WHY CALORIE COUNTING ISN’T HELPING YOU LOSE WEIGHT

calorie counting menopause perimenopause women's health Jun 24, 2024

Do you ever find yourself staring at the numbers in your calorie tracking app, where you’ve been diligently tallying up every calorie you consume, wondering why you’re still battling to change the numbers on the scale?

Through my life I have felt trapped in a cycle of yo-yo dieting - working out my ideal calorie count for losing weight, obsessively counting calories in my food, and exercising like mad, so I can burn more calories and enjoy a glass of wine on Saturday night.

And while this may have helped me lose weight as a young woman, once I moved into my late 30s and early 40s, with the hormone changes of perimenopause, it just left me feeling hangry, unhappy, and GAINING weight.

Fortunately 4 years ago I learned a lot more about our metabolism, sex and appetite hormones, the history of calorie counting, and the outdated science behind it. This totally changed my approach to supporting myself and women to find and maintain their healthy body composition. Today I’m going to walk you through the history and science of calorie counting and why it doesn’t work for you, so you can finally give it the flick and enjoy more food freedom.

THE HISTORICAL PATH OF CALORIE COUNTING

Calorie counting wasn’t always part of our daily lives. It was first developed in the early 1800s when scientists needed a way to measure the energy released when things were burned in physics experiments. One calorie was the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of water by one degree. (Random, right?!)

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that this was adapted to assess the oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output in humans, measuring how the body converts proteins, carbohydrates, and fats into energy. This research gave us averages of what energy expenditure humans had at rest. Or what we now know as basal metabolic rates.

An American chemist and physiologist brought the principles of calories from Germany (where it was developed) to America, and expanded it to measure the heat produced when food was burned in a calorimeter. He calculated the energy values of thousands of foods and developed tables to estimate people's caloric needs based on their activity levels.

THE RISE OF CALORIE RESTRICTION FOR WEIGHT LOSS

Following the development of calorie values for foods and and humans, things really took off because of two things. In the early 1900s, as nations faced food shortages during wars, governments promoted calorie counting as a way to make sure people made economical and efficient food choices.

In the 1920s, calorie counting became a mainstream dieting method, particularly among white, middle-class women, because of a shift in what was considered the ideal shape for womens bodies - from voluptuous to thin and narrow-hipped. Following the publication of a book by Californian doctor Lulu Peters about how she’d lost weight using calorie counting and restriction, calorie counting was viewed as a modern, scientific way to achieve and maintain this ideal, aligning with the broader cultural focus on efficiency and rationalisation.

During the mid-1900s, governments and health organisations began to incorporate calorie recommendations into their broader dietary guidelines. The focus expanded to include balancing caloric intake with nutritional adequacy to prevent deficiencies and promote overall health.

The 1970s to 1990s saw a boom in the diet industry with the rise of commercial dieting programs that emphasized calorie counting. Programs like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig offered structured plans and tools for tracking caloric intake. These programs marketed calorie counting as a simple, effective way to lose weight and improve health.

Fast forward to the 2020s and we have hundreds of apps and websites telling us the calorie count of foods, our daily needs, and how to get into a deficit to lose weight.

Unless of course you’re in perimenopause or menopause… then it probably isn’t going to work for you, and here’s why

INACCURACIES IN CALORIE MEASUREMENT

INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES

Each person's body metabolizes calories uniquely, influenced by a myriad of factors. Age and sex play critical roles; for instance, metabolic rates generally decline with age, and women often have lower metabolic rates than men. Hormonal status, particularly relevant during perimenopause, can fluctuate daily, affecting how your body processes food. Your activity level dictates calorie needs—more active lifestyles require more fuel.

Beyond this, the diversity of your gut microbiome and your digestive function - your enzymes and acids -heavily impact how you digest food, increasing or decreasing the number of calories you absorb from the food. Meaning that the same meal might provide different caloric values to different people based on their gut, microbiome and digestive health.

FOOD DIFFERENCES

Additionally, the caloric value of food isn't fixed; it varies significantly based on how the food is prepared and its composition. Raw and/or fibrous foods, like vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds use more energy while being digested, often resulting in fewer net calories absorbed. This is especially so when compared to their processed counterparts.

I particularly remember being told in my early 20s to eat celery because it used more calories than I took from it! (This is actually true! And while celery is a wonderful food, please remember that our body does need a variety of foods to provide the nutrients and building blocks to our body that it needs to function. One can not live off celery alone, and also, calorie restriction isn’t the best method for losing weight and managing your health after 40!)

