For years it seems that the weight loss industry is obsessed with calories. Take a stroll down the grocery aisles and you’ll see packaging claiming low calorie options. Americans have become so infatuated with calories that now major restaurants have the calorie count on their menu items.
Unfortunately, however, many people who strictly count calories are still not able to lose weight. Why? There are many myths about calories that we have been taught. New York Times best-selling author, Jonathan Bailor, sought out to uncover the truth about calories. Bailor’s book The Calorie Myth explores the many myths the weight loss industry has taught Americans about calorie restriction, exercise, and weight loss.
Together, we will explore a few of these calorie myths:
Myth 1: All calories are created equal.
Contrary to popular belief, all calories are not created equal. A 100-calorie pack of cookies will not benefit your body in the same way that 100-calories of raspberries will. Your body receives high-quality calories from foods that are considered nutrient-rich. Nutrient-rich, also referred to as nutrient-dense, foods are those that are naturally low in calories but are high in vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates (“good carbs”), lean proteins, and healthy fats.
These nutrient-rich foods will keep your body feeling fuller longer, trigger hormone release to tell the body to burn fat, and forces your body to work harder to break down the fiber in unprocessed foods. When you consume processed, refined foods your body is not as satisfied and the tendency to overeat increases.
Myth 2: Your body runs on math.
As Bailor puts it, your body does not run on math, it runs on biology. Calories are only a small portion of the overall equation of weight loss. The body is a complex system that works to keep you in a particular weight range by controlling your appetite and metabolism through a process of genetics, hormones, and brain function. The idea that 3,500 calories is equal to one pound drives individuals to drastically cut calories and exercise in excess.
Myth 3: The only way to lose weight is to cut calories.
Cutting calories and dieting only tackles the surface level issue of needing to lose weight rather than focusing on the internal issue: what is keeping you from dropping pounds. Bailor provides an illustration of a clogged sink. A solution to that issue would be to stop or restrict use of the sink. That solution would eliminate the issue of water overflowing. However, it did not fix the underlying cause—what is causing the sink to clog. In our bodies, the underlying cause of the “clog”, or the inability to lose weight, comes from consuming poor quality foods that throw your body out of balance.
Calories on a Plant-Based Diet
A large study on obesity rate comparison found that regular meat eaters had the largest body mass index (BMI). Following the meat eaters were the “flexitarians”—those who ate meat more on a weekly basis rather than everyday. These individuals had a lower BMI than the regular meat eaters, but were still classified as overweight. Continuing the decline of BMI were the pesco-vegetarians—these are individuals who avoid all meat except fish. Even American vegetarians were on the borderline of overweight BMI’s. The only group of individuals with an ideal BMI was those consuming a strictly plant-based diet.
What this study found was that the issue isn’t the number of calories, but where the calories came from. An index was created that reflects the percentage of calories from nutrient-rich foods on a scale of 0 to 100. The higher the score on the scale, the higher the percentage of body fat may be lost and the lower the risk of chronic disease. To give an example, the standard American diet ranks about 11 out of 100 for nutrient-rich foods. The article concludes that with a whole-food, plant-based diet there may be no need for counting calories, as many plant foods are naturally nutrient-rich and lower in calories.
Foods to eat that will help you feel full:
An issue that many people face on their weight loss journey is always feeling hungry. This is due to the satiety index, otherwise known as the level of which foods make you feel full. An example of this would be eating a bowl of ice cream vs. a bowl of broccoli. It would be very easy for an individual to eat a 500-calorie bowl of ice cream, but very difficult to eat a 500-calorie bowl of broccoli.
Vegetables are packed with nutrients, but are also high in fiber and water, which allows your body to feel full. A study found that eating salad before a meal reduced overall calorie intake. Incorporating vegetables into your meal will help your body feel full, and will reduce the tendency to overeat.
Another food to incorporate into your diet is legumes. This family of food consists of beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts. These are filled with plant protein and fiber, which will help your body have sustained energy while feeling full.
Finally, some fruits are high on the satiety index. For example, apples and oranges score extremely high due to their fiber content. An important note about incorporating fruit into your diet: eat the whole fruit rather than just the juice, which is not going to signal the brain that the stomach is full.
Bottom Line: If you are eating whole-food, plant-based, you do not need to count calories. According to Bailor, counting calories leads to a 95% failure rate on an individual’s weight loss journey and often leaves them with more weight than when they started. Put down the calculator and pick up the plants!