Why you should count colours not calories
If you are a woman who has at some point been unhappy with her weight, the chances are you have at some point counted calories as a way to lose weight. Chronic positive energy balance results in fat increase and weight gain. Eating less calories than you actually use puts you in a calorie deficit and therefore sets you up for weight loss. However, Calorie tracking is increasingly being associated with eating concern, dietary restraint and disordered eating patterns. Those using a calorie tracking app for weight-control were more likely to report that the app had contributed to a number of eating disorder symptoms (i.e., food preoccupation, all-or-none thinking around food, food anxiety) than those using an app for disease prevention reasons.
So could counting calories do more harm than good?
Now whilst positive energy balance does lead to weight gain the whole calories in = calories out concept simply does not work. This concept implies that eating 200 calories of mars bars will have the same impact on the body as eating 200 calories of avocado. It doesn’t. All calories maybe the same when burnt in a vacuum under laboratory conditions but whilst 1lb of fat produces 3500 calories when burnt in a laboratory, the human body is a little more complex so you will not lose 1lb of fat every time you create an energy deficit of 3500 calories. If this was the case, we would all just waste away to nothing in no time when following a calorie restricted diet. Weight and metabolism are much more complex than a simple maths equation.
So why is this?
Well let’s start with the macronutrient composition of the food you are eating as this will affect how many of those 200 calories are actually useable.
When we eat carbohydrates, protein or fats, these macronutrients need to be broken down and digested in order to be converted into useable energy. Carbohydrates are the easiest macronutrient to convert to useable energy so for every 100 calories you eat, 93 calories will become useable energy for the body. However, protein takes more energy to digest and so for every 100 calories of protein that you consume only 70 become useable energy. This is one reason why protein intake is so important for anyone trying to manage their weight.
Next we need to look at what message the food you are eating is passing onto your body. Food provided more than just calories. Food is information. Everything you eat is passes on instructions to your cells for different metabolic effects.
So let’s first consider the instructions that are delivered to your cells when you eat a Mars bar vs an avocado. On average the blood contains 5g of sugar at any one time, which is about a teaspoon. This is tightly regulated by the hormone’s cortisol and insulin. Too much sugar in the blood and you start to get damage to blood vessels, nerve cells and other tissues and so insulin is released to help the cells absorb glucose from the blood. Too little sugar in the blood and you could fall into a hypoglycaemic coma which is a life-threatening event and so cortisol is released to bring your blood sugar levels back up.
So eating a mars bar, which contains 26g of sugar (and note that the total recommended sugar intake for a day is 25g), will cause a spike in blood sugar, which then triggers the release of insulin which will store away the excess sugar as fat. This also creates peaks and dips in blood sugar levels that can lead to cravings and snacking.
Now let’s look at what happens when you eat the same number of calories in avocado. Avocados are predominantly water, fat and fibre. There is no sugar in an avocado so there is no surge in insulin and no sugar to be stored away as fat. The fat contained is, mainly oleic acid which is also the main component of olive oil and is biologically active and so is used to help keep fats such as cholesterol at a healthy level. The fibre helps to keep the gut microbiome healthy and a healthy gut microbiome has been shown to play a key role in the regulation of appetite regulation hormones. Fibre is also highly satiating and helps keep you feeling fuller for longer, reducing snacking later on.
So you can see that although you may consume the same calories, eating a mars bar will set you on a blood sugar rollercoaster of highs and lows that will leave you feeling tired, irritable and craving more sugar whilst the same calories from an avocado will leave you feeling more satisfied, energised, and without the cravings.
So what happens when you count colours and not calories?
We get colour in our diet from eating fruit and vegetables. The colours in these plant foods come from compounds known as phytochemicals. These different colour compounds perform different functions in the body. For example we have carotenoids which are orange and yellow in colour and are associated with increased anti-oxidant activity, eye health, immune function and hormone function whilst anthocyanins are found in purple and deep red colour plant foods which are also powerful anti-oxidants that have shown to be hugely beneficial for brain health. So the wider the variety of colours you eat the wider the benefit for your health. Studies have repeatedly shown that increased intakes of fruit and vegetables is associated with better health outcomes and a longer healthspan. LDL cholesterol levels go down, HDL cholesterol levels go up, glucose levels balance, blood pressure reduces and the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer reduces but can it help you lose weight? A recent meta-analysis suggests that it can. It concluded that whilst increasing fruit & vegetable intake by 1-2 portions had little effect on weight, increasing intake by 4.5 servings per day had a significant impact on weight loss (although it should be noted that increasing servings of high GL vegetables was not associated with weight change).
One of the benefits of including more vegetables in your diet is that they have a much lower energy density than other foods and as they contain fibre they trigger that feeling of fullness without having consumed a huge number of calories. The fibre in FV also helps to support a healthy population of bugs in the gut as the fibre in FV is food for the beneficial bacteria which helps their populations to flourish. Studies have shown that the gut microbiome profile differs between healthy weight and obese individuals but the average daily intake of fibre is 18g which is some way off the recommended 30g a day.
But my favourite reason to count colours and not calories is that it shifts your focus from what you need to cut out and get rid of, to what you can add into your diet and this has a huge impact on your ability to go the distance with this type of dietary change. Calorie restriction and diets are associated with deprivation which makes it very hard to maintain but focusing on what colours of the rainbow you can add in is a whole different story.