New Study Says You Can Stop Counting Calories to Lose Weight

Young woman eating a croissant at a cafe

Young woman eats a croissant | LightFieldStudios/ iStock/ Getty Images Plus

If you’re on a diet, one thing you might be concerned about is the number of calories you’re consuming each day. However, a recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition proposes counting calories might not be the most effective way to lose weight. Their research suggests those on a weight loss program who consume low-energy-dense foods tend to stay full longer and lose weight.

The Cheat Sheet chatted with Dr. Jacquie Lavin, head of nutrition and research at Slimming World and author of the study, to learn more about this finding.

The Cheat Sheet: What surprised you most about this study?

Dr. Jacquie Lavin: As an author of this study, I wasn’t surprised by it! However, people reading about it might be surprised by the idea that it’s possible to cut your calorie intake while eating more food and not less, because losing weight is so often synonymous with restricting your food and feeling hungry. We at Slimming World have known for a long time now that a diet based around low energy dense foods— foods that contain fewer calories per gram—enables people to cut the number of calories they’re consuming without reducing the volume of food they’re eating. However, it was great to finally have a study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, that provides clear evidence that calorie counting and eating smaller portions are not the answer when it comes to weight loss.

CS: Why isn’t calorie counting effective?

JL: Anyone who has tried counting calories and eating smaller portions will know just how miserable feeling hungry and deprived can make you feel, and even someone with strong willpower is unlikely to be able to sustain this type of plan for any length of time. They tend to soon go back to eating as they did before, finding that they gain the weight they lost and sometimes more. This, in turn, can leave us feeling guilty and ashamed, often leading to a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting.  By shifting the focus to low-energy-dense foods such as potatoes, pasta, rice, lean meat, fish, pulses, fruit, and vegetables, dieters can fill up and stay satisfied while losing weight—a welcome treat to anyone used to feel hungry and deprived while calorie counting!

CS: Why do so many people give up on their diets?

JL: When they’re trying to lose weight, many people fall into the trap of thinking that reducing the amount of food they usually eat will do the trick to meet a calorie allowance. However, this can leave people feeling hungry and unsatisfied, which we know is one of the main reasons why people give up on a diet. Our research shows that eating low-energy-dense foods can help overcome that problem. Gram for gram, low-energy dense foods contain fewer calories than high-energy-dense foods, so people are able to eat a larger volume of food for the same (or lower) calorie intake, leading them to feel much fuller. For example, someone would have to eat around 250 grams of carrots to consume 100 calories whereas it would take just 20 grams of chocolate to achieve a similar calorie intake, yet the greater volume of carrots is likely to make you much fuller.

CS: What are some high-energy dense foods dieters can eat?

JL: So, by filling up on low-energy-dense foods people can eat a larger amount of food and feel more satisfied while they lose weight, so they feel better able to stay on track, and they never have to feel guilty about how much is on their plate. Slimming World has promoted this approach for decades. Our members can eat freely from a long list of low-energy-dense foods to satisfy their appetite, as well as enjoying measured amounts of high-energy-dense foods, like chocolate and alcohol, to ensure they never feel deprived.

Our research showed that dieters following a weight-loss plan centered around low-energy-dense foods and providing group support lost nearly twice as much weight as those using a traditional calorie counting method.

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