Why Calorie Counting Doesn’t Work—and What to Do Instead
By Megan O. Steintrager
Calories in vs. calories out—i.e., eating fewer calories than you burn off—has been an accepted weight loss formula for decades. And on its face, it seems to make sense. But a growing body of research is proving what frustrated dieters have already discovered: It’s just not that simple.
“First, counting calories doesn’t work,” says Dr. David Ludwig, an endocrinologist, researcher, and professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, and the author of the 2016 book Always Hungry? “Sure, eating less and moving more will produce short-term weight loss. But the body fights back, with rising hunger and slowing metabolism, a recipe for failure.
“Second, counting calories can’t work,” he continues. “Without elaborate technology, not even a trained nutrition expert can accurately determine their calorie balance to within 350 calories a day. A daily excess of this amount would lead to massive obesity in just a few years. For that matter, if calorie counting were so important to weight control, how did humans ever manage to maintain a healthy body weight before the very notion of the calorie was invented?”
Ludwig’s weight-loss program, outlined in Always Hungry?, involves changing the diet as opposed to simply limiting calories, as well as implementing lifestyle changes such as reducing stress and improving sleep.
“The aim of our program is to lower levels of the hormone insulin and calm chronic inflammation,” explains Dr. Ludwig, who also recently co-authored a cookbook, Always Delicious, with his wife, chef and cooking teacher Dawn Ludwig. “As these happen, metabolism improves, and weight loss can occur without the struggle.” Dr. Ludwig says his prescribed way of eating can also lead to fewer food cravings, better control of hunger, improved energy level, and reduced risk of chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk factors.
Here are seven things you can start today to lose or maintain a healthy weight and to improve your overall health, according to the Ludwigs. “The goal is to love your food, feel great, and be healthy,” says chef Ludwig.
1. Go slow-carb
Why: The initial two-week phase of the Always Hungry? diet involves cutting out fast-digesting carbs, such as refined sugar (except a small amount of dark chocolate), white potatoes, pasta, and bread products. (Later in the program, some of these things may be added back in moderation.) “These foods raise insulin and cause your fat cells to hoard calories rather than allowing calories to be efficiently used for energy in the body,” explains chef Ludwig. But rather than telling you to go low carb, the Ludwigs suggest a “slow carb” approach, in which you replace foods with fast-acting carbs with foods with slow-acting carbs like beans and legumes, vegetables, and whole fruits, as well as good quality fats.
How: Instead of a sugary dessert like sorbet, have a cup of berries topped with 1 to 2 tablespoons of heavy cream or an ounce of dark chocolate (70% minimum cacao content). For a side dish, replace potatoes with a lentil dish drizzled with olive oil, suggests chef Ludwig.
2. Swap out low-fat and nonfat dairy for full-fat
Why: “In order to make low-fat dairy satisfying to the body most companies add sugar to replace the added fat,” says chef Ludwig. “However, our bodies register the calorie density in full-fat dairy as deeply nourishing and feel satisfied without the sugar. It means that with full-fat dairy you stay full longer and begin to use the calories more efficiently.”
How: Skip the sugar and artificial sweeteners in your tea or coffee, but feel free to add whole milk or cream. Choose unsweetened, full-fat yogurt and full-fat kefir.
3. Have a serving of high-quality protein with each meal
Why: The plan recommends getting 3 to 6 ounces of protein with every meal. “When taken in the right amounts, protein plays an important role in weight control by triggering the release of glucagon [a hormone that promotes the breakdown of glycogen to glucose in the liver], which counterbalances insulin and thus helps balance the effects of carbohydrates,” chef Ludwig explains.
How: Your protein source can be in just about any form you like, including poultry, beef, cheese, eggs, cheese, fish, or vegetarian options like tofu and tempeh.
4. Keep grains intact
Why: “Using lower glycemic load foods mean lowering insulin and shifting your biology to work with you for weight loss, reduced inflammation, fewer cravings, and increased satisfaction,” explains chef Ludwig.
How: Look for grains in their most-whole form; think wheat berries instead of wheat bread, steel-cut oats instead of rolled, and brown rice instead of white, for example. Legumes and sweet potatoes are also great substitutes for refined grains.
5. Incorporate “joyful movement” into your weekly routine
Why: Rather than focusing on calorie-torching at the gym, the Ludwigs recommend shifting your perspective on exercise. “Exercise is not about burning calories,” says chef Ludwig. “It’s meant to support digestion; improve metabolism; lower insulin levels; enhance muscle tone, strength, and flexibility; build motivation; and make you feel good.”
How: Incorporate moderate to vigorous — and “most of all, enjoyable” — physical activity into your weekly routine, says chef Ludwig. “Your level of activity will depend on your fitness level and health, but a shift in perspective will mean that you are exercising to nourish your body rather than to punish it.”
6. Add stress relief to your day
Why: “Increased stress hormones can counteract the benefits of even the best diets by raising insulin, promoting chronic inflammation, keeping fat cells hoarding too many calories, and eroding bone and muscle while building belly fat,” explains chef Ludwig.
How: “Incorporate short 15-minute relaxing walks after meals to improve your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar,” suggests chef Ludwig. Some other stress relieving practices the Ludwigs recommend include taking five-minute breathing or relaxation breaks during the day or adopting a regular practice of journaling or meditation. Be sure to find what works for you so you don’t end up stressing over your stress reduction.
7. Create a relaxing bedtime routine
Why: Poor sleep counteracts the benefits of a good diet and exercise by increasing stress hormones, the Ludwigs explain. One way to to instantly improve your chances of getting a good night’s sleep is to get the electronics out of your bedroom. “Safeguarding your sleep by removing electronics means a calmer nervous system and less exposure to the sleep-disrupting blue light that can keep us from deep sleep,” says chef Ludwig.
How: If you have a TV in your bedroom, remove it. Replace your bedtime TV or computer habit with a regular relaxation routine (preferably around the same time each night), such as taking a hot bath, journaling, cuddling, or stretching. Then make the bedroom all about what the Ludwigs call the three Rs: rest, reading, and romance.
BIO: Megan O. Steintrager holds a master’s in journalism from New York University and has been an editor and writer for Epicurious, Gourmet.com, TODAY, Food Network Magazine, and Zagat, among other outlets.
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