Here's Why Counting Calories Is Terrible for Weight Loss

Science says: Just eat better food.

If you're looking to shed a few pounds, common opinion would dictate that you simply count calories. The general practice says that a woman needs to eat 1,500 calories a day in order to lose one pound per week, and a man can have up to 2,000 calories a day for the same result. But a new study, published in JAMA on Tuesday, would argue that calorie-counting is not the key to weight loss at all.

The $8 million randomized clinical trial monitored the weight loss efforts of 609 overweight, non-diabetic adults throughout the course of a year. Half of the participants were placed on a low-fat diet, and the other half was put on a low-carb diet, the intention being to evaluate which one was more effective. Both diets were composed of healthy food, albeit different kinds. The low-fat group was asked to eat brown rice, barley, steel-cut oats, and other foods that were to be avoided by the low-carb group, which consumed high-fat foods such as avocados, olive oil, and nuts. They were not forced to fulfill any exercise quota, nor was there a limit on calories.

While most people lost between 11 and 13 pounds, the results found that there was no significant difference in weight change for either group, so it seems like low-carb (the healthy kind) can be just as effective and low-fat for weight loss. What the study did imply, however, was that "eating healthy" in either form is enough for weight loss, even if you're not counting calories. It also casts doubt on the belief that some people are just better at digesting certain foods than others because of their genes, a trend that has caused a spike in genetic testing for personalized diet plans, as the volunteers' genotypes did not seem to reflect on the effectiveness of either diet.

Christopher D. Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and lead author of the study, claims that both diets were effective in part because the subjects were freed from the constraints of calorie counting, which led them to develop a more healthy relationship with food. "A couple weeks into the study people were asking when we were going to tell them how many calories to cut back on," Gardner told The New York Times. "And months into the study they said, 'Thank you! We've had to do that so many times in the past.'"

"We really stressed to both groups again and again that we wanted them to eat high-quality foods," he added. "We told them all that we wanted them to minimize added sugar and refined grains and eat more vegetables and whole foods. We said, 'Don't go out and buy a low-fat brownie just because it says low fat. And those low-carb chips—don't buy them, because they're still chips and that's gaming the system.'"

The bottom line is: eat healthy, and keep the proportions sensible! And if a mathematical approach appeals to you, you might want to try James McAvoy's system of counting macronutrients instead of calories.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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