Counting Calories For Weight Loss – More of The Same

If there is one article in the 2018 special issue of JAMA on obesity that we could have well done without, it is surely the one by Eve Guth promoting the age-old notion that simply counting calories is a viable and effective means to manage body weight.

As the author suggests:

“It is better for physicians to advise patients to assess and then modify their current eating habits and then reduce their caloric ingestion by counting calories. Counseling patients to do this involves provision of simple handouts detailing the calorie content of common foods, suggested meal plan options, an explanation of a nutrition label, and a list of websites with more detailed information. Patients should be advised that eating about 3500 calories a week in excess of the amount of calories expended results in gaining 1 lb (0.45 kg) of body weight. If a patient reduces caloric ingestion by 500 calories per day for 7 days, she or he would lose about 1 lb of body weight per week, depending on a number of other factors. This is a reasonable and realistic place to start because this approach is easily understood and does not ask a patient to radically change behavior.”

There is so much wrong with this approach, that it is hard to know exactly where to start.

For one, this advise is based on the simplistic assumption that obesity is simply a matter of managing calories to achieve and sustain long-term weight loss.

Not only, do we have ample evidence that these type of approaches rarely result in long-term sustained weight-loss but, more importantly this type of advice comfortably ignores the vast body of scientific literature that tells us that body weight is a tightly regulated physiological variable and that there are a host of complex neuroendocrine responses that will defend our bodies against long-term weight loss – mechanisms that most people (irrespective of whether they have obesity or not) will find it exceedingly hard to overcome with “will-power” alone.

No doubt, caloric “awareness” can be an eye-opener for many patients and there is good evidence that keeping a food journal can positively influence dietary patterns and even reduce “emotional” eating. But the idea that cognitively harnessing “will-power” to count calories (a very “unnatural” behaviour indeed), thereby creating and sustaining a long-term state of caloric deficit is rather optimistic at best.

In fact, legions of people who have been battling obesity all their lives can attest to the fact that encouragement to simply “eat less and move more” (ELMM) as a viable strategy to achieve and sustain significant weight loss is about as effective as reminding people with depression to focus on the brighter side of things and cheer up.

Not to mention the debunked 3500 calorie deficit a week = 1 lb weight loss (week after week after week till a so called  “healthy” weight is achieved) myth, which is simply not how bodies work.

Continuing to propagate this antiquated and simplistic idea of what it takes to manage a complex chronic disease like obesity, is exactly what is holding the field back.

There is no reason to assume why more of the same should produce results that are any different from those in the past.

It is time we recognise that restricting caloric intake by willpower alone (irrespective of the dietary strategy) simply does not change the biology of the underlying physiology that effectively defends our bodies against long-term weight loss.

Reading an article like this in 2018 in a reputable journal that promises to “reimagine” obesity is both disappointing and a stark reminder of just how far we have to go to change widely held beliefs that obesity is simply a matter of calories in and calories out – if only life (and human biology) was that simple!

Edmonton, AB