Why Simply Counting Calories Doesn’t Work for Lasting Weight Loss

In Fitness and Physical Therapy, Physical Therapy Articles by Jeff Gilliam, PT, PhD, OCSLeave a Comment

020-Physical-Therapy-treadmillSo many of us think that by simply cutting our caloric intake that we’ll be able to reach and maintain lasting weight loss. Most of us think ‘how can we have our favorite foods’ and still lose weight. So basically when we count calories instead of eating a lot of ‘garbage’…we just eat a little ‘garbage’, but we still eat ‘garbage’ and we don’t really change the foods that we eat.

This is an example of how two foods with the same caloric content can affect us differently. Four sugar cookies has roughly 240 calories while eight  brazilnuts has about the same, 240 calories. Both contain similar amounts of calories, but different amounts of fiber, carbohydrates, protein, fats and vitamins. The sugar cookie is mostly simple carbs and saturated fats with plenty of added refined sugar. But, the brazilnuts contain healthy fats and protein, as well as vitamins, minerals and fiber. These two foods have the same amount of calories, however affect the body in a very different way in terms of hormones, the satiating effect, and fat storage.

There are 5 basic principles that we need to understand regarding why simply counting calories doesn’t result in lasting weight loss.

  1. First of all calories from each macronutrient are not equal in terms of how much energy is required to metabolize and assimilate each. The thermic value is how much energy is required to assimilate and metabolize a food. When the food is from protein sources the energy required to metabolize and assimilate it is approximately 18-20% of the calories in the food, when the food is carbohydrate the energy required to metabolize and assimilate it is approximately 6-8%, and for fat approximately 3% of its’ calories are required. Studies of groups eating varying amounts of protein demonstrate an increase in basal metabolic rate for the group eating a higher percentage of their calories from protein. We use more calories to assimilate pure protein based foods than foods from carbohydrate or fat sources.
  2. Secondly, we must realize that certain foods satiate (satisfy) the appetite better than other foods. The stomach digests carbohydrates at a rate of 10 calories a minute, while only 4 calories a minute are digested from protein foods, and fat is digested at the rate of 2 calories a minute. Carbohydrates quickly leave the stomach leaving us hungry for more. Fat takes the longest to digest, however we may find ourselves overeating fatty foods because the slow digestion process and signal to our brain to tell us we are satiated takes longer. Additionally one study found that when subjects increased their protein intake to 30 percent while eating as much as they pleased, they actually ate 441 fewer calories each day, lost more weight, and experienced greater feelings of satiety than the lower protein group.
  3. The third principle concerning type of calories consumed deals with their affect on hormones. Hormones can encourage fat storage or fat release. When we eat simple carbohydrates blood sugar levels rise and increase insulin levels, followed by a quick fall in the blood sugar…leaving us hungry. It is a well-known fact that insulin facilitates fat storage and blocks fat release. The constant spiking of blood glucose levels with simple carbohydrates elevates insulin and causes insulin resistance. This is a viscous cycle called the insulin trap that sends blood glucose on a roller coaster ride, promoting fat storage and leaving us hungry for our next sugar high. Eating healthy fats, and protein that are high fiber foods from sources like avocados, nuts and seeds is a step in the right direction regarding improving the hormone milieu.
  4. Additionally, eating higher amounts of protein versus a low protein diet has been shown to increase lean muscle mass. When a recent study compared two groups who were overeating the group that ate a high protein diet gained more muscle while the low protein diet group lost muscle.
  5. The energy density of foods affect whether we feel satiated (satisfied). The energy density of food is the number of calories in a food divided by its gram weight. High energy density foods have a large number of calories in a small portion or weight of a given food. Low energy dense foods have a lower number of calories for the same weight of food. You can eat a larger portion of low energy dense food for the same amount of calories as a small portion of high-energy dense food. Studies of different countries, confirmed that on average people eat the same weight of food each day. Research has shown that it is a certain volume of food (weight) that determines how satiated we are. This focuses on a very important point. Someone who is trying to lose weight cannot just cut back on the same types of food that they have been eating, as this will reduce the average weight of food that they’re use to eating and they’ll be extremely hungry. Once again this highlights why foods that have fewer calories however carry more weight satisfy without adding extra calories. …example an apple that is 52 calories and weighs 100 grams, compared to a piece of cheesecake that is 321 calories and also weighs 100 grams. You must eat 6 times the calories from cheesecake to get the same weight to satisfy.

While calories count it’s more important to know the content of the calorie…is it high in protein, does it contain plentiful fiber, good fats, vitamins and minerals?

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Jeff Gilliam PT PhD, OCS: is a weight loss specialist, who has studied extensively in the areas of health behavior, exercise physiology and nutritional biochemistry at the University of Florida. Jeff has taught a course at the University of Florida called ’Research Applications to Obesity and Weight Loss’. He has also taught courses for the DPT program at UF in Health Promotion and Wellness’ and ‘Evidence Based Practice III’. He has presented on a national level on topics related to diseases related to obesity and changing behavior to facilitate a healthy lifestyle. His PhD research was in the area of effective behavioral interventions for obesity and its associated diseases. He is founder of Physicians’ Choice for Weight Loss, a successful lifestyle/weight loss program, which can be found in over 50 clinics in the eastern US. He currently is clinical director of ReQuest Physical Therapy (Gainesville, Florida) and incorporates his lifestyle/weight loss program into his patients’ physical therapy to help them achieve their healthiest body weight. Jeff Gilliam is an Orthopedic Certified Specialist through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties

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