What you’ve heard about calories in vs. calories out is all wrong.
All of us have tried losing weight by eating a certain number of calories. Maybe you've even gone as far as tracking your macros each day. Whether it was with the help of an app or on your own, I’m sure you’ve thought: “How is it possible that I've been following this plan and the scale is not going down?”
It’s soooo frustrating, and I often hear women say they just want to be able to lose weight “intuitively” without counting calories. The good news is, this is 10000% possible! To get there, you just need a healthy gut fueled by less-processed plant foods.
What is Calories In vs. Calories Out (CICO)?
This theory stands for two things:
when you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight
when you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight
In this blog post, I'll explain why focusing on CICO may not be the most effective way to lose weight. I’m not saying the CICO formula doesn’t work, but rather that quantity is a limited perspective, and you should not put all of your emphasis on a calorie deficit.
The "calories in, calories out" theory is flawed because it doesn't take into account:
nutrients are broken down in your body differently than they are when tested in a laboratory setting
the amount of processing affects how easily food is digested and calories are absorbed
it's the job of trillions of "good" bacteria in your gut to make sure nutrients are utilized in the right way!
Let's dive deeper into each of these points...
What is a Calorie?
Calories come from three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. A calorie is a unit of measurement that signifies how much energy is in food. To determine this, food is burned in a controlled laboratory setting and the amount of heat it gives off is measured. This amount of heat becomes the number of calories you see on a food label, tracking app, menu, etc.
In a perfect world, if you ate 300 calories your body (mainly the work of your gut microbiome) would "burn" them to produce 300 calories of energy that is used to fuel your brain, muscles, heart, and other organs.
But what happens to food in our digestive system is very different. We do not extract every single calorie from the foods we eat! Nutrients are broken down differently in your body than they are when tested in a laboratory setting - which means you don't exactly know how many calories YOU will get from any specific food.
You mean to say I don’t absorb the same number of calories that's on the label?
The number of calories, macros, vitamins, and minerals, your body absorbs is different from what's on the label. (I was also mind blown.)
The amount of processing a food has undergone is the biggest contributor to what you'll absorb.
Calories from refined, processed foods are HIGHLY absorbable because the processing has done much of the breakdown for us. Whereas whole plant foods like grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables require your body to do more work to actually get the calories. Some of the calories - like those found in fiber - aren't even absorbed at all!
Knowing this, you can understand why the calories listed on the label of chips ahoy are more accurate than those listed on the label of dried kidney beans.
How does my gut play a role?
The way your body (mainly the trillions of microorganisms in your gut) breaks down highly-processed vs minimally-processed foods has a huge impact on your gut, hormones, and metabolism.
We know for a fact that highly processed foods like chips, frozen pizza, and cookies:
Are quickly broken down into sugar
Promote fat storage
Feed harmful bacteria, which leads to an unbalanced gut
Are less satisfying, which makes it harder for you to stop eating even if you've consumed enough calories...
On the other hand, when you eat fiber rich, minimally-processed plant foods, your good gut bacteria:
Take longer to break the food down, which stabilizes blood sugar
Turn on fat distribution genes that reduce belly fat
Strengthen the balance of good:bad bacteria in your gut
Produce chemicals that tell your body you've had enough, and help you stop when you're full
A win-win for both gut health AND weight loss.
...but the key is that your gut has to be healthy and balanced in order to do any of this!
The truth is, creating a calorie deficit is necessary for weight loss, but it's not the only thing that matters. And if your gut is unhealthy, it doesn't really matter at all how much of a calorie deficit you create - your body is going to resist weight loss, and it will feel harder for you!
What do I recommend?
Focus more on quality instead of quantity
Counting calories misleads dieters to believe that unhealthy eating is a viable path to weight loss. Even two foods with the same exact number of calories are going to have a different impact on your gut, hormones, and metabolism. For example:
A small order of McDonald's fries has the same number of calories as a 3oz chicken breast, but the fries will spike your blood sugar, promote fat storage, and disrupt the balance of your gut microbiome
You could eat only 1500 calories from fries, still be in a calorie deficit, and see weight loss. But your body is starved of nutrients!
For both physical AND mental health, limiting processed foods is a better weight-loss strategy than counting calories. The stress of counting calories does more harm than good. I've helped over 300 women lose weight through improving gut health, and all of them have completed my coaching program without relying on calories or macros to guide them.
Increase fiber from single-ingredient plant foods
If you want to feel full for longer, eat foods that take your body longer to break down! High fiber plant foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds take longer to digest and allow you to eat more food for less calories - because as you've learned, your body extracts less calories from minimally-processed foods! I cannot tell you how many of my clients exclaim to me their excitement about losing weight although they’re eating more food than they ever have.
Remember it's about more than just what you eat
My gut health and weight loss journey began in 2009, and I'm still finding ways to improve! Diet is the biggest part, but your long-term success has so much to do with how you exercise, your stress, sleep, happiness, and overall quality of life.
Hear me - I know exactly how you feel. I can say from personal experience that it is possible to go from where you’re at now, to achieving bigger goals for yourself.
When gut health is your main focus, you'll not only finally be able to get the weight off, but you'll also experience all of the other benefits of a healthy gut like less bloating, better poos, a clear mind, and glowing skin!
All it takes is the willingness to try!