Americans Eating Less, Still Getting Fatter (Can We Stop Counting Calories Now?)

shutterstock_113341153Once upon a time, I used to monitor every calorie that went into my mouth. It was obsessive. It was excruciating. And despite my vigilance and ample consumption of low-cal diet foods, it was slow-going with the weight loss—so also totally frustrating.

Then I started eating real food. Fruits. Vegetables. Whole grains. Raw nuts and seeds. Goodbye 20+ pounds, almost like magic. I wasn’t “dieting.” I wasn’t counting calories. I was just eating good things, and cutting out bad things—things like high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, artificial sweeteners. Instead of directing my eyes toward top part of a product’s nutrition facts label, I paid more attention to the ingredients list.

That was about three and a half years ago. After the initial weight loss, it plateaued, but I’ve remained at this new set weight ever since then with nary a diet or detox to speak of. I listen to my body. I eat what I want, within reason. And now, at my lowest weight, I probably consume the same amount or possibly more calories than I did when I was at my heaviest.

What gives? A calorie is not a calorie, to put it simply. The simple calories in/calories out equation for weight loss (or gain) doesn’t work when you factor hyper-processed food into the equation. Our bodies weren’t meant to consume trans fatty acids and bisphenol A and a boatload of fructose. Our bodies don’t treat all foods the same way, nor all calories from foods the same way.

I bring all this up in light of a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis showing that despite America’s ever-rising obesity rate, average calorie intake is actually down over the past decade. Between 1971 and 2003, the average daily intake for American adults rose by a total of 314 calories. But it fell by 74 calories between 2003 and 2010.

“It’s hard to reconcile what these data show, and what is happening with the prevalence of obesity,” William Dietz, study co-author and former CDC director of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, told Reuters Health. ”Seventy-four calories is a lot, and as I said before, we would expect to see a measurable impact on obesity.”

The experts offer several potential explanations for the disparity: More time is needed to see obesity rates respond to changes in calorie intake; an ongoing decrease in physical activity; faulty intel. It’s possible the growing awareness about an unhealthy diet’s dangers have simply led more survey respondents to lie about their food intake.

But what’s not mentioned in the Reuters article is that perhaps it doesn’t matter if we’re eating less calories because we’re also eating crappier calories. Food for thought?

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    • mhikl

      Great stuff. I eat only meat, animal fat and low carb veg and a few berries and apples. Lost thrity-three lbs over the last fifteen or so months and feel great. I was going to lose another fifteen but have decided to stay in the lower half of “over-weight” as being over-weight has a decreased rate of mortality of 6%; lowest level of obesity has a decreased mortality rate of 5% compared to the legally thin. May put some of that extra bulk into muscle (and a little more hot air :) )

      And look at this trolly of goodies:

      Never believed that BMI nonsense anyway.

      But your basic idea to shop and cook from the non-processed outer isles is about right.

    • anon

      I generally stick to a whole foods diet (I have a weakness for some kinds of ice cream and for Annie’s macaroni and cheese) but I have a problem with overeating. It’s a psychological issue, and if I notice that I’m gaining weight, it’s usually a sign that other things are not going well in my life. But then it turns into a vicious cycle — I eat too much, feel worse, and then eat more because I’m feeling worse. Keeping a food diary and counting calories is a way for me to get my portions under control and keep myself accountable. If I’m not counting calories, I can always reason with myself that at least I’m eating healthful foods — even if I’m way over my calorie limit (which my doctor helped me determine). A food diary is something objective that doesn’t care how I’m feeling; if I’m allowed 1800 calories per day, that’s how much I consume; the diary doesn’t lie. Counting calories for a month or so helps me to relearn what normal portions are and leaves me feeling healthier, which means that I take better care of myself in general. However, I do think our bodies treat whole foods vs. “fake foods” differently, and if my problem was that I was eating too much junk, then I’m sure I would devise a system that kept me accountable to *what* I was eating, not *how much*.

      I guess I should also mention that I’ve struggled with eating disorders in the past, and my therapist actually suggested and endorsed a doctor-monitored food diary. I thought he was nuts at first, because I thought it would be so easy for me to go overboard with it and start obsessing. But I’m really amazed at how much better it makes me feel during those times that my eating (and life) feel totally out of control.