Should We Just Be Counting Calories?
Should We Just Be Counting Calories?
By Asma B Omer
One of the major drawbacks of calorie counting, often promoted in dieting strategies, is that it distracts one's focus from ensuring they are having an adequate intake of essential nutrients and can render a balanced diet unimportant. It is fundamental to bear in mind that the human body needs an array of nutrients; it's not just about calories. There are six essential nutrients, fat; protein; carbohydrate; vitamins; minerals and water; each with a specific function and designated role. What is also important is the synergy between various nutrients such as that between vitamins and minerals.
When assessing the healthiness of any diet, including those designed for weight loss, it is worthwhile to ask questions such as, does it add value to my health? Is it nourishing, balanced and varied? Is it adequate to my individual needs? Is it free of additives, flavouring and colouring? Does it contain any artificial sweeteners or preservatives? Does it contain GM products and/or high levels of pesticides? How much trans and/or hydrogenated fat does it contain per portion? Will it have a long-term detrimental effect on my health? Is it suitable to my individual physiological needs? And who is behind it?
The above questions should be of some relevance to the health and wellbeing of almost all individuals, regardless of age or health status, and are indubitably more meaningful than simply concentrating on how many calories and grams of fat the food contains.
If we were to follow the same format described in some dieting books, which has persisted over the years, we should also be asking how many milligrams of fibre, calcium or vitamin E a product contains.
Calorie counting tends to shift the balance towards quantity rather than quality or type; even though the former is of equal or more significance when it comes to fat related illness. Such a practice encourages certain sectors of the community, usually women and teenage girls, to base their food choices solely on the fat and calorie content cited on the food label, without paying enough attention to the rest of the nutrition information or the list of ingredients as a whole.
Furthermore, counting calories may lead to unintentional nutritional imbalances, which could manifest as sub-clinical nutritional deficiencies. For example, an average daily requirement of 1500 kcal could easily be met by consuming a bar of chocolate, a packet of crisps, a big Mac, a can of fizzy drink and a serving of ice cream. Such a way of eating may well satisfy the individual's daily calorie demands, but it's likely to fall short of meeting their needs for all the essential nutrients, which are paramount for future health. Overall calorie counting does not take into account important dietary considerations such as meal pattern, nutritional adequacy or particular individual needs. A point to remember is that children have different nutritional needs to adults, as do pregnant and lactating women due to their different physiological requirements. Thus, applying the general healthy eating guidelines set for adults to children can be detrimental to their health. In short, the fat and calorie saga has not only taken the joy out of food, but also created an obsession with dieting amongst the female population at large, which is hard to overcome. The law of thermodynamics still stands, 'energy can neither be created nor destroyed'. Energy does not only come from fat; it also comes from carbohydrates, protein and alcohol. However, the fact that excess food energy is stored as fat regardless of the source is generally overlooked.
My belief is that in order to counteract the forces imposed upon us by modern society; we need to consciously change our attitude towards food, nutrition and health. We need to think in terms of energy density rather than solely focus on the amount of calories we are consuming. We should moderate the quantity of food we consume through reducing our portion size and be selective when it comes to quality. Our diet needs to be varied, balanced and adequate to our needs; taking into account our individual lifestyle factors and thinking in terms of health and weight management, rather than mere slimming and weight loss. We need to examine our food purchasing habits, our eating behaviour and our meal pattern. We need to look at the type of fat, the grams of fibre and the amount of water we drink each day. Our approach to health needs to be wholesome and integrative and most importantly geared towards achieving and marinating health, rather than just losing weight.
The question that arises here is how can scientists, healthcare professionals, fitness experts, policy makers, business consultants and owners convince the public at large that the above method is simple, effective, attainable, less frustrating and long lasting? In another words, how can we win the dieting battle?
We can continue to debate this issue for decades to come, but it will not solve the problem of horizontal growth and the gradual increase in waistlines. A realistic and wholesome approach that reverts from dieting needs to come into play. In other words, what is needed is an initiative based on sound science and common sense, i.e. a weight loss strategy or strategies that take into account all the factors governing and surrounding the individual's lifestyle. So far, most of the well-publicized weight loss strategies and dieting books only emphasize dieting or slimming, because that is what accounts to the bottom line, with little or no consideration to sustainable physical exercise, which directly impacts weight loss, weight maintenance and the prevention of weight gain.
It is time for the public at large to realize that controlling food intake per se, separating protein from carbohydrate, adopting unusual forms of eating or creating new modes of eating (a high protein diet, green and red days, etc) that are not conducive to most people's daily life, have all failed in achieving sustained weight loss, albeit they are usually associated with immediate, rapid but often short term weight loss. My experience is that a wholesome approach, which incorporates physical exercise and tackles issues such as inactivity, along with a healthy eating approach that emphasizes balance, moderation and variety is not only effective, but also realistic with long lasting health benefits at all stages of the weight management cycle. Indeed, the answer may lie in what people do not do rather than what they do!
Dr Asma B Omer, Founder & Managing Director of Therapia, is a highly qualified and experienced Consultant in Human/Clinical Nutrition, with more than 20 years experience in university teaching, research and health industry. She has been very successful in the treatment of Overweight and Obesity, and has much practical experience in the management of nutritionally related diseases in both the National Health Service (UK) and prestigious organizations in the private sector.
Academically, she holds a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry and an MSc in Human Nutrition from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, UK. Professionally, she is a Fellow Member of the Royal Society of Medicine, a full member of the British Nutrition Society (NS) and the British Dietetics Association (BDA) and a professional member of the Association of the Study of Obesity (ASO), Diabetes UK and HEART UK. In addition, She is a founder member of The Medical Advisory Committee of ISPA Europe, a member of the Institute of Directors (UK) and a former consultant nutritionist for the WHO.
Dr Omer can be contacted on Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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