When calorie counting fails…

Before you start reading, let me warn you this post is long: perhaps too long! You’ll also find that it contains no new information! I’m selling it well, right?! However, I felt it needed to be broadcast as sometimes the blindingly obvious gets overlooked when ‘sexier’, more complicated solutions are being thrust at us from all directions. This is the point of this post: there is no quick, magical fix you haven’t yet heard about about. It is likely that you need need to take the time to do the basic things right if you want to see results. Looking for a ‘magic pill’ solution absolutely won’t work. If you don’t have time to read on, take a look at the summary below for the ten strategies I believe are more important than calorie counting when wanting to start to lose weight. As a caveat to this statement, I would like to add that I am aiming this post at the unfortunate folk who struggle to make any kind of sustained progress in their weight loss endeavours. If you are in good shape, but want to ‘get shredded’ this maybe won’t be of much use. Read on anyway, as I would appreciate your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.

In summary – I believe that basing a weight loss plan on calorie counting is unlikely to work in the long term. Instead, I suggest mastering ten other eating behaviours before using calorie counting (or precision eating as I like to call it) to fine tune your results. The ten are as follows:

  • Eat whole food only
  • Cook your own food
  • Plan your meals in advance and shop accordingly
  • Have set meal times and locations
  • Be mindful as you eat and chew properly
  • Understand your hunger
  • Understand your nutritional crutches and moderate them
  • Protein and fibre with every meal
  • Eat three different colours of fruit and vegetables every day
  • Learn what whole foods provide the three main macronutrients

Work from top to bottom, one or two points at a time. Only move on to next point when a behavior as become consistent and automatic. Don’t take on too much at once.

For a more detailed insight to this way of thinking, read on…

Ask anyone how to lose weight and they’ll probably ‘know’ how – eat less and exercise more, or some other concept based on the calorie balance model. If less goes in than we expend, we will lose weight. Easy peezy, lemon squeezy! Why then, if it is oh-so-simple, are 65% of us overweight and 25% obese (and these numbers are growing!)? It strikes me as strange. Most people want to be their ‘ideal weight’ for a multitude of compelling reasons, most notably health and vanity. Yet, so many struggle to achieve this seemingly simple goal. Maybe, we are doing it wrong. In this article I want to share with you some insights that I have had about why we get fat and then struggle to get slim again.

If you google ‘how to lose weight NHS’ you will be greeted with a not-so-awful guide on how to lose weight. One of the first lines in their 12-week plan is: “If people are overweight, it’s usually because they eat and drink more calories than they need.” This is true and it is not my intention in this post to try and argue that calories don’t matter. I firmly believe they do, but I don’t think we need to pay them as much attention as we do, especially when first starting out. I believe that it is the way we eat that causes our problems, more so than simply how much we eat. If we change the way we eat, our bodies will be able to regulate how much we eat for us.

First of all, allow me to present an analogy: losing weight is like making money. It takes discipline, commitment and an intelligent accounting strategy. If you googled ‘how to make money’ and were presented with the advice “spend less and earn more” you’d probably be a little bit underwhelmed. While it is true, it doesn’t actually deal with either end of the problem – that is, why someone spends too much or earns too little. This is how I see the standard weight loss mantra of ‘eat less, exercise more’. What the world has done is taken a massively complex relationship between energy in and energy out and simplified it to the point of irrelevance. By viewing such a delicate relationship in such a binary way we have managed to ‘dumb it down’ to a point where we no longer know how to eat, and the obesity epidemic shows this.

