It may seem like I’m hung up on calories these days given the number of times I’ve written about them in the past weeks. But I read a research article this weekend that brings the subject up again. It questions whether the energy balance equation (you know, calories in vs. calories out = your weight) works for weight loss advice.
What I found interesting was the discussion of how our behaviors affect our energy balance. It called into question the effectiveness of messages like, “Just one fewer cookie a day can add up to X pounds lost over a year.”
That appears to be one of the messages in the popular Eat This, Not That books. That is, simply by making small changes in what we eat, we can solve weight struggles. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the books, just the marketing materials. I also realize the differences in some featured foods isn’t small. More on that later.)
Jumping quickly to the conclusion of the research article: It’s oversimplifying things to say just making small changes in calorie intake will add up to big changes over time.
What’s wrong with those pictures.
A few of things mess up messages like that. Here are two:
- Studies suggest we can’t automatically assume that if we alter one side of the equation – for example, cut our calories – we won’t unintentionally change the other side, too. As in moving our bodies less. Result: No real difference in energy balance.
- Even if we do lose weight initially by making small changes in what we eat, the rate of loss eventually slows, and we often regain weight. It’s thought that we start eating more, again not necessarily intentionally. Researchers speculate we may get hungrier over time and eat more without realizing it.
So what does work?
From our perspective, an intentional healthy lifestyle is the best bet for healthy and permanent weight loss. It’s not about obsession; it’s about a focus on taking care of ourselves. Being focused on the whole because just making a change here or there probably won’t get us where we want in the long run. That applies to a lot more than weight, too.
Do we need calorie info to help us do that?
There may be some value in a book like Eat This, Not That. It seems to point out healthier choices sometimes, such as a homemade turkey sandwich vs. a deep-fried chicken parmesan sub. Might help someone who is really clueless about food.
If we eat frequently from their list of the ’20 Worst Foods in America,’ choosing differently would surely add up. But do we need calorie information to help us change those choices?
As blogging partner Emily asked, “Doesn’t it make sense to sometimes choose based on calories — when one side is “average’ and the other side insane?” My response:
- Could common sense and listening to cues substitute? Some of what makes these choices qualify for the insane moniker is portion size.
- Calories don’t give a full picture of eating well. Here’s a bit on that in today’s Boston Globe.
- What about the calorie-traumatized among us, which includes many (most?) women who struggle with eating and weight? Consider the blog we featured last Friday on calories in student dining halls.
The bottom line
Overall, I really don’t think it matters whether we have a Krispy Kreme or Dunkin’ donut…even if one has fewer calories. If we listen to our cues and eat in moderation, occasionally enjoying higher-calorie foods when we want them, differences like that won’t affect body weight.
If it did, we’d probably have solved our food/weight problems in this country years ago. Women’s magazines have long featured these kinds of comparisons. I should know. I put one of them together many moons ago in my dieting days.
Have you read Eat This, Not That? If so, did you find the book helpful and why or why not?