Calories Vs Nutrients: What You Need To Know About Losing Weight

Weight Loss

With so many markers to focus on when it comes to our diet, it’s hard to know which is the most important for weight management, but the answer isn’t what you might think, according to Amelia Phillips, a nutritionist and fitness scientist. Here, she pens her thoughts on the debate between calories vs nutrients.

Calorie counting cops a bad rap but there’s something you should know. Every successful diet out there has one element in common: they will put you in a calorie deficit, i.e. you are consuming fewer calories than your body is burning. For the majority of people, this will lead to weight loss. 

Counting calories can be a straightforward way to manage weight and achieve a calorie deficit. It’s also something you don’t forget. Once you’ve learnt a teaspoon of olive oil contains 100 calories (which can be one-third of the main meal for some women), or your shake is 240cal, it becomes much easier to estimate the calories in your meals. 

Most people are shocked at how many calories are in some foods (a standard wine 120cal, hamburger 600cal) so even spending two weeks recording calories can go a long way to educating us on the energy density of foods. Plus, with so many great food tracking apps out there, it’s easier than ever to count calories.

READ MORE: 16 Tips For Losing Weight After 40, According To Experts

There are downsides, however. Counting calories can take the joy out of eating, it takes effort, can be deflating, highly inaccurate when you eat out and let’s face it: it’s not much fun.

Also, the body isn’t an exact science, if other factors such as insulin resistance, stress, sleep and hormonal imbalances are dysfunctioning, this can prevent us from losing weight even when in a calorie deficit. Another con is if someone is purely focussed on calories, they may be consuming a very unhealthy diet (why not just eat 1000 cal per day of cake!?) and it can create some disordered eating habits if only one nutrient data point is followed. 

So the short answer is, it’s virtually impossible to lose weight without being in a calorie deficit, however counting calories may not be the best way to get you there. 

Will focussing on nutrients lead to weight loss?

How could there be any cons with focussing on nutrients, right?! When it comes to weight loss, you can have too much of a good thing. You can have the cleanest, healthiest whole food diet and still overeat. Lot’s of amazingly-healthy foods can also be very calorie-dense (think: nuts and avocado). The other challenge with focussing on nutrients is managing portion sizes and limiting intake (nuts and dried fruits are a great example of this). 

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The benefits of focusing on nutrients (ie the quality of the food you eat), is that a healthy balanced diet full of lots of veggies will naturally be lower in calories and higher in fibre. The fibre fills you up, the calories are released more slowly, which in turn keeps your blood sugar regulated, preventing unhealthy cravings. The health benefits of reaching all your daily nutrient requirements (such as iron, zinc and B vitamins) also leads to more energy, less illness, improved brain function and mood, which all go a long way to managing your weight. 

The short answer is whilst focussing on nutrients is brilliant for overall health and energy, it doesn’t always lead to weight loss.

So What is the Best Approach?

The most successful people I see, who lose weight AND keep it off follow a holistic approach, what I like to call the MEDS principle:

M – Mindfulness: Working on headspace, stress management, positive thinking, and self-improvement.

E – Exercise: Honestly it doesn’t matter what exercise, as long as it’s moderate to high intensity, and ideally gets you out in nature. 

D – Diet: So many methods work, but keeping calories in check via intermittent fasting and subbing out one to two meals per day with a nutritionally balanced shake is what I have found to be the most effective, manageable, and sustainable. 

S – Sleep: If someone wants to lose weight, the first place to start is rectifying any sleep disorders. 7-9 hours per night of good quality sleep is ideal. If you’re in sleep deficit, weight loss will be much harder. 

How to Get Started?

Start by taking your MEDS (see above), pick the one area that needs the most work and focus on that first, then move onto the next. When it comes to diet, two meals plus one mini meal (it could be a handful of veggies with a dollop of hummus, a nutritionally balanced shake containing vitamins, or yogurt) is a great way to keep your calories in check without having to count them. 

READ MORE: 10 Weight-Loss Strategies That Actually Work

READ MORE ON: Weight Loss Tips

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