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  • Writer's pictureJane Webber Nutrition

Do Calories Count, when it comes to losing weight?

I have been reading Dr Tim Spector’s book, called “Spoon-fed” is all about busting food myths. One of these is about calories! My other food nutrition hero, Dr Giles Yeo and his book, “Calories don’t count”, plus a webinar I attended really opened my eyes to how counting calories isn’t what it is all cracked up to be.

The simple calculation of calories in and calories out has defined the weight loss industry and the general public for many years. Even in my training, only completed a few years back focused very much on counting calories.

However, many of us don’t even know what a calorie is. We believe that a calorie is a precise measurement of food so it often defines what we eat, drink or burn off when we exercise.

Who invented the calorie?

The first time a calorie was measured was by a French scientist during the French Revolution.

In the 19th century, Wilbur Atwater spent most of his life researching and working out calories in over 4,000 foods! His work on calories in fat, protein and carbohydrates are still used today.

So why are scientists now only looking at this?

The increase in rising obesity rates, type 2 diabetes issues and the fact that despite having so many food choices that should lead to more informed choices we still aren’t seeing a big change.

We know that people burn calories at different rates, BMR, base metabolic rate, so what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another.

They are also gaining more insight into different components of food. An example – given by Tim is the humble walnut. For years their calorie content was overestimated by 20% until they discovered that much of their fat is not released when we eat them!

The same goes for almonds at well, by 30%

Scientists now know that the way food is cooked actually changes its structure and its energy, ie calorie content.

An example given is a rare cooked beef burger which contains fewer calories than a well-done charred beef burger!


Well, be prepared to be confused more!

A cheese sandwich may release its energy at a different rate from the value of the cheese and bread if eaten separately.

Let’s throw another spanner into the works. When it comes to ultra-processed foods, it alters the complex structure of the original plant or animal cells, turning it into a less nutritionally beneficial food that our bodies process quickly. Not in calorie terms but going through the body and not keeping us feeling fuller for longer.

Finally, his love of gut microbes research has shown that health or lack of can have a real impact on how many calories our body absorbs and converts into energy.

Let’s talk about where we get our calorie information from.

Whether it's calories on menus and working out calories on your favourite calorie counting app. We are drawn into believing the information is correct.

Well, food labels can be up to 20% incorrect on the calories and therefore the other macronutrients.

Menus – based on the research completed in the USA, as they have had this rule longer than we have in the UK, has shown that the calorie count can be incorrect by 200%.

Yes, the worst-case scenario but useless if you are relying on the calories to lose weight.

Why – portion sizes. Changes in ingredients and the chef underestimating the calories.

So does counting calories help with losing weight? I did lose weight by counting calories but stopped as I was getting stressed about calories rather than healthy eating.

I stopped working with clients in 2020 by counting calories and focused on 10 habits that help. Focusing on habits that will continue to help people keep the weight off in the long term seemed the right way forward.

Want to know more about my Feel Great in 8 nutrition plan for weight loss?

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