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Weight Loss: Do Calories Count?

Are you overweight? Are you battling to lose those excess pounds around your middle? If yes, you are definitely not alone in your struggle.  According the NHS study, “Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet: England 2011”, more than half of the adult population are overweight (66% of men and 57% of women). Included in these figures are nearly a quarter of people who are considered obese (22% of men and 24% of women). Would the figures change much if this study had included all of the UK? I suspect not.

Everyone knows that being overweight increases the probability of medical problems—but most people are far more concerned about how they look and feel. In trying to lose weight we collectively spend vast sums of money on “diet” and “low-fat” foods, read column after column of the latest ‘celeb’ diets and do desperate things all in order to become slim. In our crazy world being slim or even skinny thin is the prized goal: how sad we don’t admire healthy weight which is not necessarily a size zero.

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Sadly most people who go on a (slimming) diet don’t succeed in keeping off the lost pounds—at least not in the long term. These diets don’t work: they never will. Part of the reason (and there are many) is the confusing and often conflicting information about weight loss. Today I hope to clarify the confusion about part of this by looking at calorie counting and it’s role in weight loss.

So… back to the initial question: Do calories count in weight loss?  Yes, but absolutely not in the way most people believe, and I personally do not advocate calorie counting as a way of losing weight. Counting every calorie you consume is virtually impossible anyway and whilst restricting your calorie consumption can lead to weight loss—at least initially—it takes extraordinary discipline to monitor, count and track how many calories you have eaten. And who really wants to count calories every day for the rest of their life? Most of all choosing to lose or maintain your weight based solely on calorie consumption will inevitably lead to a limited diet and unhealthy eating habits. No, calorie counting is totally not what I want for you or anyone who is trying to lose weight: to me this approach is more akin to punishment than a loving way to find your natural, healthy weight. Lets look at this some more.

What is a healthy weight?
Everybody’s body is unique. Some people are naturally skinny and others are simply not designed to be skinny as this would be unhealthy for their body type. Although not infallible (it’s not appropriate for anyone with well developed muscles, pregnant women or anyone who is very frail) your BMI (Body Mass Index) is a good measure for knowing whether you are at a healthy weight. A healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 25. To calculate yours use one of these calculators: metres/kilograms or feet/stones

What exactly is a calorie?
There are different definitions for a calorie, but in terms of calories in food, it is the measure of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1° Celsius. Even after reading this, most people are not any clearer what this really means.  Essentially, it’s a way of measuring the amount of energy in food. Your body needs energy to live, to breathe even to sit still or sleep. Knowing the calorie content of food allows you to match the energy requirements of your body with what you eat. That’s the theory. But your body does not just need energy; your body needs a whole host of different nutrients. Focusing solely on calories doesn’t take this into account.

Your body digests food according to its form and nutritional content: not its calorific value 
To help you see this, lets take an exaggerated example. If you ate one day’s worth of your recommended calories by eating only broccoli and on the next day you ate the same number of calories but ate only chocolate, do you think your body would digest these calories and process them in the same way? I’m sure everyone intuitively knows the answer is “no”. For the ‘average’ woman (see below for how incorrect this is) the recommended daily intake is 2000 calories. For the broccoli/chocolate scenario that would be 5 kilos of cooked broccoli or 3 x 125 gm bars of milk chocolate. Although I love broccoli I could not physically eat 5 kilos in one day and I think most people would feel physically sick if they ate that much chocolate and nothing else.

Lets look at the digestive process for a moment. Chewing mechanically breaks food into a more manageable form for the body to process, it also mixes food with saliva, which begins the process of converting carbohydrates into sugars – whilst still in the mouth. Then during food’s journey through the digestive tract—the oesophagus, stomach, small intestines and colon—it is pounded, squeezed, churned and mixed with acids and enzymes to extract the nutrients. Sugar and carbohydrates are the fastest to be broken down, whilst fats and proteins can remain in the stomach for 3—4 hours. Vegetables with high fibre content, especially when eaten raw, also take more time for the body to process. Foods with a high sugar content have a high calorific value and yet the body rapidly absorbs these. When the stomach has finished processing one batch of food and is empty, it calls out for more food – the hunger signal. If this experiment was actually carried out, the chocolate day would actually also leave you feeling hungry!

