Ok, you’re right – a calorie is always a calorie! What I really want to talk about though is why people can eat fewer calories and still not lose weight. Or lose weight temporarily and then put it back on (and some). It’s not just us fooling ourselves about how much we’re actually eating or how many calories we’re expending.
One main reason we can’t keep the weight off through simple calorie restriction is that it messes with our metabolism. Cutting back the calories makes our bodies react as if we are in a starvation situation and they slow down our metabolism and hold onto fat stores. So we need to be smarter.
A starting point might be that all calories are not created equal: ‘It’s important to make the distinction between quantity and quality. Even foods that have the same quantity of calories can be of different nutritional quality and can have very different effects on your health. Different foods tend to affect your metabolism, hormone levels, hunger and appetite differently.’
Author of The Calorie Myth, Jonathan Bailor, agrees: ‘This is why food quality matters so much — because in any system it’s the quality, not the quantity, of input that changes the system itself. For example, you will never clog or damage a sink by putting too much water into it. In contrast, if you put little bits of paper towels or hair into the sink, eventually it will clog and overflow. In the same way, when we eat low-quality food, we become hormonally and biochemically clogged. Our bodies can no longer respond to signals from our hormones and brains that would otherwise enable us to burn body fat automatically ….. When you heal your brain, your hormones, and your gut, you start spontaneously consuming and absorbing the right number of calories for your system. Your system also starts automatically burning more calories. So yes, technically, you’re absorbing fewer calories and burning more, but this is a very, very different scenario than the hypercontrolled “calories-in-calories-out” story we all got sold on.’
Adjusting our caloric intake so that we’re eating a little more protein and healthy fats and fewer carbohydrates seems to help too. Protein helps to prevent losing muscle as well as fat and also keeps us feeling satiated for longer. In addition, eating a lower level of carbohydrates (especially refined ones) causes insulin levels to drop which in turn enables the body to burn fat rather than stored glucose. I’m not talking about the extreme low carb diets here (such as Atkins) – the research seems to suggest that they certainly work in the short term but there are health implications to following them long term. So let’s think about reducing the white carbs (bread, baked goods, pasta, rice, mash and sugary breakfast cereals) and increasing complex carbs (such as brown rice, quinoa, wholewheat, buckwheat, oatmeal, corn, starchy vegetables and pulses) rather than cutting them out completely. How about swapping breakfast cereal for porridge and making our chips (fries) out of sweet potatoes instead?
One new line of research that I find fascinating is being called ‘time restricted feeding (or eating)’. The findings are that restricting the time window in which we eat, even without changing the diet in any other way, results in increased fat loss and decreased muscle loss. This all ties in with circadian rhythms and the fact that at no other time in history did people simply graze from morning to night! The lowest feeding window that seems to do the trick is 10 hours. [Source: https://medium.com/the-mission/time-restricted-feeding-your-solution-to-longevity-and-shredding-fat-2e8359fe91d3] Some people use even shorter windows – for example some of the populations studied in the Blue Zones only eat twice a day, and in all of them the biggest meals are eaten earliest in the day, with a big breakfast, smaller lunch and light dinner. Ayurveda (traditional Indian system for healthy living) also recommends an early, light dinner followed by a ‘closed’ sign on the kitchen door!
The last thing I want to mention is that just as some calories in are better than others, some ways of expending them are better than others too as far as gaining or maintaining a healthy weight is concerned. It seems that a couple of short HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) sessions a week is more helpful for fat burning than the longer aerobic exercise sessions we’re more used to thinking about. This is because of the effects on the metabolism and hormonal system which HIIT causes by engaging all four types of muscle fibre. Not to say that we don’t need to be as mobile as we can be for as much time as possible during the day, but these short sessions are definitely worth trying. Joe Wicks, amongst others, has some beginner level videos on YouTube (beginner or not, they’re pretty hard work!)
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!