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Why Calorie Counting Is Only a Small Part of Lasting Weight Loss

February 23, 2021
Why Calorie Counting Is Only a Small Part of Lasting Weight Loss - Lark Health

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Are you trying to lose weight? Good for you! The benefits of losing extra pounds are nearly limitless. They can include the following. 

What is the best approach to weight loss? Calorie counting is a common one. The theory of calorie balance says that reducing calorie intake to be less than calorie output (calories expended) leads to weight loss. Many weight loss apps are based on calorie counting.

Calorie counting is a great strategy, but it is only one of many weight loss tools, such as looking for more nutritious and filling foods, and eating mindfully, that Lark uses to help with losing weight and keeping it off for good. Here is why calorie counting is only a small part of lasting weight loss.

Negative Calorie Balance Causes Weight Loss

It is not that calorie counting is wrong, as supporter of diets such as paleo, low-carb, and keto diets often suggest. Evidence shows that negative calorie balance causes weight loss. For example, a randomized controlled study published in Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism found that fat loss depended only on generating on an energy deficit, and not on how that calorie deficit was created. 

A review article in American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology, and Metabolism drew similar conclusions, regardless of any particular diet's effects on carbohydrate metabolism and insulin's action

You Can Eat Anything and Cut Calories to Lose Weight…

Not surprisingly based on the above results, there are many anecdotes documenting the possibility of losing weight while eating predominantly nutrition-less foods. For example, NBC featured a high school teacher who lost 56 pounds in 6 months eating only food from the fast food burger chain McDonald's for all three meals each day.

CNN reported on a university professor who followed what he called a "convenience store diet." It included only foods available at standard convenience stores, and came complete with snack cakes, cream-filled sandwich cookies, and chips. The result? He lost 27 pounds in two months.

Both men were intent on losing weight, and kept their daily calorie limits in mind as they chose their meals. In addition to losing weight, they improved cholesterol and experienced no other health problems.

...But Can You Maintain Health Benefits…?

Are the health gains seen in these examples sustainable? The trouble is, nobody knows for sure, since most people have only followed these and similar extreme diets for a few months. However, there are reasons to be concerned about eating these types of foods.

The American Diabetes Association recommends that individuals with prediabetes or diabetes or heart disease "minimize added sugars and refined grains," and "choose whole foods over processed foods to the extent possible." These are consistent with similar recommendations from other reputable sources, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association's Treatment Guidelines for Hypertension

  • Certain foods, such as fried foods and processed meats, are linked to increased insulin resistance regardless of weight status. Insulin resistance is the cause of high blood sugar in prediabetes and diabetes.
  • Certain food components and foods spike blood sugar, leading to an increased insulin response to get blood sugar back down. Over time, this can increase insulin resistance, so that those same foods will lead to increased blood sugar with less of a subsequent reduction.
  • Lack of fiber, which can result from diets low in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and high in sugar and refined grains,can lead to gastrointestinal issues and the risk for higher cholesterol and blood sugar.
  • Being low in potassium can increase blood pressure and risk for hypertension.
  • Long-chain omega-3 fats, such as from fatty fish, and monounsaturated fats, such as from olive oil and peanuts, can have benefits for blood sugar and heart health.

Though health benefits were seen in the short period of time these diets were followed, it is possible that long-term damage could eventually occur. For example, progressive insulin resistance may not be detected for years, until blood sugar finally starts to rise. Or, arteries could gradually lose elasticity and blood pressure and other cardiovascular risks could occur. The fact is, we do not know the long-term effects of eating poor diets, with controlled calorie intake, for decades. 

...Or Resist Overwhelming Hunger?

Health aside, what happens to weight control on a diet that follows calorie counting strictly? Let's continue to use the above examples. The diets are high in refined starches, excessive fats, and added sugars. They are low in high-fiber foods such as vegetables, whole grains, and fruit, and low in healthy fats.

In other words, the diets are calorically dense (high in calories per serving size). That means to keep calories in check, serving sizes need to be small compared to serving sizes of many nutrient-dense foods, such as fish, vegetables, and beans

The diets are not only "small," but they are also not designed to stave off hunger for long because of their nutrient composition. That means it'll be harder to stick to small portion sizes for long.

Can You Even Stick to the Plan?

The above examples of eating only fast food or foods available at convenience stores are extreme, so what happens when using calorie counting with more "typical" diets or varieties of foods? Even assuming food choices are not too bad, say, mostly healthy with some indulgences, strict calorie counting can become challenging for a few reasons.

  • Measuring, weighing, and counting each food to get precise portion sizes can become burdensome.
  • Anxiety and obsessions can result from taking calorie counting too seriously. 
  • It is not always that instantly rewarding if there is no instant feedback, such as from a nutrition coach like Lark, when you log foods.
  • Calorie counting can lead to a mindset of exercising more to "work off" calories consumed.

Combining Calorie Counting with Filling Choices for Healthy and Lasting Weight Loss

Meal or Snack Low-Nutrient, Calorie-Dense Foods Calories High-Nutrient Foods Calories
Sausage biscuit
Egg and cheese on whole-grain English muffin, 1 cup strawberries
1 large slice pepperoni pizza and 1 chocolate chip cookie
Pizza on whole-grain tortilla with sauce, cheese, chicken, and vegetable toppings, plus side salad
Fried chicken thigh with mashed potatoes and gravy
Broiled salmon with roasted vegetables and brown rice, plus fresh fruit salad
Bag of potato chips and 20-ounce soda
3 cups of air-popped popcorn, 1 string cheese stick, 1 cup Greek yogurt, 1 cup grape tomatoes
Bottom Line
Less nutritious, not very filling
1700 total calories
Big portions and more nutritious
1700 total calories

As you can see, the "more nutritious" meals and snacks are bigger and more filling.

It is also important to remember that reducing portions of high-calorie foods and increasing portion sizes of low-calorie ones can also help lower calorie intake naturally.

Mindful Eating

Mindful eating can also help with long-term weight loss and health. Rather than simply eating according to the number of calories a health app tells you is okay, mindful eating includes awareness of hunger and fullness, recognition of food quality, and enjoyment of the meal. 

These are some ways to practice mindful eating.

  • Focusing on chewing foods thoroughly and eating more slowly.
  • Noticing the flavors, textures, and aromas of the foods.
  • Noting how hungry you are when you start eating and stop eating.
  • Making an effort to eat in pleasant environments.

Over time, practicing mindful eating can lead to making it easier to naturally make healthier choices that are better for weight.

Strict calorie counting can work in theory, but it may not be enough for lasting weight loss when you consider real life. Additional tools include choosing nutritious foods and being mindful around meals and snacks. Lark can help with these strategies as well as with support and education around great choices for lasting weight loss.

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