There is an obesity epidemic in America, with more than one-third of adults categorized as obese, and even more as overweight. Prior to 1990, no state had an obesity percentage over 15 percent, while today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not one state has a percentage under 20. Experts have developed numerous diets to combat obesity and associated diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. For decades, the basis of most weight loss programs was simply counting calories. However, new science shows that calorie counting may not be the most effective approach.

Why Calorie Counting is Ineffective for Weight Loss

It takes more than counting calories to lose weight.

For decades, the scientific community, the USDA and other government run establishments giving dietary advice, promoted the idea that to lose weight you simply had to burn more calories than you consumed. The magic number was 3500. To lose a pound a week, you simply had to burn roughly 500 calories more than you consumed per day or eat 500 calories less than you usually do. For most people, this meant counting calories and often, adding exercise to lose weight. However, almost everyone who has dieted knows this formula is far from a guarantee. Not to mention, when the focus is primarily on the number of calories consumed, the nutrient density of foods becomes secondary, if it’s considered at all.
Although counting calories may result in an initial weight loss, it’s most often followed by a weight plateau and weight gain overtime. With consistent calorie restriction the body learns to adapt to the decrease in energy and nutrients it’s receiving and begins to reduce its energy needs by burning muscle for fuel and optimal nutrition.  Yo-yo dieters experience this often, with each bout of calorie restriction, causing more muscle loss, a slower metabolism and more difficulty losing body fat.

Carbs and Fat Storage

Numerous diets compensate for calorie counting by restricting certain food groups, most often fat. We can thank Ansel Keys and his 7 country study for the 4 decades of inaccurate advice on dietary fat and cholesterol. Thankfully this long standing myth, linking dietary fat to heart disease is waning as more research is revealing it may be carbohydrates, not fat, that is the dietary culprit behind the rise in obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

At the cellular level, the body breaks down all carbohydrates into glucose in order to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the body’s pure energy source. Any leftover glucose the body doesn’t immediately need is stored as glycogen (glucose available in muscle and liver tissue) or body fat.  Adipose tissue, more commonly known as body fat, is how the body stores excess glucose. When consuming a diet high in carbohydrates, the body is constantly being fed glucose, which stimulates insulin, the hormone necessary to carry glucose into your cells to be used as fuel. If your body doesn’t need to use that glucose immediately, it gets stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen or stored in fat cells.  This is one reason insulin is considered the fat storage hormone.
As Zoe Harcombe, the author of “The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it. How can we stop it” put it; the human body can only store fat in the presence of glucose and insulin.

Not All Calories are Created Equal

The calories in a slice of cake do not equate those from an avocado.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association challenged the long-held belief that a calorie was a calorie, at least in terms of weight loss. In this study, participants who had already lost some weight followed a low-fat, a very-low-carb and a low-glycemic-index diet, each for one month at a time. Within each plan, they were told to eat the same number of calories. The participants burned the most calories on the very-low-carbohydrate plan, which was similar to the widely recognized Atkins diet. The participants burned an estimated 300 fewer calories per day by eating the low-fat diet compared to the low carb one. The researchers hypothesized that a low-fat diet may lead to a reduction in a person’s metabolism, thus reducing the efficacy of their calorie burning.  This study also sheds light on the concept of entropy – energy burned in making usable energy for the body.  According to researcher, Eric Jequier, the thermic effect of nutrients shows that 6-8% of the calories consumed  as carbohydrates are used during digestion and assimilation, while 25-30% of the calories are used when protein is consumed. This is yet another reason calorie counting is short sided advice for dieters.

In addition to battling weight gain by the way, the low carb diet also helped to combat diabetes and cardiovascular disease by providing better insulin sensitivity, which correlates to more effective blood sugar regulation and healthier cholesterol levels.

Why It is Best to Count Carbs

Carbohydrates are made up of sugar by a lot of different names, most commonly glucose, fructose, and lactose. Highly processed foods often have additional sugars in the form of high fructose corn syrup and refined, processed grains that provide little to no nutritional benefit. Fructose, which is the sugar in many processed carbs, goes through a different metabolic pathway than glucose, often turning directly into fat in your liver and causing weight gain, obesity, elevated triglycerides and NAFLD (nonalcoholic fatty liver disease), which is also on the rise. Carbs also elevate insulin levels, which prevents the ability for fat to be released and used as a fuel source. Excess carbs may not suppress ghrelin, the hormone that tells your body you are hungry, or stimulate leptin, the hormone that tells your body that you are full. This hormone sensitivity leads to increased hunger and food consumption, typically in the form of more carbohydrates. Reducing the number of carbs you consume, especially by eliminating processed foods and refined carbs, provides a much healthier way to get your body back to balance and enhance your metabolic capabilities.

Tips on Eating a Low-Carb Diet

Eat nutrient dense vegetables, lean protein, and good fat.

Eating a low-carb diet does not mean you have to give up all of your favorites, like bread and pasta, but it will mean eating much less than 50% of your diet in carbohydrates, as the USDA MyPlate suggests. Instead, you will want to focus on a plant-based, nutrient dense diet that will provide your body with what it needs – vitamins, minerals, essential nerve and brain supporting fats and some grass-fed, organic, antibiotic and hormone free animal protein and dairy. A healthier dietary guideline plate would look like this: vegetables – 50% of the plate, clean protein – 25 % and healthy fats and high fiber grains or root vegetables make up the final 25%

Ideally you should minimize all processed foods and focus on eating real, whole food. Choose health promoting fats – avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, organic butter, ghee and oils made from avocados, olives and coconut. Regularly consume dark, leafy greens like kale, collards and spinach and cruciferous vegetables which are, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. Although vegetables contain some carbs, the content is very low and they provide essential vitamins and minerals for optimal health. Fruits contain important nutrients as well, but you do want to minimize the amount you eat due to their high fructose content. Furthermore, most of those nutrients can be obtained from low carb vegetables. If you feel the need for some carbs in your diet, choose high fiber, whole grains, such as wild rice, farro, quinoa or buckwheat. Legumes and beans such as chickpeas, black beans and lentils have a high carb content, but they are loaded with vital nutrients, so including them in your diet occasionally, whether you’re vegetarian or not, is a beneficial dietary choice.

If you have struggled with weight control in the past and are tired of counting calories, try counting carbs instead. This not only will assist you in burning body fat, but it can also help to minimize your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease as your blood sugar, hunger hormones, cholesterol, and triglyceride numbers get back to the normal range.