For weight loss, popular diets advocate everything from eating according to your blood type to nearly fasting for 2 days a week. Now, one popular instruction - to eat small but frequent meals throughout the day - has been called out by researchers, who say it does not boost metabolism or encourage weight loss.
In fact, the research - presented today at the Society for Endocrinology annual BES conference - suggests counting calories is all that really matters when it comes to losing weight.
Obesity has become a growing public health concern in recent decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of adults over the age of 20 who were overweight or obese in the US as of 2010 was nearly 70%.
The researchers of this latest study, led by Dr. Milan Kumar Piya of the University of Warwick in the UK, note that previous research has suggested eating a single high-fat meal increases low-level inflammation in the body when bits of gut bacteria - known as endotoxins - enter the blood stream.
Since this kind of inflammation has been linked to a future risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes, the researchers wanted to investigate whether eating often would cause more damage that might increase these risks in obese individuals.
Eating small, frequent meals does not encourage weight loss or boost metabolism, researchers say.
To conduct their study, the team analyzed 24 lean and obese women who were given two meals or five meals on separate days.
These women consumed the same number of calories on both days, and the researchers meanwhile measured their energy expenditure using whole body monitor calorimeters.
'Counting calories matters most'
Findings from the study revealed that whether the women ate two meals or five meals had no effect on how many calories were burned. Over a 24-hour period, the women burned the same number of calories when they ate both numbers of meals.
Additionally, the investigators observed that obese women who ate five meals had significantly higher endotoxin levels by the end of each day, compared with when they only ate two meals.
Dr. Piya says their research has yielded two main findings:
"Firstly, that the size or frequency of the meal doesn't affect the calories we burn in a day, but what matters most for losing weight is counting calories. Secondly, by carrying more weight, more endotoxin enters the circulation to cause inflammation, and eating more often will exacerbate this risk, which has been linked to metabolic diseases such as type-2 diabetes."
She says their future research will focus on the impact of diet, gut flora and calories burned in different people.
"By understanding how diet affects inflammatory risk and energy expenditure, we will further our understanding of how we can better target diet intervention on an individual basis," she adds.
In other recent nutrition news, Medical News Today reported on a study that questioned the link between saturated fat and heart disease. Researchers who published in the Annals of Internal Medicine said they found no evidence to support guidelines that suggest restricting saturated fat for lowering heart disease risks.
Calorie-counting has become a popular way to track your dietary habits and reach weight-loss goals. It seems simple at first glance: if you need x amount of calories to be healthy, then just don’t go over that number and you’ll be healthy. If you want to lose weight, just make sure to eat fewer calories each day than x. Addition and subtraction are easy to understand and practical to use. But is calorie-counting actually as valuable it sounds?
Humans are intricate organisms, so any approach based solely on calorie-counting is probably generalizing a bit. The deeper we go into what calories are and how our bodies do or do not process them, and how we react to that once the meal is over, the murkier the idea of calorie-counting becomes.
Calorie-counting: an estimate of an estimate
First off, the calorie counts you read as part of the Nutrition Facts on food and drink packaging are not precise measurements. The FDA only requires that the number be off by no more than 20%. That inaccuracy may not be much when it comes to a single food in isolation, but it can add up real quick. You could be eating quite a few more calories over the course of a day than you actually think you are. The number on the back of the box is a guideline, not set in stone.
Beyond the packaging, the amount of calories you personally need each day isn’t really an exact number. It changes as we age, it changes across genders, it changes depending on the activities we engage in and the precise foods and drinks we use to take in those calories. Much like the reasoning behind walking 10,000 steps a day, the number of calories we are recommended is an estimate based as much on practicality as science. In other words, there are multiple layers of estimation occurring before you tally calories at a meal.
A wrong-headed approach to eating
There’s a psychological aspect to calorie-counting that’s worth addressing. If you look at your diet as a number of calories that you shouldn’t go over, then you tend to think of all foods as fine so long as they don’t push you over the limit. Eating only a single 2,000-calorie burrito each day may be an extreme example, but would supposedly make you healthy on a calorie-counting diet.
We eat food, not calories
Just because two foods have an equal amount of calories doesn’t mean they are equally healthy. When it comes to sugar, for example, we ingest either fructose or glucose. They’re both sugars, but our bodies react to them in very different ways, and fructose can create all sorts of trouble for you.
This doesn’t apply only to sugar. Take diet soda: While the artificial sweeteners in it keep the calories at or near zero, study after study has shown a link between diet soda consumption and weight gain, not weight loss. This is because we tend to keep on craving calories when we miss out on them. Diet soda often leads to overeating and snacking. And it’s our actions after we eat calories, both in our bodies and in our lives, that matter a lot too.
Starving yourself for weight loss, for example, causes all sorts of disruptions in how your body functions. When your internal systems get out of whack, your metabolism can be slowed down, your insulin resistance can go up and the cells in your body store more energy as fat rather than using it. That’s a recipe for weight gain.
In a more positive example, protein-rich foods are great ways to help lose weight. A food like chicken is high in protein and low in calories. Protein has a high diet-induced thermogenesis, meaning it speeds up your metabolism and results in you burning calories for energy more than storing them as fat.
Beyond that, protein helps lower your appetite, keeping you satisfied and feeling satisfied for longer. This means less urge to snack and less snacking overall. Fiber can have similar results, which is why fruits and vegetables are so important (among many other reasons) to your diet. When you eat properly, counting calories isn’t necessary because your body naturally adjusts.
What to do instead of counting calories
The Olumia Life app contains a noticeable lack of calorie-counting. We talk more about ratios than giving a set caloric finish line for each day. Eating healthy isn’t about maintaining a diet and starving yourself, it’s about eating healthy. We all learned in elementary school what healthy foods are. The important thing is finding a doable way to change your eating habits to include them rather than forever denying yourself dessert.
We need lots of protein, some starch and plenty of fruits and vegetables each day to be healthy. Nutritious foods work towards reducing appetite, whereas processed, low-nutrient foods (often high in sugar) actually make us hungrier. Think of it this way: you could maybe gorge yourself on an entire large pizza, but have you ever tried eating 6 apples? Avoiding processed foods and foods loaded with sugar, but forbidding yourself from ever having them again is just setting yourself up for failure. The occasional indulgence is how you stick to healthy habits.
You don’t need a calculator to eat well so much as an awareness of the ratio you should eat, i.e., mindful eating. Olumia Life uses this approach as its Nutrition plan. In fact, not going overboard on calories is built right into the system, you need only follow the guidance and meal suggestions to be a healthy eater. The calorie-counting can go the way of the abacus.