Simply Cutting Calories for Weight Loss Doesn’t Work: Here’s What to Do Instead

You need to cut calories if you want to lose weight, right? Wrong, according to a recent study.

The study, published in JAMA in February, and featured in the New York Times, showed that when people focused less on portion size and calories, and instead followed the basic tenets of a healthy diet — meaning eating more whole foods and vegetables and less on sugar, refined grains, and processed foods — they lost a significant amount of weight over the course of the year.

In addition, it appeared that their successful weight loss was not influenced by their genetics or their insulin-response to carbohydrates, or whether they follow a low-carb or low-fat diet.

Essentially, when it comes down to it, this latest piece of research says that it’s the quality, not the quantity, of food that matters most when it comes to effective weight loss.

Curious about the implications (will we never count calories ever again?) Organic Authority contacted two medical experts to discuss the findings of the new study.

Why It Works

“By choosing higher quality, nutrient dense foods, the study showed that [the people tested] were able to reduce calories long term more easily suggesting much better appetite control, which is an important factor as one of the main reasons diets fail long term is due to hunger,” Dr. Melina Jampolis, physician nutrition specialist and founder of SpiceFit tells us. “A whole foods diet rich in vegetables help you feel more full with fewer calories (and more nutrients) so it’s easier to stick with long term.”

Dr. Susan Albers, NYT bestselling author of EatQ and Eating Mindfully for Teens!, gives the study “two thumbs up.”

“In part, because higher quality foods make you feel fuller and satisfied longer than foods lacking nutrients,” she says. “You can eat a bag of chips and be hungry again within a short period of time. Whereas a snack with protein or whole grains is processed slower and keep hunger at bay. Unfortunately, people tend to binge and obsess about food, which happens when they try to reduce the quantity of food,” like, for instance, counting calories.

Dr. Albers says that counting calories is something her clients regularly resist due to their bad experience of listing every single food item they eat.

“Counting calories is often a recipe for creating more rather than less anxiety about food,” she says. “My clients often buck at the idea of writing down calories if they have done it in the past.  They confess how obsessive the process can become. Or, it becomes a personal shaming exercise—reluctant to even admit to themselves or a piece of paper how many calories they ate.”

What It Lacks

The message shouldn’t be that we don’t have to count calories anymore. In order to lose weight, there must be a caloric deficit or you will gain weight no matter how “healthy” your diet is.

“Generally, the principle behind counting calories is sound. It is about raising your awareness of how much you are eating,” says Dr. Albers. “Generally, research indicates that people dramatically underestimate the number of calories they eat in a day.”

Adds Dr. Jampolis who spoke with the lead investigator of the study: “Portion size is definitely still important when consuming nutritious food because at the end of the day calorie quantity also matters in addition to quality. All the dieters [in the study] reduced calories to lose the weight even without being specifically told to do so in the study.”

Ultimately, what’s important to consider is the type of calories you’re eating. Not all calories are built the same.

“A candy bar piece and an avocado slice might have the same calorie counts but the body has a very different response to each food,” Dr. Albers says.

Dr. Jampolis agrees. “The most important takeaway is that quality of calories can play a significant role in helping you lose weight by controlling appetite and helping you reduce calories without having to constantly track what you eat and following a specific diet,” she says.

How You Can Make it Work for You

In short: education. You need to be able to identify which foods will keep you feeling fuller longer, as well as determine which eating habits will help curb a potential food binge.

According to Dr. Jampolis, the dieticians involved in the study “really spent eight weeks teaching people about healthy and whole low carb or low fat foods — not packaged food that proclaimed low fat or low carb on the label.”

In addition, the people involved in the study spent “a considerable amount of time” on behavior modifications including not eating in the car or in front of the TV, and instead sitting down to the dinner table and shopping at the farmer’s market whenever possible.

Says Dr. Jampolis: “I think this reinforces the important lifestyle aspect to weight loss and many people reported a much healthier relationship with food at the end of the study.”

Ultimately, a shift to a healthier dietary pattern, including a focus on nutritious, whole foods and one that is personalized and not caught up in a “food fad,” will lead to weight loss. But counting calories and portion size will never go out of style.