The theory that one of the most important aspects of a food is its calorie (energy) content has been one of the cornerstones of nutrition for the past 100+ years. And in fact, when I first started studying nutrition in the mid 2000’s, I recall my textbook talking about ‘calories in, calories out’ and how managing weight is as simple as ensuring that this invisible scale always balances. Just like an old-fashioned bank book, the prevailing belief is that you have a certain budget you need to stick to, and you can ‘earn’ extra food with exercise.
Makes sense on the surface doesn’t it?
But what I have learnt over almost a decade in my clinic working with patients who have tried all sorts of diets, exercise regimes and meal plans, is that it’s not that simple. Not by a long shot.
Let me tell you about Jocelyn (name changed for privacy). I first saw Jocelyn about 5 years ago. Her difficulty with her weight was causing her a great deal of stress, and she told me had spent most of her lifetime of almost 60 years on one diet or another. By the time she visited my clinic, she had restricted her food intake down to the point where she was having a single piece of toast in the morning, and a plain shake at night. Going by the ‘calories in, calories out’ equation, Jocelyn was eating only a few hundred calories per day, and by this logic, should have been enjoying a healthy, slim body. Yet she was carrying an extra 20kg that just wouldn’t budge, no matter what she did. She was also suffering from a host of symptoms of nutrient deficiencies due to how limited her food intake was.
And unfortunately, Jocelyn’s case is not uncommon.
In the clinic, we see so many women with similar stories. They’ve done challenges, sweated it out in the gym, tracked their food and participated in online programs – and may have lost a few kilos – but as soon as they start to eat like a normal human being again, the weight returns. Often bringing a few extra bonus kilos.
The Important Thing To Know About A Calorie...
…is that it is really talking about how a food behaves in a laboratory. It doesn’t reflect all the amazing intricacies of how your body works, and the process it goes through to unlock energy from the food you eat. Nor does it consider all the individual parts that make you….well, you. Here’s why.
The concept of a calorie was invented when scientists got curious about coming up with a way to measure how much energy a food contained. The best way to find out this information, they figured, was to pop a piece of food into a chamber, surround it with oxygen and water, and measure the degree to which a particular food heated the water. The end result being that the amount of food needed to raise the temperature of 1kg of water by 1°C was named a ‘kilocalorie (kcal)’. From here, researchers were able to work out that certain foods yielded different amounts of energy – for instance, carbohydrates and proteins provide around 4kcal/g, fats around 9kcal/g and alcohol 7kcal/g. Then, adjustments are made to take into account things like gender, age, activity levels and body size, to calculate the ‘ideal’ energy goal for a person.
But here’s where the research went a bit skewed. You are not a bomb calorimeter. Nor should your ideal food intake be dictated by a calculator.
Your metabolism is unique to you – and it has many, many moving parts that influence how fast or slow it runs, far beyond what can be decided from a mathematical equation. And the main thing that they forgot to take into account, was that the metabolism is dynamic – meaning that it responds differently to so many internal signals that make it virtually impossible to work out a one-size-fits-all goal. For instance…
- Inflammation in the body. The presence of low-grade inflammation can make it difficult, if not darn-near-impossible to lose weight, even when dieting and exercising. Addressing the underlying cause of inflammation within the body clears the way for better results.
- The types of food you eat makes a difference. If you were to eat equal calories from either a bowl of cornflakes, or a chicken breast fillet, it actually ‘costs’ your body more in terms of energy to break down and utilise the calories from the chicken breast. This is known as the thermogenic effect of protein (if you want to Google it). Not only that, but the chicken breast would help keep you fuller for longer – meaning that you are going to be less likely to overeat for the rest of the day, and you’ll enjoy sustained energy rather than peaks and troughs (that drive you to the secret chocolate stash!)
- Your gut health is increasingly being recognized as playing a key role in areas such as appetite, your risk of developing diabetes, and your body composition (what you are made up of on the inside). Research has shown that people who are naturally lean tend to have healthier, more diverse gut bacterial populations than those who are overweight. How interesting!
- Your sleep, hormonal fluctuations, toxin exposure and individual detoxification capacity, thyroid function, stress levels, and nutrient deficiencies can all impact your metabolism too. If these are not in a good way, they can make it far more challenging for your body to move into the fat-burning zone, and keep extra weight off.
A Better Solution
Rather than focusing on a magic number (which may or may not be all that accurate), I prefer to help my clients find the foods that suit them as an individual. The wonderful thing about this approach (which we call personalised nutrition) is that we can ditch the calorie tracking app, move out of that headspace of restriction and instead focus on rebuilding a good relationship with food. Tuning in to how good our ideal foods can make us feel, physically and mentally. Setting up habits that help us to enjoy food again - and at the same time address the underlying reasons why we gained weight in the first place – clears the way for weight to be released as a happy side effect of better health.
The feedback from our clients who have participated in the Metabolic Balance program has been overwhelmingly positive. Our participants love the fact that their food plan takes all the guesswork out of which foods are their best match – plus they have a plan for life, and the tools they need at their fingertips to proactively manage their own health.
What could be better?