Absurdly, the solution to this ‘simple’ dilemma is offered via overly complicated strategies marketed with alluring scientific claims. There is now a market for ‘precision eating’ strategies and equipment. We have gadgets and apps to measure – to the gram – the amount of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) we consume. People investigate their sensitivity to individual amino acids (for example gluten) or sugars (for example lactose) to see if that is the reason they can’t drop a few pounds (I’m not suggesting these sensitivities don’t exist, just that they are maybe exacerbated by other, more general issues). As a society, we show an ever increasing ineptitude when it comes to feeding ourselves, yet we review our actions with the precision usually reserved for Olympians. I believe that we need to overhaul the way we look at ‘healthy eating’. The strategies described above all have a place; for some, they are absolutely the way to go. But for the average adult embarking on a weight loss plan from a position of no progress (either they have just started, or are starting again for the umpteenth time) we need to look beyond any strategy that involves focusing in on calories (or their component parts), and see things from a much wider perspective.

The success (or lack thereof) of any strategy, whether it be for weight loss, career development, money making or bongo playing depends not on the strategy itself (although that is important), but on adherence to the strategy. The greatest weight loss plan in the world does not work if you only stick to it for a week! When it comes to weight loss, it is of paramount importance that the changes you make to your lifestyle are going to stay changed; LONG TERM!  Yo-yoing back and forth from weight loss to weight gain is ultimately more detrimental to one’s health and spirit than being at a constant, albeit excessive body weight. Therefore, I hope to create a stable base of behaviours that you can perform consistently over a long enough period to see the weight loss you desire, and then stick to once your goal is achieved. It is my opinion that this quite desirable state has to be built from the ground up, by developing the fundamental and seemingly basic skills that will underpin your weight loss skill set. After all, what good is calorie counting if you don’t have the skill set that gives you full control over what you will eat?

I want to introduce to you a tiered approach to developing your eating skill set. In the same way a computer game only lets you play the next level when you have demonstrated enough skill to complete the one before, you must be prepared to ‘level up’ before taking on the harder challenges that most modern dietary strategies suggest. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s learn to level up your healthy eating skill set!

A big note before I introduce my levels….DO NOT MISS THE WOOD FOR THE TREES…this concept is not about rushing through each level in order to reach a point where you start losing weight as quickly as possible. I will posit that you will lose all the weight you want way before ever needing the more complex skills contained in the later levels. Become a master of the basics and discover just how adept the human body is at the regulation of its energy stores.


Level 1 – the basics: Eating like an adult

Without wanting to sound rude, I find that a lot of people who don’t display the behaviours I’m about to discuss act like children when it comes to food. They don’t want to eat their greens, they want sweets because they are unhappy, or because they ‘deserve’ them and they’ll prioritise other activities over eating. Level one is about giving your nutrition the respect it deserves and eating in a way you’d hope your children would do.

  • Eat whole food only – no junk or processed foods! In all honesty, you could observe just this one point and you’ll lose weight and keep it off. Of course it depends on your definition of junk/processed food. For me, junk/processed food is anything that isn’t whole, or home-made from whole foods (which links to the point below). Typically, anything with an ingredients list falls into this category. That means that anything that comes pre-cooked, pre-baked, pre-prepared and pre-packaged would be off limits. This may sound daunting at first but most things can be made at home with a little know-how; plus, the pay off is huge. Sticking to whole foods will leave you feeling great!!  Foods that have been processed in some way before you consume them are worse for you than their whole food counter parts. They will interact with your body differently and potentially cause damage. Trying to lose weight whilst eating junk/processed food is like trying to pay off a debt with a credit card; it’ll eventually all go wrong. Even though this piece of advice will yield the greatest result of anything else you can do, most people don’t want to hear it. That’s because it is tough. Junk/processed food can be addictive and subsequently hard to drop. It’s quick and convenient and some people see it as a necessity in their lives. I understand that but unfortunately if you want change, you have to change. Adhering to this point doesn’t mean that junk food will never again pass your lips – it means that consuming junk/processed food is an exception and not the norm (maybe one meal from a week’s twenty-one).
  • Cook all your own food. Completely disregard any thoughts of the amount of calories going in, and instead focus on cooking fresh, home prepared meals. If you need ideas of what to cook, discovering quick, simple and tasty meals is part of the learning process. A big part of this point is that it immediately rules out junk/processed food. Becoming a good cook won’t happen overnight, it’ll require some patience and some trial and error. However, you don’t need to be a Michelin starred chef to create super healthy and incredibly tasty meals. Start with something simple yet hearty and satisfying like a shepherd’s pie or chili-con-carne and let your confidence grow.
  • With the first point in mind, plan all your food needs a week in advance and shop accordingly. Online food shopping is great here as you can bring up previous lists making each week a little bit easier. It also saves you from most of the aggressive food marketing strategies most supermarkets employ. Initially it can be tough to figure it all out so you may opt for 3 days at a time. No one said this would be a walk in the park so stick with it and it soon becomes easier.
  • Have set meal times and set meal locations. Don’t distract yourself from the process of eating. Get back in touch with eating for nourishment and enjoyment and move away from seeing eating as an inconvenience. If you have a family, enjoy family meals and use it as a chance to connect with one another. The hardest meal for most with regards to this point is lunch when at work. Even if you just move yourself away from your workstation and sit somewhere with less distractions this will make a big difference to your interaction with food.