Calories: Recommended daily amounts 
On virtually all processed food packaging you will find the nutritional values of the food plus the amount of calories it contains. Many labels also include the recommended daily amounts of 2500 calories for men and 2000 for women. But these figures are, to me, totally misleading. An athletic woman who is 6 foot tall is going to need more calories than her short, petite-framed friend. A young woman of 18 is going to need more calories than a woman of 81. A man doing heavy manual work is going to need far more calories than the daily amount and more than an inactive man sitting in an office all day. And so on. The calorie requirement for each and everyone is dependent on: Gender  Age  Build  Activity levels  Hormonal balance  Body type  Overall health.

With all of these variables, the recommended amounts are for a mythical ‘average’ man and woman, which may be totally inaccurate for you.

Zero Calories: this is NOT good for you!
Some advertising messages in the media are so misleading! Zero calories: it doesn’t mean it’s good for you! On the contrary drinks with zero calories have sweeteners like aspartame in them, which has been shown, in numerous large studies, that it increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and for women who are pregnant, earlier delivery dates.

People who regularly drink “Diet” drinks are also far more likely to put on weight compared to those who don’t drink them. The reason why is not totally clear, but enough studies have been done to show it happens. People who regularly drink diet cokes and other soft drinks are also 70 times more likely to have a higher waist to hip measurement ratio than those who do not drink diet drinks. A high waist to hip ratio increases your risk of diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure).

If this is true—and I believe it is—why is Aspartame still being used and sold? A very good question. The fact that the food and drink manufacturers pay for the research to assess the safety of what goes into our food and drink, rather than independent researchers, is definitely a strong reason. However, the increasing amount of evidence saying Aspartame adversely affects health has lead to the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) commission a study of its own on this sweetener.

Why counting calories leads to unhealthy food choices
If you have counted calories in the past, or are still not convinced (!) let me show you the inherent problems of doing so. Whilst undoubtedly you can count calories in an easier way than before with the aid of food packaging information and websites offering to calculate and track your calorie consumption, how are you going to assess the foods you eat when you go out, or when you eat in the staff canteen, or you go to a friends house or you go to a business meeting where food is served? How do you know whether you have eaten more or less than you need? You can’t.

Trying to track your calories also increases your likelihood of buying foods where the calorie content is known—that is in processed foods. And that you will also choose one product over another solely due to the number of calories it contains.

If your mind set is still stuck on buying foods with a lower calorie content, are you really helping your body lose weight? Probably not. When food manufacturers reduce the calorie content of the foods they make, they take out fats because it has a higher calorific value than sugar. Sugar has lower calories, but has zero nutritional content whereas fat has some nutritional content—and many have essential nutrients that the body can only get from fats. Fat also holds the food together—give it structure. If food manufacturers take away the fat, to give it a semblance of what it should look like, they add in gums and starches to thicken or form it once more.  This lower calorie food—often now labelled “Low Fat”—is now a cocktail of carbohydrates laced with chemicals that your body will try and get rid of, or lay down as fat as soon as possible, because nutritionally it is of little worth to the body.  Most processed foods have a higher carbohydrate ratio than a comparative freshly prepared version. These are metabolised very quickly: which means you will feel hungry sooner than if you had eaten the fresh, unadulterated, higher calorie food in the first place.

Healthy weight loss without calorie counting
Most people believe to lose weight they have to go on a (slimming) diet, but such diets ultimately don’t work and especially those that are based on counting calories. What to do instead? I will be writing about this later in the year, but actually your body already knows what it needs. Quite simply it needs fresh foods in particular more green and coloured vegetables. Your body does not need anything with added sugars, nor does it need, nor in fact know what to do with the vast array of chemicals in the form of preservatives, colourings, flavourings, thickeners, modifiers or gums. So increase the amount of fresh, natural and, where you can, organic foods that you eat.

