CaloriesMedia WatchOther Foods

How calorie counting makes you fat

On Feb 16 2012, there was a new item in the Daily Mail Femail section. They often do these little ‘stocking fillers’. Let’s hope that this one goes as quickly as it came because it is not going to help with the obesity epidemic.

It is, however, a great illustration of one of the many ways in which calorie counting makes us fat…

The snippet is called “Food Swaps” and recommends swapping a Pret-a-Manger Emmental cheese salad sandwich for half a crayfish & rocket sandwich (Pret have a ‘slim’ option for half a sandwich) PLUS a bag of popcorn PLUS a mango & lime dessert PLUS a bottle of carrot juice. What’s not to like getting all of that instead of one sandwich?

The problem is, as I have explained in presentations elsewhere (here and here as examples) that weight is not about calories – it’s about carbohydrates. Human fat tissue is something called triglyceride – a structure with three fats (fatty acids – whatever you want to call them) joined together on a ‘backbone’ of glycerol. Glucose provides glycerol and carbohydrates provide glucose. Hence, when we eat carbohydrates we are able to make human fat tissue – we are also able to store it because the same carbohydrates cause the release of insulin – the fat storage hormone. If we don’t eat carbohydrates, the body will break down the human fat structure to release the glycerol/glucose part for the brain and the fats will enter the blood stream to be used for energy.

In essence – only in the presence of carbohydrate can we store human fat tissue i.e. gain weight and only in the absence of carbohydrate can we break down human fat tissue i.e. lose weight.

So – the Pret-a-Manger web site very helpfully has all of these five products listed with full nutritional information. This confirms that, yes, the emmentaal sandwich has 494 calories and 9.2 grams of saturated fat, but it also has 19.8 grams of protein and 40 grams of carbohydrate. The four products combined have fewer calories and less fat (the latter is a disbenefit, not a benefit – as the UK is seriously deficient in fat soluble vitamins and therefore needs to consume more fat). However, the four products combined have 14 grams of protein and 62 grams of carbohydrate. The macro nutrients that will provide satiety and cell repair and all the functions that the body’s Basal Metabolic Rate needs are reduced (fat and protein) and the macro nutrient that will make us fat is increased (carbohydrate).

This is a classic example of the choices made by calorie counters. Because people trying to eat less than their body needs are constantly hungry and low in energy and nourishment and because they become obsessed with food, as a result of hunger and deprivation, they want to get ‘the biggest bang for the buck’. The most food for the fewest calories. This is exactly what this snippet is about – how can we get more food for fewer calories. As carbs approximate to four calories per gram and fat approximates to nine calories per gram (neither of these is accurate), calorie counters will also choose low fat options. As protein is normally fairly constant, lower fat means higher carb (in the above example, both fat and protein are reduced as carbohydrate increases).

Eating fewer calories and trying to get the most food for the limited calories that one has drives people down the route of eating more of the macro nutrient that makes them fat. Don’t follow this food swap advice – it will hurt your waistline – to say nothing of the impact on your purse of buying four Pret products as opposed to one!

10 thoughts on “How calorie counting makes you fat

  • Pingback: Weight loss: Why calorie counting is flawed and hunger hormones will always win! - Low Carb Leeds

  • Hi Zoe; I’ve long been a fan of your work and agree with your comments regarding calorie counting. However (you knew I was going to say that! ;) I got stuck with losing even though I eat very low carb, with meat, (some organ, mainly muscle) fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds, dairy, some leafy greens and modest amounts of veg (no fruit). When I bit the bullet and made myself weigh and record what I was eating to see where there might be a problem, I realized I was eating way too much protein. It was nothing to have a slab of animal protein weighing in at 10-14oz in one sitting and 4 eggs at breakfast…you can see where I’m going. But when I decided to cut back to about 6-7oz at a time, I felt just as satiated and found the weight moving south again…Thanks again for all of your thought provoking and sound recommendations–all the best!

    • Hi Teedee – many thanks for sharing this. Protein is a really interesting macro nutrient – on the one hand it has a terrific thermic advantage (eat 100 cals and only 70-75 are available to the body – work of Jequier) on the other – it does have an insulin effect. You may be insulin sensitive. Google Jason Fung youtube for some gems there.

      The other thing I would suggest is watching the nuts and seeds – we don’t have them in The Harcombe Diet until maintenance phase, as they naturally mix fats and carbs, which is great for weight gain!

      Best wishes – Zoe

  • Pingback: Paleo Diet News: Saturday Link-Love - Paleo Diet, recipes, articles, news, videos | Paleo Diet, recipes, articles, news, videos

  • If counting calories makes people fat, why do people loose fat when they track their calories? I’ve known plenty of guys, including myself, that have gotten very lean from tracking calories. I eat a caloric deficit five days a week and a caloric surplus two days a week with a lot of success. In the past, when I’ve cut back on carbohydrates and increased fat intake, without tracking calories, my body fat increased. I had followed Gary Taubes advice by keeping animal protein and fat a priority while avoiding grains and starches, without tracking calories, and I got fatter.

    • Hi Stephen – there are exceptions to any rule but the evidence since 1917 (which I cover in depth in my book “The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it?”) is overwhelming that calorie deficit dieting does not produce lasting weight loss. Indeed the evidence is that people lose in the short term (usually c. 6 mths) and then regain more than they lost – hence dieting making people fat. The 1959 Stunkard & Hume quantified the failure rate as 98% – you may be one of the 2% or you may be in the period before your body fights you to regain or you may have sufficient will power to resist the tendency to regain – few people do.

      If you gained weight on low carb it would be because the carbs weren’t low enough! Try eating isocaloric diets of as high in carb as you can vs as low in carb as you can (meat, fish, egg and a max of 1-2 cups of greeny leafy veg a day) and see which works best

      Best wishes – Zoe

  • Pingback: Paleo Diet News: Saturday Link-Love - Paleo Diet, recipes, articles, news, videos | Paleo Diet, recipes, articles, news, videos

  • Thanks, this was brilliant; I found your site through a link on the NYTimes. We in the US are deluged with the same absolutely idiotic advice about eating, and your analysis here is totally correct — starving hungry people (mostly women) trying desperately to lose weight, are encouraged to make increasingly worse choices (“Hungry Girl” series, artificial sweeteners, diet pop, “Lean Cuisine” dinners loaded with sodium) to reduce overall calories but to compensate increase junk food, sodium, aspartame and Splenda, preservatives and of course, carbs. The result is vastly poorer nutrition, and of course, we are all getting FATTER (as a society), not THINNER doing this.

    Someone I read once said (very wisely): “We know the calorie count of everything, but the nutritional value of NOTHING”.

    Keep up the fantastic work.

  • THis sort of thing winds me up, but I did note last week the Daily Fail actually had TWO factually accurate articles about low carb/Primal diets….I am still in shock….

  • Your Title/Headline needs to include reference to Carbohydrates.


    How calorie counting WITHOUT CARBOHYDRATE counting makes you fat

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.