions, there are such things as “bad” foods, and even a small amount of a bad thing does not equal a good thing. “The food you eat affects your proteins and genes long after it has passed out of your body,” says YouBeauty co-founder Dr. Michael Roizen. “For example, if you consume too much sugar it changes your protein structure for the entire life of that protein, which is 180 days—so that means that the protein stops doing it's job for 180 days.”
A huge reason the caloric theory is so widespread is that many national and government organizations still recommend cutting calories by reducing fats, such as recommending low-fat or non-fat salad dressings, as well as eating and cooking vegetables, fish and other foods without added fat.
But research has shown that cutting out fat has little relation to weight gain and in some cases, “good fat” can actually aid in weight loss. “Our findings show that fat content, per se, has little relation to which foods or beverages were associated with weight gain,” says Dr. Mozaffarian. “For example, non-fat foods such as refined breads and cereals were associated with weight gain, some higher fat foods such as whole-fat milk and cheese were neutral and other higher fat foods such as nuts were associated with relative weight loss.”
How to Help Yourself
Now that your fat-and-calorie-counting mind has been blown, try these simple dietary changes that can have a big impact.
Go for quality over quantity Eat more minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains, recommends Dr. Mozaffarian. Aim to consume fewer starches and refined foods like potatoes, white bread, low-fiber breakfast cereals, processed meats, sweets and soda. And it bears repeating that it’s important to break a sweat regularly and get enough sleep to prevent the number on the scale from creeping up.
Watch stress levels—one of the biggest impacts on metabolism. “Stress chemistry day in and day out slows down the calorie-burning metabolism,” says David. “It’s a profoundly hidden reason, but it’s huge when it comes to losing weight.”
Stop counting calories Kicking the calorie-counting habit once and for all. “The goal is for people to relax, enjoy the pleasures and tastes of their food and reduce obsessions over nutrition labels and calorie or fat counts,” says Dr. Mozaffarian.
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