What's the truth behind the 'anti-calorie' brigade?

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 03 Jun, 2020

When it comes to nutrition and weight loss, if you are totally confused about what's good or bad advice, backed by research or just a fad, you'd be completely forgiven. With the huge growth in wellness bloggers in recent years, we've seen a surge in self-declared 'experts' who are free to promote their advice (unchecked!) to anyone with a social media account. For me, as a nutritionist, this raises several issues:

  1. The 'experts' are sometimes unqualified to give out the advice they do.
  2. If they aren't qualified, or trained in the field of nutrition, they're not governed by any professional rules of conduct, meaning their advice could be based on unreliable research, or simply their opinion.
  3. Often they're only talking from personal experience – people are passionate about what has worked for them, but a 'sample of one' is not conclusive scientific evidence.
  4. The 'advice' can be easily misinterpreted or misconstrued as it's delivered via social media posts and videos.

One controversial headline doing the rounds is that 'calories are irrelevant', they are outdated and don't matter anymore. Yes, there have been breakthoughs in nutritional science that are challenging our assumptions about food, but this is where a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Taken in isolation, this statement is misleading!

Calories, of course, DO matter when it comes to weight management, because eating too many results in weight gain – that's just science, and we ignore it to our detriment. So, to clear up any confusion, let's take a look at the arguments for and against the notion that calories don't matter.


FOR – If you're following a well-balanced diet, you'll naturally be eating healthily and avoiding junk foods, so you won't be overdoing it on calories and will therefore be able to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

AGAINST – This is true to an extent as we feel more satisfied when we include more protein and fibre in our diet, and reduce our sugar intake. However it is still possible to eat too much of the good stuff and gain weight. In fact in a survey with new Nutracheck members wanting to lose weight, a third discovered their problem was portion size! By tracking what they ate, they found that although they were eating healthily, they were just eating too much! The total energy intake of a person's diet cannot and should not be ignored – especially if your aim is to lose excess weight.


FOR – Calorie labelling on products isn't 100% accurate. Trusting what is declared on pack is misleading, making tracking calories inaccurate and pointless.

AGAINST – Product labelling allows for acceptable tolerances. Over a day, we consume a range of foods so it's likely that any errors will even out – i.e. some products may contain slightly more calories than highlighted and some less. And even if every calorie count is not 100% accurate all of the time, it is not a reason to disregard the information as it provides helpful guidance. Being aware of potentially how much energy we're taking in is essential for a healthy well-balanced diet.


FOR – Counting calories doesn't educate people about healthy eating - all calories are not equal.

AGAINST – True to an extent - if a person solely focusses on calories without any thought to what they're eating: they could still be eating rubbish, just less of it.

However if an individual is overweight, there is nothing better they can do for their health than to lose the excess weight. And this will only happen if they consume fewer calories. So whether they achieve weight loss by eating a well-balanced diet or by counting the calories in their evening chocolate bar – it's still down to the reduction - so calories are not irrelevant. That said, we should definitely make sure we choose good quality nutritious food to give us quality calories - and learning more about the nutritrional breakdown of foods helps us to do that.


FOR – Two foods with the same calorie value may be digested and metabolised by the body in different ways. And the time of day you eat also has a bearing.

AGAINST – Research in nutritional science and physiology continues to build our knowledge about the role of hormones in how we eat and process food. Yes, calorie counting may seem too simplistic, but the bottom line is that calories still help us understand how much energy different foods contribute to our bodies, relative to each other. Our knowledge in this area will undoubtedly increase over time, but in the absence of an alternative measure, calories remain a valuable guide.


FOR – Just counting calories doesn't teach us to listen to our body.

AGAINST – Sure, if you just count calories without any awareness of the food choices you're making – then you won't be learning much. But it's also possible to use calorie counting as a way to educate yourself. The Nutracheck App shows the nutrient breakdown of foods too, and you can track how your daily food intake looks versus targets for a healthy diet. A basic understanding of calories and macros teaches you how to get the most nutritional benefit from your food choices. If you're getting hungry, eat more low energy dense foods to add bulk without the hefty calorie tag. You'll only know this by knowing the calorie value of foods. Otherwise you might eat 3 avocados as a healthy way to fill yourself up and be inadvertently eating over 800 calories (OK maybe you wouldn't choose 3 avocados, but you get my point!).


Conclusion

There is no question that paying attention to what you are eating is hugely important not just for overall health, but weight management too. Following the guidelines for a healthy balanced diet should mean you feel healthy, satisfied, energised and less likely to overindulge on unhealthy foods. This does not however mean that calories are unimportant. Ensuring you have an awareness of the calorie content of foods, how many your body needs for your lifestyle and how many you're consuming each day, is an important way to maintain a healthy weight, and also lose excess weight if that's your goal – ignoring calories completely is unwise.

Whilst calorie counting isn't the only *method* of losing weight, consuming fewer calories than your body needs is the only way you will lose weight!

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.