Your body needs a complex range of micronutrients—vitamins, minerals and enzymes. If you eat a wide variety of natural foods you will get these without having to track or count them. Your body needs lots of water: far more than you probably drink  (around 1 litre per 50 lbs of body weight). Listen to your body so you eat when you are physically hungry—not just to fill in the empty, emotional hole inside of you (check whether the hunger signal is coming from above or below your throat. Physical hunger comes from below).  You need good fats and oils too as these are essential to good health: coconut oil, avocados, olive oil, flaxseed oil and oily fish to mention just a few are really good for you. And yes, of course you should avoid greasy fry-ups—but you know that already!  Every time you add a health giving food into your diet and remove an unhealthy “branded” food, you will already taking step to returning back to a natural, healthy weight.

…and finally a little about Jennie

I hope you have enjoyed this article. If you would like some help via telephone coaching, I would be delighted to have a chat with you to see how I can help. Please call me on 01305 821799 or email me jennie@reddandelion.co.uk.

Please follow these links to find out more: Telephone Life CoachingSmall Business CoachingBusiness Review DaysOne-to-One Personal Retreats at The Jasmine House.

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Linda Parkinson-Hardman

Transformational coach and founder of the Hysterectomy Association. Professionally I'm an information scientist who specialises in the adoption and engagement of digital technologies. I am a writer and author of nine books to date, and I've edited a further seven; phew what a lot for a Thursday afternoon :-)

This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. Hi, I need help very badly.
    I had a prolapse repair done in April 2013, which was unsuccessful, so I was taken back to hospital in June 2013 to have it redone and also a hysterectomy.
    I’ve never recovered from that op, and have put on four stone and am now a size 24. Before the OP I was 12 stone and a a size 14\16. Being a very healthy person who was used out working on the farm, on the go from 6am to 12pm and now I can’t walk the length of myself.
    If I go to doctor I’m told to eat less and exercise more, I do eat less but am unable to do walking etc and now with the weight my knees are giving up.
    Please has anyone else had this experience, as it stresses me out each day as I’m trailing about like a beached whale with all my clothes hanging in wardrobe unwearable.
    Thanking. You Anne

  2. It’s unfortunate that we often have hysterectomies at the age our body’s metabolism is slowing down, combined with the lack of exercise during recovery it’s really easy to gain weight. Also if you are taking HRT this has a side effect of weight gain as well.

  3. hello 4 years ago i found out I had lynch syndrome and had to have my bowel removed and had a ileo pouch put inside me then I had to go for an hysterectomy they removed everything except my cervix as it was stuck to my ileo pouch this was in January 2014 after I had my bowel removed I lost a lot of weight and I felt good but since I had the hysterectomy I have gained about 1 and half stone I am not a big eater I just wanted to know will I carry on gaining weight and is there anything I can do to get rid of the weight I read all the comments on your website which were really nice to read julie

  4. Hi Katherine. If you imagine having a sprained ankle that takes time to heal because it swells each day you are using it, but a little less each day too and eventually it’s gone down completely – the same is what’s happening to your stomach – it will swell for some months to come but will go eventually. It might be worth having a chat with the staff at the gym to see if they can suggest an appropriate programme for you to follow as you get your strength back. 🙂

  5. Hello I am very limited with IT and recently found your site which I hvae to say is very useful. I had a TAH and BSO mid Nov last year and just gone back to work on a phased return. I am 48 years and reasonably fit prior to surgery. I am finding as the day progresses my lower abdomen feels much bigger which I have put down to some fluid retension I am assuming this I normal but wonder for how long! I want to return to swimming and the gym but aware of not overstretching myself. I did have 2 Infections on the left side of the incision wound the first infection was quite bad opening the wound with alot of brown fluid followed by blood and yellow discharge, the second infection I feel was due to the original not having completly responded to antibiotics and the wound opened again but not to the same extent The scar at this site has inverted and I did experience pulling although this is now reduced I wonder whether this is due to some adhesion and am I ok to start gentle exercise I dont usually go mad at the gym but work up a red face and a sweat! I am experiencing alot of headaches and interupted sleep but guess this should improve!
    I have tried to download the booklet for this information but due to limited IT skills I am struggling! I would appreciate a response and think your emails very helpful.

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