Why counting calories and exercise won’t help you lose weight

That’s right. Not only can counting calories and undertaking vigorous exercise make loosing weight difficult, research suggests it can actually encourage your body to gain weight. But how can the eat less, move more equation, be so wrong?

Zoe Harcombe’s new book “The Obesity Epidemic: What Caused It? How Can We Stop” is a fascinating book that explains why this traditional approach to weight loss is wrong and what you should do instead. Zoe lists a number of fascinating studies that show how your body will constantly resists any efforts you undertake to lose weight.

One starvation study conducted in the 1940’s in America on 36 male volunteers showed that severely restricting their calorie intake, resulted in a 10 percent weight gain after the experiment. What they also found during the study was that the volunteers who were taking part involuntarily conserved their energy by reducing their overall activity. During the study they stopped courting women, gave up their studies on campus and generally lost interest in everything apart from food. But the volunteers were not just interested in food they were obsessed. This food obsession phenomenon has also been observed in other accounts of starvation and interestingly that obsession can actually continue for years after the episode of starvation.

Numerous studies into the effectiveness of calories counting have demonstrated time after time that when people lose weight using this technique they gain all the weight back and generally end up heavier than their starting weight. This was again demonstrated in a recently published 2015 American Journal of Public Health study of over 280,000 people. The reason why restricting your calories doesn’t work is because you have evolved over billions of years to survive when food is suddenly in short supply. Your body is made up of an array of incredibly complex systems both physically, physiologically and psychologically. These systems all work together to ensure your body acquires as much energy as possible through the food you eat and then stores as much of it as possible as fat.

One of the first systems your body will start to shut down first when you restrict your calorie intake is your thyroid function. This effectively turns down the heat your body produces and also generally slows you down. However, even when you are not on a starvation type diet your body will still try its best to force you to conserve energy.

The British Early Bird Study also found strong evidence of the body’s tendency to self-regulate available energy. During this study, children from different schools and economic backgrounds were fitted with sophisticated pedometers. The various schools differed significantly in their approach to physical exercise and activities, but the study found that this made no difference. In fact all the kids who took part in the study participated in the same amount of activity. It didn’t matter how many hours of physical education or sports clubs they went to it all evened out. This is because those kids who took part in the organised activity generally went home tired and then remained inactive. Those who didn’t generally played outside after school and made up for the deficit then.

This makes sense and you know yourself if you’ve done a hard gym session or been for a long run that the ironing probably isn’t going to get done and neither is the gardening. Your body will force you to conserve your energy by making you rest because you are now tired. Even if through a huge force of effort you do manage to do those extra physical jobs whilst restricting your calories or using them up through exercise, your body is still going to try its best to stop you exerting yourself. It does by reducing your thyroid function and also your sex drive. You could even find that your periods might stop if your calorie intake is restricted over a long period of time. This is also why fine hairs start to grow on the arms and legs of anorexics as their body attempts to conserve energy by reducing heat loss. Your body is amazingly effective at conserving energy and your fat stores, so what’s the solution.

The key, as always, it to look at nature and the way you evolved to eat. Our Palaeolithic ancestors didn’t have access to food 24/7 nor did they have access to the highly processed foods of today; high is carbohydrates and processed sugars. The modern diet is over reliant on carbohydrates and processed sugars and there has also been a strong emphasis over the past 30 years or so to reduce the consumption of all fats. Recent studies have indicated that the low fat dietary advice is wrong and recent dietary guidelines in both the US and the UK seem to be accepting this new approach. The only fats that should still be avoided are the highly processed and completely unnatural trans fats. The advice that we have been receiving for years to avoid saturated and mono-saturated fats is to be ignored. In fact increasing your consumption of healthy fats is now thought to improve the health of your body and particularly your skin.

Image of Dr Nilu's bone broth recipe ingredients

There are two weight loss strategies that are now thought to be effective. The first is to eat less often and the second is to eat more healthy unprocessed food. Our ancient ancestors didn’t always have access to food in the same way we do today, so skipping the odd meal or breakfast and incorporating intermittent fasting into your dietary routine is simply a more natural approach. Intermittent fasting will not only help you to lose weight, but is also a great way to detoxify your body. There are a number of intermittent fasting techniques you can try, but its best to keep it as natural as possible by considering if the fasting technique is consistent with how your ancestors would have behaved.

Avoiding snacks, even healthy snacks, is important too. Snacking simply tops up your readily available glycogen stores and stops your body using your fat stores as fuel. Snacking means your body has absolutely no need to break down your body’s fat whatsoever. So the first rule is quite simple. It doesn’t matter how many calories you eat just eat less often.

The second approach is a little more complicated. Healthy unprocessed food can take a little more time to prepare, and what exactly are healthy foods anyway? Dietary advice is always developing as we learn more and more, but it is now widely recommended that you avoid as much process sugars as possible. Reducing your carbohydrates will also help as carbohydrates are simply long chains of sugar molecules that your body breaks down into simple sugars. Plenty of fresh vegetables; ideally organic ones are great and contain loads of antioxidants and vitamins. It’s also important to eat good quality animal products. These should always be organic to ensure you’re not eating anything from animals that have consumed a terrible diet themselves and been stuffed full of antibiotic and other drugs. The healthiest animals are the ones that have been reared in the open air, pastures or the wild. Non-farmed fish or wild game is probably the best and closest thing we will get to the natural diet of our ancient forefathers.

Image of Dr Nilu's healthy super smoky chicken soup recipe

Whilst exercise will not significantly contribute to weight loss it is important for other reasons of health to continue to incorporate it into your routine. Sitting down and not moving during the day should be avoided at all cost. The link between heart disease and a sedentary lifestyle was made by examining the different rates of heart disease between bus conductors and bus drivers. Despite working in the same environment and consuming similar diets it was the bus drivers who sat down for most of the day that suffered the highest rates of heart disease. Sitting down all day is very bad for your health. You’re designed to move about. If you don’t you’re going to store up trouble for yourself.

If you’re looking for some healthy recipe ideas you can check out check some of the recipes posted on the Brigstock Skin and Laser Centre website. Also keep a look out for the free recipe booklet that we will be publishing in the next few weeks. These recipes are designed to not only help you lose weight but to help improve the health of your skin and body. However if your main goal is to lose weight remember: eat less often and eat more healthy unprocessed organic foods, high in healthy fats and low in processed sugars and carbohydrates.

Image of Dr Nilu's healthy figgy pudding recipe

Gluten free figgy pudding loaf - low calorie, high in fibre and healthy!

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