Level 2 – Optimising the basics: learning what food can do for you

Food can do a lot for you, you just have to listen to your body’s response to it. Level two is about building on the solid foundations you have created in level one and giving your body back some control. Part of the process in level two is to develop an understanding of how your bad habits formed in the first place in order to prevent them ever coming back.

  • Take your time with your food and chew it properly. This links back to the point above and making food consumption a priority rather than a distraction. Be mindful of the food you are eating and take the time to start the digestive process where it should begin; in the mouth with a good, old chew! When you combine this with cooking your own meals, a new found sense of satisfaction can be acquired. Being mindful as you eat will also give you the time to sense when you have had enough. Awareness of satiation is key to giving your body back the appetite control it may have long forgotten.
  • Start to decipher what your hunger really means. Hunger can stem from a number of things – most obviously, not eating enough. Emotional and physical stress can trigger it, as can boredom. When telling yourself you need a certain foodstuff, take a moment to consider what is actually happening in your body. You may find you won’t always need to act upon the urges you have. An important aspect here is that you stop using food as a crutch. If you notice that you reach for the junk after a bad day, you need a new intervention to make you feel better. Awareness of this is the first step, and often the most difficult to reach.
  • Leading on from the point above, learn to understand your crutches; most notably caffeine, alcohol and sugar. When things aren’t going well in the mind and body, these three bad boys make you feel better and are therefore rather addictive! If you can start to understand why, at times, you feel that you need one of them (or all of them!) then you can start to put in place behaviours to prevent that from happening. For example, if I don’t get enough sleep, I will crave caffeine and something sweet. So, rather than fight against those urges day in and day out (which is tough), I make sure I get enough sleep. It is kind of obvious when written down, but you’d be surprised at how many people miss this. The main thing I want to emphasise with this point is that I am not suggesting you give up caffeine, alcohol and sugar. I am suggesting that you understand where the urge for all three comes from.  With this understanding you can stop consuming them regularly out of a false sense of necessity and start to enjoy them in moderation as treats.

Level 3 – Starting to make tweaks: learning the power of your own physiology

A few simple rules can make a huge difference here, especially when combined with the powerful behaviors that are now established from the first two levels. You won’t need to know why they are powerful, just be confident that you will be leveraging physiological processes that occur naturally in your body.

  • Protein and fibre with every meal. Meat, fish, dairy and eggs are great sources of protein. Some are better sources than others, but don’t get bogged down in that. Just aim to have one large protein source with every meal of the day, and compliment that with an equally large source of fibre (common sources are vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.)
  • As an add-on to the first point, having an awareness of the three macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrate) and the whole food sources of each is a key skill at this stage. Protein provides the building blocks for all things in the body and should be consumed with every meal. Fats and carbohydrates are both used more readily for energy. As a very general rule, I view fat rich foods (such as eggs, nuts and oily fish) as the foods that provide energy for day to day living, and carbohydrate rich foods (such as oats, rice, fruit and potatoes) as the foods that provide energy for more vigorous activities like gym sessions or sports participation. As I said, this is very general, but I feel it helps dissuade people from fearing particular macronutrients due to current diet trends. Meals containing a source of protein, fat and carbohydrate alongside a portion of fibre will be some of the most satiating and satisfying meals you can have.
  • Alongside the fibre recommendation above, aim to have three different colours of fruit and vegetables every day. Simple as that.

