Calories – the Good, the Bad and the Make Believe

Counting calories… Yes, I have done it too!  Until I learned that there is a healthier, more sustainable way to lose weight and keep it off.   There is no doubt about it, if you restrict your calories on an ongoing basis, you will lose weight.   That said, as soon as you stop restricting calories and go back to ‘normal’ eating, you will put it all back on again and more.  As soon as you even think about restricting calories you feel hungry, right?   Did you know your body has an inbuilt physiological response to perceived and actual hunger?   The response roughly translates as ‘hold on to that fat’!   It behaves like Old Mother Hubbard, she doesn’t want the cupboard to be bare.  Is your own body working against you?  Many of our innate responses are outside of our conscious control.  You don’t need to remind your heart to beat or your hair to grow.  We are hardwired to survive for a while without eating.  If your body perceives ‘starvation’ it holds on to its fat store (stored energy) to tide you over.  Thankfully, most of us do not face food scarcity or starvation, the opposite is more likely the case.  The challenge we face today is learning to understand how our body works, what affects our appetite and how to negotiate the modern diet for a healthy weight.  It is never a simple case of counting calories.

What is a calorie? 

A calorie is the measurement of the amount of ‘energy / heat’ that a gram of food produces.  Food provides us with a source of fuel/energy.

  • 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories (broken down to sugar/glucose molecules).
  • 1 gram of protein = 4 calories (broken down to amino acids).
  • 1 gram of fat = 9 calories (broken down to fatty acids and glycerol).

The weight loss industry has grown up around the theory that if you consume fewer calories than you expend in energy you will lose weight.  To lose just 1 lb of body weight in a week you need to reduce your calorie intake by 3500 calories, that’s 500 calories less food per day.   Unless, of course, you burn off more calories by dramatically increasing the amount of exercise you do.   Sounds like hard work, right?  The food industry responded to this with a range of zero and low calorie ‘sugar’ and ‘fat’ foods.  Magic!

Carbohydrates are the body’s number one source of fuel with fats second.  Eaten together these two food groups activate the addiction centres in our brain and we can’t seem to get enough of them.  The processed food industry, of course, knows this about our biochemistry.  Did you?  Read related article here.

Is being healthy only about ‘weight’?   Take a 25 year old, 145 lb, 5’5” female who has a daily calorie requirement of around 2000 calories.   Her BMI (24.2) is in the normal range.  Is she healthy?   According to her BMI she is.   But surely it matters where her calories are coming from?    If she ate a full Irish breakfast (1000), with a Fanta Orange (160), an 8” pepperoni pizza (700) with a Coke (140), she would meet her 2000 calories per day requirement.  She may not gain weight but can she remain ‘healthy’ in the long term on this diet?   Food quality and nutritional value is not factored into this BMI / calorie counting equation.  The above diet consists of highly processed and addictive foods with high fat, sugar and chemical content. These are called ‘empty calories’.   Empty calories lack nutritive value and leave your body wanting.   Not all calories are made equal.   Empty calories are not zero calories, they still count as calories.

If your goal is healthy weight loss you can count calories but aim to make them really count by choosing ‘nutrient dense’ healthier foods.  For example, a large boiled egg (50g) and 1 chocolate digestive contain roughly 80 calories each.  Actually, there are more calories in the biscuit.  The egg is a good source of fat and protein (amino acids), vitamins, minerals with a trace of carbohydrate.   Ah yes, the biscuit has the winning combination of carbs and fat with 45% fat, 50% carbs and 5% protein.   Aside from even comparing the quality of the fats and carbohydrates in these two foods, just have a little think about this!   On an empty stomach how many chocolate digestives could you happily tuck away before you had to stop?  How many large boiled eggs?   You may find yourself fighting your own brain chemistry to stop eating those chocolate biscuits – right?  Not so with the boiled eggs.   You can check out the nutritive value of most foods by entering the name of the food in the search line at Nutrition Data.Self.Com.   Click here.

Body fat .v. Body Mass Index (BMI)

BMI measures your height/weight/activity level and is commonly used to gauge your relative risk factor for disease.  An underweight, overweight or obese measurement is associated with increased risk for disease progression.  Normal is considered healthy.  However, having a normal BMI is not an absolute indicator of health.   Of course not, you could be riddled with some awful disease, be miserable and in constant pain and have a normal BMI.   When it was discovered that the ‘healthy muscular gym fanatic’ and the ‘pot-bellied pensioner’ were measuring the same on the BMI scale, they knew something was amiss.   Muscle weighs heavier than fat and bones weigh less in advancing age than they do in the young.  A newer approach is to measure body fat (the body builder is vindicated).  Carrying fat around the middle is now deemed a better indicator of your risk for chronic diseases.   So now, instead of standing on the scales you can measure your body fat or ‘hip to waist ratio’ and worry about that figure instead.   Related article here.  Did I mention that stress significantly contributes to weight gain!!  So please don’t worry.  Help is on the way.  These measurements are not the full story so take heed  just a little, but not a lot!

