Calorie counting is pointless, says top diet expert… so here’s what you should do instead


Calorie counting is ‘complete nonsense’ and doesn’t help with weight loss, a top dietician has warned.

Professor Tim Spector, an expert in nutrition, said some people can lose weight in the short-term by limiting their calorie intake. But almost all ‘bounce bank’ to their original weight and ‘many go above it’, he claimed.

He argued the approach — advocated by the NHS as one way to lose weight — is a ‘giant camouflage’ that keeps people focused on calories rather than the quality of what they’re eating.

Instead, he said people should focus on making sure their plates are full of the high quality wholefoods, such as fruit, vegetables and nuts.

Professor Tim Spector advocated that dieters should focus on making sure their plates are full of the high quality wholefoods, such as fruit, vegetables and nuts

Professor Tim Spector, an expert in nutrition, said some people can lose weight in the short-term by limiting their food intake. But almost all 'bounce bank' to their original weight and 'many go above it', he said

Professor Tim Spector, an expert in nutrition, said some people can lose weight in the short-term by limiting their food intake. But almost all ‘bounce bank’ to their original weight and ‘many go above it’, he said

WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE? 

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count

• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain

• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options

• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide  

Professor Spector, speaking on Steven Bartlett’s podcast The Diary of a CEO, said: ‘[Calorie counting] is complete nonsense. 

‘There has never been any long-term study showing that calorie counting is an effective way to lose weight and maintain weight loss after the first few weeks. 

‘So, yes, very strict calorie counting if you deprive yourself for a few weeks — you may lose some weight. 

‘But even if you’re successful, your body’s evolutionary mechanisms will make you hungrier and hungrier every week you go by when you’re depriving yourself of energy. 

‘Your body will go into shutdown mode, your metabolism slows down so you’re not expanding those calories.

‘And inevitably more than 95 per cent of people will go back to their baseline and many will go above it.’

He added: ‘They rebound back if they’re doing this style of calorie restriction. 

‘Calorie counting is part of that, so people say “I’m not going on a dramatic diet but I’m going to just try and reduce by 10 per cent my calories in a day”, which in the old theory was supposed to make you lose weight.’

But he said it is ‘virtually impossible’ to count calories due to inaccuracies on packets when buying food and varying portion sizes in restaurants, which can be up to ’30 per cent’ bigger or smaller than what is displayed on the menu. 

Restaurants across the UK have been required to print calories on menus since last spring if they have more than 250 staff.

Professor Spector said the focus on calories is a ‘giant camouflage’ that distracts from the quality of food.

He said: ‘The food industry wants you to focus on the calorie, the fat content, the sugar so you don’t have to think about the quality of the food.

‘And it’s something that they can control very easily, keep their profits higher, keep adding stuff to the product that is synthetic, when we know that a lot of stuff that they’re adding are harmful for our gut microbes.’

Professor Spector added: ‘That’s my number one bug bear is to get people to see the light. 

‘Stop obsessing about calories and start thinking about food much more as quality and what it does to your body.’

Instead of focusing on calorie counting to lose weight, he urged people instead to follow a mainly plant-based diet and focus instead on eating quality wholefoods made from ‘original ingredients’.

Dieters should eat foods in their ‘pure form’, such as nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables, he said.

The NHS advises that the average man needs around 2,500 calories per day, while the average woman requires around 2,000.

It recommends that those trying to lose weight to follow the calorie content of what they are eating to keep track of their daily intake.

Dieters should read food labels to choose healthier options and work out ‘how a particular food fits into [their] daily calorie allowance’, the health service says.

A calorie is a way of measuring energy — either the amount contained in food or the amount used through activity. 

The amount of calories a person burns each day is dictated by their metabolism — the bodily process that turns food into energy for breathing, thinking and moving.

Metabolic rate is dictated by age, sex and body size.

People put on weight when they consume more calories than they burn off through daily activities. To lose weight, more calories need to be used than those taken in.

As a result, limiting calories is the first step for many looking to shed some pounds, with dozens of apps available to log meals and tot calories up.

However, focusing on calories alone doesn’t take into account the nutrition in a person’s diet. 

For example, there is only one calorie in a Diet Coke but around 100 in an apple — but the former offers no nutritional benefits, while the latter is packed with fibre, potassium and vitamin C. 

And for better health, a diet needs to be packed with a variety of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains — rather than just being low in calories.

Calorie counting works for some who are trying to lose weight but many report that it didn’t yield results — with factors such as the type of food eaten and gut health also affecting how many calories the body burns, studies have shown.

Those who do see success from calorie counting may also face the challenge of their body adapting to a low-calorie diet by lowering their metabolic rate — which can make it challenging to avoid piling back on the pounds.  

Actress Rebel Wilson shared that she relied on calorie-counting to shed three stone by aiming to stick to fewer than 1,500 calories every day. 

After she reached her ‘goal weight’, she increased her intake by 500 to 1,000 calories per day — but accompanied this with gruelling workouts to maintain her weight loss.

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