Obesity rates have doubled in the last 20 years and in Britain we are considered to be the most obese nation in Western Europe. Clearly the mainstream approach to weight management, by calorie counting, is not working so why is this the case?
The calorie counting approach relies on the hypothesis that we gain weight because we have consumed too many calories that we are not able to burn off through movement. Proponents of this approach say that by eating less and moving more we are able to manage our weight better. To reduce weight, we are encouraged to count calories each day and stick within a certain range. Often we are advised to eat the majority of our calories in carbs and reduce sugar, which makes sense, and fat, which doesn’t – as we explain.
One of the major problems with this approach is that not all calories are equal as far as the body is concerned because they have different effects and go down different metabolic pathways. Carbs get broken down to glucose in a process known as glycolysis and generate relatively little chemical energy known as adenosine triphosphate or ATP. This is why if you have eaten a meal that is high in refined carbs as in pasta or potatoes, it is quite likely that you feel full initially because of the volume in your stomach but it gets metabolized quickly and then you are hungry again.
Protein and fats also get broken down to produce ATP. Whilst protein tends to yield as much energy as carbs, one of its benefits is that it breaks down more slowly and so offers more sustainable energy. This means that by consuming concentrated protein with each meal we are less likely to snack.
But healthy fats get the top prize because they make so much more energy than either carbohydrate or fat. Not only that, if we reduce our carbohydrate intake to non-starchy vegetables only and eat sufficient protein and plenty of healthy fat in conjunction with different types of exercise, we can also produce ketone bodies in the liver. Ketone bodies then provide an additional energy source. Ketosis, the process that yields ketone bodies, is now considered to be a healthy way of shifting body fat and increasing energy levels.
And on top of this, one of the main reasons why people put on weight is not that they are eating too much fat but too little. The over-consumption of high carbohydrate foods can cause us to become skinny fat which means fat on the inside but skinny on the outside – not having enough muscle. Reliance on the regular intake of carbohydrates makes us less likely to be able to burn fat and when on this kind of a diet, more likely to breakdown muscle instead of fat as an energy source for the body.
Not only that, eating the right kind of foods also provide so much more for the body than just calories. All of our energy systems require nutrients that act as co-factors to enable the biochemical reactions to occur in our body. Without nutrients such as B vitamins, magnesium and zinc to name a few, we would not be able to function well and yet the calorie counting approach does not take this into consideration.
Calorie counting can create an internal conflict for us, negatively affecting our relationship with food and possibly leading to a stronger desire for the wrong kinds of foods. We should not be interacting with food in such a ‘spread sheet’ way. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are programmed to desire high calorie foods as they would have ensured our survival. In our evolutionary past these foods would have been those that were high in healthy fat because they yielded the greatest amount of energy. And that is just what we should be doing now.
Fleur Borelli, Functional Nutrition