Zero Calorie / ‘No Added Sugar’ Products

The very first thing to know about zero calorie products is that THEY MAKE YOU FAT!   That’s right, eating and drinking zero-calorie foods made with fat substitutes and artificial sweeteners are linked to weight gain.  Here’s why: When you swallow that diet soda, the sweet taste makes your body anticipate the arrival of calories but …. there are none!   Your head might be fooled but your body is not!   It responds by becoming hungrier!  It is a bit like showing a picture of water to your favourite plant and expecting it to be nourished just by seeing it.  It needs the water dude!   The subject of artificial additives alone warrants a whole other blog.   But for now, just know that these chemicals have a detrimental effect on your health and so my advice is to avoid zero calories completely!   Artificial sweeteners are ‘neuro’ (nerve) toxic and addictive.  They affect the reward centres of the brain and lead to eventual brain cell damage or death.  Added to food or drink the consumer becomes easily addicted.

In my own experience I have observed a link between consumption of ‘sugar free’ products and sleep disturbance in adults (tired but wired) and hyperactivity in children.  I have also noticed that people tend to over consume the food or drink with these added chemicals.   It is like the body’s natural appetite signals have become overridden.  So, if you look at a product label and you see a line of zeros,  0 Sugar, 0 Fat, 0 Sodium, 0 Carbs.  This is not good or healthy.  This is not real food.    Your body needs real food/drink!   ‘Zero calories’ is a dangerous con!

Source: Google Images

If it tastes sweet and it says ‘no added sugar’ then you really want to be checking that label.  Usually, this also means it has artificial chemical sweeteners, for example, aspartame.   No calorie aspartame has gained a very bad reputation and in order to throw the consumer off track it now goes under many different names in the hopes that you won’t recognise it.



Hidden Sugars

When it comes to sugars, ‘artificial’ is just the tip of the iceberg.   The food industry has been hard at work hiding sugar in all its various forms in everyday food items but not just ‘sweet’ foods.  Sugar is in foods normally considered savoury including meat products, sauces, beans, spices, bread, noodles and ready meals to name but a few.  Read the labels and watch out for these.

Source: Google Images

If you have an hour of down time to spare, you could look at this very informative BBC documentary called ‘The Truth about Sugar’, which follows some volunteers who successfully reduce their intake of sugar (a lot of which was hidden) resulting in significant weight loss and improved health markers. [Link below in References]

Zero Fat / Low Fat Products

Firstly, and this may seem obvious, the term zero or low fat should only apply to a product that would naturally contain fat, for example, yogurt, cheese, butter, milk or other milk product derivatives such as milk chocolate.  We classify chicken breast, organ meats or white fish as low fat compared to other meats.   A lot of fruit and vegetables have zero fat content.  An apple, therefore, should never be advertised or sold as ‘zero fat’ even if it is.  Yes, it happens!!  ‘Fat’ has gained a bad reputation over the years and has been associated with weight gain and heart disease.   This is in part based on the fact that 1 gram of fat has over twice the calories of 1 gram of carbohydrates.   But it turns out now that it’s not fat that makes you fat – its sugar.   Just like calories, not all fats are created equal either.  Animal products and coconut oil contain ‘saturated fat’ but the nutritional value of coconut is entirely different to that of animal fat.   Both of these are labelled ‘saturated fat’ because of their chemical structure but they have entirely different effects in the body.  Coconut oil is hugely beneficial.  It is not stored in the body like other fat and therefore is not guilty for weight gain or heart disease, quite the opposite.  Related article by Dr Mercola here.

The food industry’s response to that bad guy ‘fat’ is to bring to the supermarket shelf a host of zero and low fat products.   Whenever you see this, for the sake of your health and weight, leave it on the shelf.   Before you put it back though, just have a look at the label.   It is likely to have ‘sugar’ in place of the fat.  As a rough guide 4 g of sugar is 1 teaspoon.  If your yogurt has 20 g that is 5 spoons of sugar.  Why is this?  It makes it taste good so you will probably want more (sugar is addictive), especially considering you think it is ‘low fat’ and healthy.  And, you will likely need more because it won’t fill you up as full fat would.

