Calories - Should You Count Them?

I’ve been asked my opinion on whether or not gaining weight or losing it is simply a case of calories in Vs calories out, as in is monitoring the amount of calories we consume in a day really the key to losing weight and to a healthier body?

Look at the reasons why we eat, there are two main reasons; firstly to supply our body with energy, measured by the calorific value (calories) and secondly to provide our bodies with the nutrients it needs to function, grow and repair. When it comes to deciding what food to eat, people often only take notice of the first point and totally neglect the second. This in mind I want to try and explain why I don’t believe weight gain or loss is down to how many calories you consume, and why the food choices you make are much more important than just the calorie content of it.

In theory, it makes sense that our weight is determined by the number of calories we consume. Surely if the number of calories (energy) you consume is greater than the number of calories you require, you will gain weight and vice versa for losing weight?  I can agree with that to a certain degree, for example if I (at 9st) ate 5000cals a day, which is way more than what my body needs to actively function in a day, I would put on weight. But the same is not true when it comes to weight loss. If I ate 1000cals a day, half the amount I require to maintain my current weight, I would lose weight initially, but it wouldn’t last because my body will try to maintain homeostasis. It would shift into a slight ‘starvation mode’. I will try and explain this as I continue.

I don’t believe there’s a meter in our bodies counting calories. People count calories, our bodies don’t.

Let’s stick with the notion that weight loss is simply a case of being in a calorie deficit (fewer calories than required in a day). If that was the case, then losing weight would be easy right? Simply work out how many calories you currently consume or how many calories you need to maintain your current bodyweight, consume a couple of hundred calories less than that every day, and hey presto the weight should slowly drop. When weight loss stops reduce calories even further to maintain a calorie deficit.  (The less you weigh the fewer calories your body requires, in theory) So why doesn’t this theory work? Why are people on low calorie diets yet not able to lose weight? And why are some people apparently constantly eating, and yet never put on weight?

There are several reasons that spring to my mind and I’ll go through a few of them now.

The first one I have to mention and dismiss is genes. I believe very few people are overweight because they were ‘born to be overweight’. Yes some medical conditions cause weight gain (or loss) but the majority of people aren’t affected by such illnesses. My intention here isn’t to offend but to remind you that we can’t change our genetic build but we can change our diets and lifestyles.

The next reason as I touched on before; Starvation. Our bodies are programmed to store fat. If we consume too many calories, to us it would make sense to get rid of these calories from our bodies as they are surplus to requirements. However, our bodies do not think like this. Our bodies are always planning ahead. How long will it be till the next meal? In reality we know it’s only a couple of hours away, but our body can’t be sure of this and so instead, excess energy is stored for use at a later date as fat. So that explains why people choosing to eat too many calories put on weight, but why don’t people who aren’t eating too many calories lose their weight?  If your body doesn’t get enough calories on a regular basis, over a period of time it will start to think it is being starved and will try its best to counter act the reduction in calories. This will then have the opposite effect on what people are trying to achieve and will actually cause your body to start hanging on to body fat which is what you’re trying to shift.  Your body does this by becoming more energy efficient by lowering your metabolism so you burn fewer calories in a day, you will notice reduced energy levels which will leave you feeling constantly tired and sluggish, and here comes the really scary bit; your body will burn muscle for extra fuel!  But why choose muscle over fat for energy burning? The reason is because muscle is metabolically active. Even when we are at rest, muscle cells require energy; fat does not. Your body would rather get rid of this energy consuming tissue than get rid of ‘precious’ fat. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the sound of that! Who wants to have plenty of fat and no muscle? In severe cases of under eating, your hands and feet will constantly be cold as your body concentrates on keeping your organs warm and neglects other body parts. Your body is now very efficient; you can live off fewer calories than previously required and your body fat percentage is still high. Genius!

I also don’t believe fat loss can be achieved using the calories in vs. calories out method because of insulin.  A hormone produced by the body, released when the amount of sugars in the blood are too high. Insulin causes this form of energy (Glucose / sugar) to be transferred from the bloodstream into cells/muscles. Here it is stored as Glycogen where it will stay until either

A) It is converted back into Glucose by a hormone called Glucagon via a process known as glycogenolysis then to be used as energy.

B) Converted to fat as stores of Glycogen get too high.  Ideally, we don’t want sugar to be stored in our cells; we want it to be available for our body to use.

Can we do this? Can we control insulin levels? Of course we can. It’s all to do with how quickly the food we eat is digested. Foods which are high in protein and fats require a longer time for our bodies to digest them. This is good for several reasons. Whilst food is being digested it remains in our digestive system, this keeps us feeling full for longer so makes us less likely to eat more. Secondly, protein and fats require energy to be digested. Bonus! And then finally, this process of digestion means that the energy contained within the food is released slowly over a greater period of time, so the level of sugar in the blood never reaches a high enough level for a significant amount of insulin to be released. The energy provided by the food remains in the bloodstream and is more likely to be used rather than stored. Brilliant! But what about the foods which are high in sugars? Well, if you consume sugar, your body doesn’t have to do anything to convert it to a sugar. That means as soon as you ingest the food, the sugar enters your bloodstream all at once. Ever eaten something high in sugar, felt really energetic soon after - followed by an energy slump - then hunger? That’s insulin in action!

Your body noticed the increase of sugar in your bloodstream, insulin was released, the sugar was transferred to your cells, this gave you an ‘energy crash’ (lots of energy to suddenly no energy), then because you now have so little sugar in your bloodstream, and because your digestive system has nothing to digest, you feel hungry again so you eat, even though you’ve got plenty of stored energy in your cells! Madness in my opinion.

Is 200 calories from a chocolate bar going to have the same effect on your body as 200 calories from a protein source such as chicken or a fat source such as nuts? Definitely not. The calorific numbers are the same, but that’s where the similarities end. That doesn’t mean to say sugar and insulin are the root of all evil in the process of maintaining a healthy and balanced body. They both serve a purpose to us, but that’s another topic for another article. The calories from a chocolate bar are destined to be stored as fat, unless you have just been, or are currently doing an activity which requires a large amount of energy that would burn it off.

To break it down  think of it like this if it helps....When we eat, food is digested and converted into sugars and these sugars enter the bloodstream. Now think of the bloodstream as being a river. Once the river gets too full of water (sugar/energy), the river ‘floods’ which causes an overspill (sugar/energy is transferred to the muscles and stored as Glycogen).

Think of the biggest addiction in the world? You’re probably thinking something like alcohol, drugs but here’s the answer....sugar! You may not realise it, but the majority of people are addicted to sugar. All processed foods contain sugar, even that healthy breakfast cereal you’re eating to drop a jean size. If you tried to go a few days without consuming any sugar I guarantee you would have the same withdrawal symptoms as that of a drug addict going cold turkey from heroin. Mood swings, cravings, fatigue and headaches are just a few. Sugar, in my opinion, is the main cause of obesity in the modern world. Eat less, exercise more is not the answer....eat right, exercise regularly is what people should be doing.

If I had to give my answer in one sentence it would be...’The macronutrient breakdown of food is more important than the calorie content when trying to lose weight’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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