If you're counting calories in a bid to lose weight at the moment, stop right there. Clinical Nutritionist Stephanie Moore explains that everything you've heard about shedding the pounds might not actually be true. Here are five myths about dieting that need to be busted now.
1. Reducing calories helps you lose weight
Reducing one’s intake of calories as a means to lose weight has been proven time and again to fail yet it continues to be promoted by GPs, fitness experts and health practitioners as an essential and effective weight loss tool. The concept of energy in = energy out, i.e. if you eat less and exercise more you will lose weight, can only ever work in the very short term. Anyone who has tried restricting calories to lose weight will know that very quickly you become obsessed about food, never feeling full and satisfied, always thinking about food and what to eat next and meanwhile, as you doggedly try to stick to your reduced-calorie diet, you are actually training your body to be better at storing what you eat as body fat.
There are so many complex variables when it comes to what happens to our food once we’ve eaten it that following the simplistic idea of calorie counting as a means to weight control is destined to fail. What this method does do, is offer a sense of control – having tangible guidelines for creating boundaries around what and how much to eat provides great comfort to many who feel out of control of their weight and their food cravings, but this framework only offers a short term solution and does not encourage a healthy emotional or physical relationship to food. Counting calories only serves to further distance people from re-learning the natural drives and desires that allow us to eat in an appropriate way according to our bodily needs.
If you decide to restrict your calories for a period of time, you are powerfully training your body to run on less. It’s called the famine effect and any sustained low calorie intake, especially when combined with extra exercise, changes the way in which your body processes what you eat – making storage a priority and down-regulating metabolism so that your body can manage on less! This means you can never go back to eating more calories again. So unless you want to continuously restrict your calorie intake, which of course is not possible, you need to let go of the idea that reducing calories and trying to burn more calories is a realistic way to manage your weight – the opposite is the truth.
2. All foods are equal
Making calories the main criteria for choosing what to eat entirely negates the importance of the nutritional value of a food and what effect that food has upon the body once eaten. The quality of the food and the message the food sends to the body, to rev it up or turn it down is the important factor, hence, the effect of the calories from an avocado or piece of steak will be entirely different to the same amount of calories coming from a piece of cake or a bowl of breakfast cereal. This is a hard message to take on board as it is so deeply entrenched in the public psyche that it is calories that matter and the fewer the better for weight management. Yet it is a profoundly and biologically flawed concept.
Different foods trigger entirely different biological responses. Foods high in natural, unprocessed fats, such as that found in avocados, nuts & seeds, butter and other animal fats; foods containing protein such as meat, eggs, fish, pulses and high fibre foods – avocados, nuts & seeds, pulses, vegetables – all serve to fill, nourish and fuel the body with deeply satisfying, restorative and useful calories. Those calories found in processed, sugar and starch-rich foods such as bread, crackers, cakes, biscuits, white potatoes, white rice etc. serve ONLY to provide an abundance of energy which, if not immediately burned off, will get stored as fat.
3. Low-fat is good
Carbohydrate-rich foods (sugars, flours, starchy veg), especially those that are highly processed, may have far fewer calories than fat and protein rich foods like nuts, avocados, olive oil, butter, will far more readily increase stores of body fat. These high carbohydrate foods cause a rapid increase in levels of sugar in your blood – blood glucose. High blood glucose levels trigger the hormone insulin to be sent into the bloodstream, as insulin regulates blood glucose levels. High blood glucose levels are highly damaging to the body, insulin ensures levels resume to normal as quickly as possible. It does this by converting excess blood glucose (coming from bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruit juice, cereals, sweet foods, baked goods etc. etc. ) into fat in the blood. Insulin then shunts this blood fat into your fat cells. Hence, sugar and high carbohydrate foods initiate a fat-storing response far more than any other type of food.
4. Protein only is best for weight loss
An excess of protein-rich foods can also trigger insulin and fat storage but in comparison to carb-rich foods it is small. However, an egg-white only omelette or a lean chicken breast, full or protein and barely any fat, is not a healthy or balanced option, so moderate protein is appropriate and should be eaten with fat and fibre, both of which elicit no insulin response.
No insulin, no fat storage of your foods. Hence, foods high in fat & fibre, with some protein present, think full-fat Greek yogurt with berries nuts and seeds; omelette with cheese and a big salad; fatty cuts of meat made in to a tasty stew with vegetables and buttery cauliflower mash; avocado & Mozzarella salad with lots of olive oil; Thai chicken curry with full-fat coconut milk and lots of veg - high fat, high calorie, nutrient-dense and therefore filling, satisfying and super-tasty meals with NO FAT STORAGE. These types of foods can be eaten in abundance as long as you are not also consuming high carb-foods. Throw in bread, pasta, rice, potatoes or finish with a sweet dessert and your blood glucose levels will rise, your body will make insulin and then all of those fat, protein and carb calories, will be preferentially stored away in fat cells and will, therefore not be available to your body to use as fuel, to support your metabolic function and to give you energy.
5. Diet foods work
Those foods marketed as low-fat or diet? Forget them. They are often low in fat, but highly processed. You have a fat-storing mode and a fat-burning mode. Depending on the type of foods you eat, you are triggering one or the other. Choose carbs, you are turning off all ability to burn fat and driving foods you eat to be stored as fat. Avoid foods that push up blood sugar and trigger insulin, you will learn what truly feeling full and satisfied is. This then leads to food-freedom and natural regulation of hunger meanwhile no more sugar-cravings or energy crashes and no more calorie counting. Understanding what happens to the food you eat once you’ve swallowed it tells you a whole lot more than the calorie count on the packet. So, if you want to put your body into a fat-burning rather than fat-storing state, be brave, stop buying processed, low-fat, refined foods and start embracing the joy and taste of natural fats, high quality protein and wholesome, fibrous foods and your body will start to very quickly burn fat as it fuels your brain, balances your hormones and give you endless energy.
Stephanie Moore is author of the book Why Eating Less and Exercising More Makes You Fat (Health-in-Hand).