Understanding, as I now do, the role of good quality fat as a very necessary food group in the diet of a healthy human, it is particularly disturbing how convinced people are that fat is bad.  Considering every cell of your body is composed of a lipid (fat) by-layer, your brain is 60 percent fat and all of your steroid hormones are made from cholesterol, how can it be healthy to live on 1 calorie oils and foods that should naturally contain fat, which now have the fat removed?  You need fat in your diet!  It is best if it comes from good sources like oily fish, nuts, seeds and full fat dairy products.  The best oils are cold pressed extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil.  Butter is a healthier option than hydrogenated spreads which are chemically altered and are stored in the body as toxins.  Your body was not designed to deal with these structurally altered chemicals.  This advice applies to everyone but if you are a young female and anticipate becoming pregnant at some stage now or in the future you should pay particular attention to the following sentence.   A diet high in free sugars and low in good sources of fat is a recipe for hormone imbalance and possible fertility issues.  You would do well not to succumb to this type of advertising.  Fat, in appropriate amounts, carries flavour, balances blood sugar and adds satiety to a meal.   Naturally occurring fat also carries fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A, E and D.  Unless these vitamins are added back in, unnaturally, they are no longer fully present in a ‘low fat or zero fat’ product.  A zero fat yogurt, for example, would also be less satisfying to your body (not your taste buds) and is most likely adding to an excess of already hidden sugars in your diet.  The complete irony is that these excess sugars are being stored in your body as fat.

The Sum Up!

The Good Calories are natural whole grains, fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, good quality fresh oils, fats, meats, fish and dairy, and these are recommended in place of processed foods.   Water with a slice lemon and mint leaf is a healthier near zero calorie refreshing drink.  Lemon/Lime water and coconut water are other excellent healthy hydrating drinks.  [Fill your ice cube tray with freshly squeezed juice of a few lemons and limes.  Pop a few out into cold or hot water for a healthy hydrating drink].

The Bad Calories are the empty calories that are void of nutrients but still count.  We’re talking processed foods ‘pure white and deadly’ for example, flour products, breads, sweets, cakes, ice cream, ready meals, pizza, fizzy drinks etc.  Foods containing the addictive combination of fat, sugar and/or salt!   Empty calories tickle your taste buds but leave you feeling hungry.  To feel better and manage your weight, reduce the consumption of these foods to a minimum.

The Make Believe Calories are not even calories because they are Zero?  You’ve been conned!  Zero calorie sugar free foods/drinks are not real food.  These will not satisfy or nourish your body, they are most likely full of chemicals that are neuro- toxic and addictive, causing you to lose control of your appetite, eat more and gain weight.  You will be doing yourself and if you are a parent, your children, a huge favour removing these foods/drinks from the diet completely.

  • The more natural, unaltered foods you include in your diet, the less you will need to worry about your weight or your health
  • Not all calories are created equal
  • Maintaining a healthy weight is not as simple as counting calories
  • Health is not exclusively defined by ‘normal’ BMI
  • You can appear to be thin and still have a high ratio of unhealthy body fat
  • Zero/low fat is a myth.  In place of the missing fat you are eating more sugar and making more body fat!  Sugar is addictive!
  • Good quality fat has an very important role in a healthy diet.
  • Zero Calories is a myth.  Eliminate artificial sweeteners and hidden sugars from your diet… they are piling on the pounds, destroying your brain cells  and making you eat more.

If you find that there are a lot of foods in your shopping basket with many of these chemicals and hidden sugars in the ingredients list, try eliminating them one at a time and replacing each with a healthier option.  Sometimes this requires patience and more meal preparation.  I guess when you begin to feel better, notice that your appetite is no longer controlling you and the weight begins to effortlessly fall off, you may just feel the extra work is worth the effort.

The food industry operates based on supply and demand.  If there is more and more demand from individuals for better quality food products, industry will have no choice but to meet that demand, but first you have to understand what the best choices are for you!

I hope you found this useful.

© AOS 2018


  • Marilyn Glenville (2006) ‘Fat Around the Middle’:  Kyle Books
  • Marc David (2005) ‘The Slow Down Diet’:  Healing Arts Press
  • Patrick Holford (2009) ‘The Low GL Diet Bible’:  Piatkus
  • Russell L. Blaylock (2016) ‘ Prescriptions for Natural Health’:  Humanix Books

YouTube Link:  BBC Documentary ‘The Truth about Sugar’


3 thoughts on “Calories – the Good, the Bad and the Make Believe

  1. Pingback: The Fat Factor – Limelight Nutrition

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