The Science of Eating: Why Calorie Counting Keeps Your Clients Fat

 In Food & Nutrition, For Men, For Women, Health, The Everyday Athlete

“Your body is a chemistry lab, not a bank account.” –JJ Virgin

I wish I’d been the one to coin that phrase, but like many in life, I doubt I’ve ever had an original thought. As for the calorie in, calorie out epidemic, I am here to tell you that not all calories are created equal AND that counting calories for weight loss is the oldest news on the block.

Unfortunately, many health care professionals, nutrition gurus and the everyday public are still hanging onto the idea that calorie deficits are the ultimate guide to fat loss.

So where did this whole calorie counting concept come from in the first place and why are we having such a hard time letting it go?

Honestly, it almost makes sense to count them when you break down the mathematics of food. For example, a calorie indicates the amount of energy that foods will produce in the human body.

Our diets consist of protein, fats, carbohydrates and while we are being honest here – alcohol too. Below is a table that helps break down the amount of energy each type of food offers as far as calories per gram:

Nutrients Energy Yield
Proteins 4 kcal/g
Carbohydrates 4 kcal/g
Fats 9 kcal/g
Alcohol 7 kcal/g
Vitamins, minerals and water

Apparently, it looks as if cutting fats and alcohol from your diet, while eating more protein and carbs, would allow you to take in fewer calories and therefore you should be able to lose weight.

Where this theory got it all wrong happened when we started playing a numbers game and stopped looking at how food affects our hormones. It’s not about the quantity of food; it’s about the quality of where it came from and how these nutrients react with our biochemistry.

You know those people that lose 27 pounds on a Jell-O diet and argue that it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you’re simply reducing your daily caloric intake? A study conducted by Harvard University knocked the bogus calorie counting argument to pieces.

The study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, followed 120,877 males and females between the ages of 12 and 20 years to investigate what factors influenced weight loss or weight gain over a four-year period.

So the obvious news first… The participants gained nearly a pound a year, resulting in almost 17 additional pounds in 20 years time. Have you ever had that moment where you wake up 10, 20 or more years post-high school or college and you look in the mirror like, “What happened to me?!” As a coach or trainer, I’m sure this isn’t you, but it’s very likely to be the story of your clients’ lives…all attributed to an “aging” metabolism as everyone likes to put it.

Many conclusions from this study weren’t surprising… The non-exercisers, for instance, became fatter than the exercisers.

Likewise, the TV-watchers and poor sleepers (consistently getting less than six hours a night) saw their scale numbers rise. And wine-drinkers, listen up because one daily glass didn’t trigger weight gain — though other forms of alcohol did.

I have been preaching about the myth of calorie counting for a few years now with the same exaggerated response amongst my listeners – shock and disbelief (I assure you we once thought the world was flat and evolving science proved otherwise).

I am happy to present a study that destroys the common food dogmas that junk-food manufacturers and so-called health experts have nonsensically argued for ages. You hear these instructions often: Everything in moderation, reduce your calories, ditch the higher-fat foods, and oh yeah — a calorie is a calorie, period.

What you eat and when you eat it makes all the difference.

Most of your weight loss success comes when you eat to support your hormones. The number one body fat regulator is the hormone insulin, which is responsible for stabilizing your blood sugar.

This hormone has anabolic properties, meaning it signals your body to store fat. Whenever you eat, you raise insulin. The more often you eat, the more fat you store.

This is a great time to point out that snacking is not your friend. Snacking does not make you look good naked. Even when you eat healthy snacks such as nuts and berries, it will still cause an increase in your blood sugar followed by the release of insulin.

This is why it is important to have three to four wholesome meals a day that keep you satiated for four to six hours at a time. This allows blood sugar levels to stabilize and you can now switch into a successful high fat-burning mode.

It is important to debunk the snacking myth here and now – everyone believes that multiple meals every two to three hours keeps you lean by keeping your metabolism going.

I promise you this is not the case. Your metabolism stays running when you hydrate yourself between your meals. And hopefully by now, you are starting to see that drinking your calories in any fluid aside from water (which has zero) – think sports drinks, sweetened tea, mocha frappuccinos and soda to name a few, will cause blood sugar dysregulation as well.

At this point I am sure you are curious as to how you can keep yourself full for so many hours between meals.

This is where we need to evaluate the hormones ghrelin and leptin, as they are key players in regulating appetite. Ghrelin, the hunger hormone (grrrrr, my belly wants food), is responsible for telling you it’s time to eat.

Leptin is the hormone responsible for telling your brain you’ve had enough food. Most people know plenty well when they need to refuel, however a new diagnosis known as leptin-resistance represents those having trouble knowing when to stop.

The key to satisfaction happens when you combine the right types of foods to stimulate leptin and that slow down stomach emptying.

When you plan your meals you should start thinking of your food choices as pieces to a puzzle. You need to make sure every meal, as well as any snack you or a client may need on training day includes protein, fat and fiber.

This combination is the perfect marriage for fat loss success. This needs to happen with breakfast, lunch and dinner. When you eat like this, you start hitting all the winning hormones that have benefits far beyond tipping the scale in your favor – you will also find yourself more energized, having less brain fog, feeling less depressed or unmotivated, sleeping deeper and there will be more strength and endurance in your training.

What coach or trainer wouldn’t want that for his or her own self and clientele?

If you notice yourself falling short of the four to six hour mark between meals with symptoms like hypoglycemia or “hangry” irritability, you can quickly identify what piece of the puzzle was missing in your last meal. Maybe your grilled chicken salad could have used some extra avocado and olive oil to keep you on point. On a long day when you need that fourth meal or snack you will know to pair your apple with some nut butter and a few ounces of turkey.

At this point you should see it’s not about the calories, but rather where those calories come from and how they affect your hormones that determine whether you burn or store fat.

Let me provide you with two meal examples to drive that point home.

One consists of wild caught salmon and steamed garlic spinach; the other includes pizza and ice cream.

Both contain exactly 500 calories.

Which would you bet helps you burn fat? It’s no contest.

The high-quality protein, omega-3 fats and fiber in the nutrient-dense salmon/spinach combo keeps you satiated, supports the maintenance and/or development of muscle and triggers your fat-burning hormones.

The carb-heavy pizza and ice cream, on the other hand, will spike your insulin and crash your blood sugar levels, leaving you hungrier, tired, nutrient-deprived and prone to weight gain.

I hope you will join me in my belief that your body is a chemistry lab and not a bank account.

Calories do matter, but they hardly constitute the whole fat-burning picture. If you want to be healthy and help your clients see the light, ditch the nutrition calorie counting clichés for lean protein, high-fiber starches, good fats and plenty of non-starchy vegetables.

Implement these tips and you will find yourself #alldaystrong, all day long.

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The Science Of Eating: Why Calorie Counting Keeps Your Clients Fat
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The Science Of Eating: Why Calorie Counting Keeps Your Clients Fat
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Dr. Debbie Bright looks at the science of eating and why counting calories will keep you and your clients fat long term.
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Strength Matters
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Dr. Debbie Bright
Dr. Debbie Bright is chiropractic medicine with a Master's in Nutrition & Human Performance. She also recently completed the SMK-1 cert in Seattle.
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