Why we should stop counting calories once and for all

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Evelyn Lewin

Not all calories are created equal, so there's no point in keeping tally.

Not all calories are created equal, so there's no point in keeping tally. Photo: Stocksy

Eleanor Welsman, 25, used to spend her days zealously counting calories. "I would use [the calorie-counting app] My Fitness Pal and books, as well as looking at labels," says the gym owner.

While this sounds like a sure-fire method for weight loss, Welsman found the opposite to be true. Counting calories was joyless and, after eating rigidly for weeks, Welsman would "lose control" and binge. "I felt devastated every time I lost control," she says.

"I felt like I was a failure It was Welsman's colleagues who introduced her to an eating plan based on the paleo diet. She says she wasn't keen on certain aspects of the diet, such as giving up grains and dairy, but that "the idea of eating as much as you want and still losing weight did appeal to me".

Welsman stopped counting calories and started eating "whole, real" food again. She drastically increased her fat intake – her diet is now 50 per cent fat, 30 per cent protein and 20 per cent carbohydrate – yet she's leaner than ever.

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"Physically, I am in the best shape of my life," she says. "I went from 30 per cent body fat to 16 per cent in just over two years."

Dietitian Kara Landau says that if you were to measure Welsman's calorie intake it would be pretty high because fat contains lots of calories. But when you look at the types of food she eats – seafood, meat, nuts and seeds – you can't deny that they're healthy.

Welsman says counting calories "drove my soul into the ground". But others believe a "scientific approach" to weight loss still has value, and that you are guaranteed to lose weight if you follow the formula of calories in being fewer than calories out.

That's not true, says Landau, who adds that she never advises clients to count calories. She says low-calorie foods are often high in sugar and many lack vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols.

Cardiologist Aseem Malhotra challenged the idea that a low-calorie diet is a good diet in Open Heart earlier this year. "Not all calories are the same," he writes in the journal.

He explains that a can of soft drink contains only 150 calories, but that drinking a can a day is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile, consuming four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil a day reduces the risk of strokes and heart attacks, even though that oil contains significantly more calories than the soft drink.

Endocrinologist and anti-sugar campaigner Robert Lustig is such a firm believer in the idea that not all calories are equal he dedicated a chapter to the topic in his book Fat Chance. He explains that a calorie is simply a measure of how much energy is required to burn food in a laboratory setting.

"If a calorie is a calorie, then all fats would be the same because they'd each release nine calories per gram of energy when burned," he writes. "But they're not the same."

It doesn't take into account how our body interacts with burning calories. We know there are good fats (found in nuts and seeds) that have healthy properties. Then there are bad fats (found in pastries and doughnuts, for instance) that contribute to heart and liver disease. It's not hard to see how a similar system could one day apply to calories.

Edward Barin, a cardiologist at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital wants us to stop counting calories for the sake of our hearts and take nutrition into account. For example, the Mediterranean diet is high in calories but reduces the risk of heart disease.

Landau agrees that it's time to focus on "what nutrients we are getting from food, rather than how many calories are present".

It's about looking at the bigger picture, because we can no longer pretend that just because a food is low in calories, it's the healthy choice.