Level 4 – precision eating: basing your food choices on specific rationales

It is important to note, that the following strategies take people from healthy, visually pleasing body shapes to seriously chiseled and athletic looking. When the goal is to simply lose some weight, they will undoubtedly work, but are probably not needed – hence this rather long post! Only take the time and effort to implement these strategies if you have a specific reason to do so.

  • With all the previously discussed behaviours in place, there is a foundation set to start exerting some portion control. Portions can be created with specific calorie targets in mind and the ‘calorie counting’ can begin. In this post I have noted ten things I think should be in place before calorie counting commences, yet this is normally the first thing people do. I believe this is the reason most diets fail in the long term.
  • Be your own experiment – what works for one person may not work for another. There are always individual tweaks one must make to their diet to make it work for them (for example, different macronutrient ratios). Asides from having a load of lab tests done, the only way of knowing how something will make your body react is to try it out for yourself. Sometimes, it may take a few weeks to get an adequate reliable response; other times it may be instant. The important thing is to know rather than guess. With the consistent and controlled behaviours the previous three levels have installed in you, experiments of this kind can be considered very valid (for you only!).

Level 5 and beyond – who knows where the diet industry will take us!

Here is where most dietary protocols sit. They jump you in at a point that doesn’t take into account any of the foundational behaviours I have spent such a long time (yawwwwn!) discussing. For some people, this may be fine; they may have everything in place and see great results. However, for most (96% has been shown in research), it simply doesn’t work. In this level, protocols are built upon complex strategies such as calorie cycling and macronutrient periodization, or not so complex strategies such as semi-starvation and meal replacement products. All these methods work on the presumption that the user has in place the fundamental skills needed to apply them (or just completely disregards the fundamental skills!). Unfortunately, I can tell you from experience that the majority of people don’t.

The science of nutrition is relatively new and not much is known for certain. Claims are made based on single scientific studies that may not mean anything in the grand scheme of things. Fantastic research is being done, but with more literature comes more outrageous claims of revolutionary diets, quick fix pills and ‘that one thing’ you can do to get shredded. It can be a minefield for people looking for just a simple answer to their weight loss questions.

Its not all doom and gloom though. I would speculate that maybe 1% of my clientele have ever needed to use level five strategies. The majority only really need to master level one and maybe two to reach their goals. The most important aspect of any weight loss plan is the level to which someone can adhere to it. Consistency breeds results and working your way from level one onwards will give you the tools needed to make any plan a long term one.

So, after all that, what do you need to do? Start in level one and with the first suggestion – whole food only. When you are doing that consistently and with minimal effort, incorporate the next point; and so on. You can tackle two or three at a time, but take your time. Make sure each behavior (or set of behaviours) is embedded before attempting to incorporate the next. Only move into a new level when you have completely mastered the level you are currently taking on. Eventually, you will be enjoying home cooked meals made from whole foods that you have sat down to eat mindfully at a designated time. When you experience hunger you will understand and control it rather than blindly turning to your crutches for support. Each meal will be predominantly composed of protein and fibre alongside fat and carbohydrate based on your daily activity levels and you will enjoy plenty of different colours of fruit and vegetables each day. At that point, if you need/want to, you can begin to count calories and take your weight loss to the next level and beyond!

I hope that this rather long winded post has highlighted this predicament to you and given you a better sense of where to start when undertaking the challenge of making long term changes to your health and physique. Thanks for reading and good luck.



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