Importantly, some foods have evolved to resist our digestive process. Flaxseeds and almonds, for example, have protective shells, fibrous structures, and compounds within them (eg phytates) designed to help them try and pass through the intestines intact, meaning many of their calories aren’t accessible to the body. This natural defense mechanism ensures that seeds can pass through the digestive systems of animals (like us!) and still germinate when deposited somewhere in our #2. You see it at play in your garden with random plants growing, and this would have been the same for our #2s when we didn’t have flushing toilets.

OTHER ISSUES WITH CALORIE COUNTING AND RESTRICTION

NUTRITIONAL INSUFFICIENCIES AND DEFICIENCIES

Focusing solely on calories can lead you to miss out on crucial nutrients. For instance, high-calorie but nutrient-rich dairy, nuts/seeds, avocados, other fats and oils, may be avoided because of their calorie density. This approach can result in a diet that, while low in calories, is also low in diversity and essential nutrients.

Omega-3 fats, vitamins, and minerals are crucial not just for your hormone production, but the function of all your body’s systems, and your overall health. Perimenopause is a fork in the road for our bodies. Not just metaphorically! We have the opportunity to influence our physical health, and how we move through the rest of our life - whether it is active aging, with robust health, or increased risk of chronic diseases and an old age with low quality of life.

Restricting these nutrients can lead to deficiencies that not only compromise your physical but also mental health, and exacerbate other perimenopause symptoms.

PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT AND DIET MINDSET

A calorie-centric view of eating transforms the act of nourishing your body into a numbers game. This mindset cultivates an unhealthy relationship with food, characterised by restriction and guilt, and can contribute to stress and anxiety around food and eating.

In the context of perimenopause, where mental and emotional health can already be less robust, this stress can be particularly damaging. It often leads to cycles of restrictive eating followed by binge eating, creating a pattern of guilt and self-blame that is hard to break. This is probably what we witnessed our mums, aunties and grandmothers going through during our early life, normalising it for us. This is one thing I don’t want to pass on to my children!

WHY CALORIE COUNTING IS PARTICULARLY INEFFECTIVE FOR PERIMENOPAUSAL WOMEN

During perimenopause, estrogen and progesterone fluctuations can influence other hormones - like your thyroid, blood sugar and appetite regulation - and alter your metabolism, gut and digestive function, changing your energy needs. This phase of life requires a more adaptive, understanding approach to diet that accounts for day-to-day changes in how your body uses energy. Relying solely on calorie counting during this time can lead to frustration and a feeling of failure, as traditional weight management strategies fall short of meeting the body's shifting demands.

A BETTER APPROACH TO MANAGING WEIGHT IN PERIMENOPAUSE

EMBRACING NUTRITIONAL BALANCE

Instead of micromanaging everything you eat with calorie counting, focus on a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrients to support hormonal health and overall well-being. A balanced intake of fibre (complex carbohydrates), healthy fats, and proteins doesn't just fill you up — it also stabilises blood sugar levels and helps you feel full for longer. This approach not only supports your hormonal health during perimenopause but also keeps your mood and energy balanced through the day.

UNDERSTANDING YOUR BODY’S NEEDS

Perimenopause is a complex period that demands a more nuanced approach to nutrition. Recognising and responding to your body’s specific needs is essential for reducing perimenopause symptoms and maintaining your health during this time. A holistic nutrition plan providing the nutrients needed to support your body through the changes of perimenopause can help you cater to these specific health demands, without feeling deprived.

INTEGRATING LIFESTYLE AND DIETARY CHANGES

Combine healthy eating with other lifestyle changes such as regular resistance training, stress management, and adequate sleep. A holistic approach contributes to better health outcomes, and are more sustainable than calorie counting alone.

Embracing these strategies can transform your approach to food from one of restriction to one of nourishment and pleasure. By understanding the unique needs of your body during perimenopause, and aligning your food to this, you can enjoy a richer, more satisfying approach to food that supports your hormonal and overall health.

If you are ready to move beyond the restrictive cycle of calorie counting and discover a healthier, more fulfilling way to manage your weight during perimenopause, then tune into the latest podcast episode. And if you’d like to be first to find out more about my new low cost, 4-week program - PerimenoGO - to beat perimenopause symptoms, stubborn hormonal weight gain, and boost your mood and energy, without the stress of counting calories or feeling hungry, then please join the waitlist here.

 
 

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