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Why calorie counting doesn’t work

Although the participants reported enjoying the meals equally, there were some important differences in how they responded to them. Those on the ultra-processed diet ate their meals faster and consumed an extra 500 calories a day, or around 20 per cent extra.

After two weeks following the ultra-processed diet, there was a difference of 1.8kg between the groups, so imagine what happens to your waistline after years of picking the wrong foods. 

When trying to lower calorie intake, many unsuspecting people select foods with ‘low calorie’ on the label, and these are almost exclusively ultra-processed. 

This sets people up to fail by increasing hunger, and hunger is the third reason calorie counting doesn’t work. It’s a powerful force, and, more often than not, it will win.

Over countless generations, our bodies have evolved systems to ensure we consume enough energy to endure regular lean times. We haven’t yet adjusted to the modern environment where nutrient-dense, hyper-palatable food is on every street corner.

So, when our body senses that we have been limiting our energy intake – as it does when we calorie count – it slowly but remorselessly ramps up hormonal signals that make us feel hungry. This explains why we start thinking obsessively about food. 

The longer we try to limit energy intake, the stronger these delicious, intrusive thoughts become. Because of this, it gets harder and harder to avoid ‘cheating’ by reaching for a biscuit. This is how anti-appetite drugs like Wegovy work; they block those impossible-to-ignore hunger signals. 

We now know that people eating unprocessed food have higher levels of a hormone that suppresses appetite and lower levels of a hormone that increases appetite. In other words, eating unprocessed, healthy foods helps keep those overpowering hunger signals in check.

The fourth and final nail in the calorie-counting coffin is our metabolism, which functions as an energy management system. After a session at the gym, our body tells us to relax, and our metabolism slows down to help us regain the energy we lost. The same happens when you restrict calories – your metabolism thinks you are starving and slows your metabolism, thereby using fewer calories.

So, the more you restrict your calorie intake, the more your body slows down its use of calories. When the hunger signals finally overpower you, your body is primed to lay down fat even more easily to save you from the perceived famine you have endured. This is why many people who try calorie restriction overshoot and end up heavier than before.

In fact, two years after embarking on a calorie-deficit diet, even with clinical support hardly anyone retains the weight loss. These two powerful and ancient forces of nature – hunger and metabolism – are conspiring against you.

So, if calorie counting almost always fails, what’s the answer? It goes without saying that losing weight is incredibly tough. As we have seen, our bodies are programmed to retain energy as fat and are reticent to let it go. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are some tips to improve your chance of success.

The most powerful thing you can do is swap ultra-processed foods for natural, whole foods wherever possible. A good place to start is with snacks that can make up a quarter of your energy intake. Research conducted by the nutrition science company, Zoe, has shown that many people who eat healthy meals still choose unhealthy snacks. 

We found that those who tended to eat poor-quality snacks reported feeling more hungry than those who ate good-quality snacks. Conversely, people who mostly ate minimally processed and unprocessed snacks had less belly fat, lower body weight and lower levels of fat and sugar in their blood.

So, limit low-calorie snack bars, ready meals and shakes, ignore ‘high protein’ and ‘added vitamin’ labels and introduce more fruits, nuts and seeds. 

This is why we’ve seen such strong results with approaches like the Zoe programme. It completely ignores calories. We encourage adding healthy foods to your plate rather than just taking away the foods you enjoy. 

We need to think about food in a totally new way. It’s about so much more than energy intake and fuel. So, stop counting calories and focus on food quality.

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