All calories are not created equal

All calories are not created equal - simply counting calories may not be the best way to predict weight loss. Let's break down the data.

Calorie counting has long been the focus of fad dieting. Fad diets started popping up in the early 1800s - in fact the low carb diet popularized by Dr. Atkin in the 1990's was actually first described in a cookbook written in 1825. Until recently, calorie counting seemed entirely logical. If you eat more calories than you burn, that net calorie increase results in weight gain.

It's really easy to cherry pick individual studies to support one diet over another. Eat whatever you want as long as it's low fat and high carb? There's a study for that. Restrict calories, avoid sugar? There's a study for that. The most recent trend has been in maximizing protein intake, but even when looking at high versus low protein intake, it was ultimately not protein intake that predicted increases in body fat. Simply being health conscious enough to be mindful about what you eat seems to matter more than any specific fad diet itself.

There is so much more than diet alone that influences weight gain (check out our article on sleep for one example), and just because calorie counting may not make sense for fat reduction, I want to be clear that limiting portion size has a ton of other health benefits. There's promising data for calorie restriction in terms of its effect on aging, but ultimately I'm personally wary of any "all this none of that" type diets.

Fortunately, our understanding of food science has improved a lot, even since the 90's. Aside from it being nearly impossible to accurately count calories, even trying to "exercise off" a bad diet proves futile. The most recent study in this arena showed no difference between a healthy low-fat diet compared to a healthy low-carb diet. Therein lies the question - what is healthy? In that study, cutting back on added sugar, avoiding packaged products and ensuring plenty of vegetables and whole foods all seemed to be the key ingredients to significant weight loss. Importantly, there was no magic number of calories the study participants were limited to - they could eat as much "healthy" food as they wanted.

As a big fan of keeping things simple, I loved reading these results. My personal approach is to try and make my diet more plant than meat based, avoid processed foods whenever possible, and ensure there is plenty of natural fiber and whole grains in what I eat. Michael Pollan nicely summarizes this approach in seven words: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

-The Gut Doc


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