Time to answer one of the most important questions about weight loss: Which is more important, calories or the quality of the food you’re eating? Can I eat junk food and still lose weight if I stay within my calorie limits? Why even bother eating healthy then?
So glad you asked.
Recently trending on the “lose it” weight loss thread of reddit is a calories in, calories out (CICO) diet. The idea is very simple: You can eat whatever you want as long as you burn off those calories exercising.
If you pay attention to nutrition news, you may remember a similar news wave a while back. Professor Mark Haub carried out an experiment where he only ate junk food and still lost weight. Did it work? Sure. But most of the sensational articles failed to mention that he was also taking a multivitamin, drinking a protein shake, and eating at least some vegetables. Hold on to this nugget of information for later.
So, in theory, I can eat nothing but pizza and still lose weight. Sounds like a dream come true!
More than just calories
Recently I saw a bumper sticker on a car that read “Eat well, exercise regularly, die anyway.”
Alright, listen, Mr. Bumper Stick Creator. You’re ignoring some glaringly important facts.
- Let’s think about how you feel immediately after eating food. Eating a high fat, high sugar meal often results in the bittersweet food coma. Basically right after you eat it, this food is already making you feel bad (even if it was delicious and totally worth it).
- In the long run, poor eating habits make you feel worse all of the time. You have less energy, your sleep can be affected, and you’ll likely feel all around “bleh”.
- Your risk for disease goes WAY up. Yes, you’re going to die some day. But you can die with all of your limbs and your eyesight instead of losing them to diabetes. You can live out your years without having an oxygen tank or a walker.
The point is to say that there is more to good nutrition than just reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
First things first, can you lose weight by paying attention to calories alone?
One of the most frustrating things about nutrition questions is that the answer to them is often “yes and no”. There is rarely a straightforward answer to anything. The simple answer is yes, the math checks out. If you burn more calories than you’re consuming, you’re going to lose weight.
However, as we are constantly pointing out, just because something works in the short term doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. It also doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Let’s look at the good and the bad…
The most important thing when assessing any weight loss plan is to be informed about the facts. Then you’re able to formulate an opinion for yourself and decide if it will work for you. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of this method:
- You will lose weight following this method. The math checks out. As long as you’re eating less calories than you’re burning, you’re going to lose weight.
- You are able to fit in your favorite foods. As you may already know, at Studio Element we believe all foods fit and no foods should be forbidden.
- You’re calorie counting constantly. This kind of obsessive behavior can be stressful and may even lead to eating disorders. In fact, a type of eating disorder known as orthorexia exists in which a person is compelled to burn off all of the calories they take in.
- There’s no focus on the quality of the food you’re taking in. If all you’re worried about is calories, you’re not looking at the bigger picture. You may be missing out on essential vitamins and minerals, or even not getting enough of certain macronutrients.
- It doesn’t feel great to eat junk food all the time. Remember when you were little and your parents told you not to eat all your Halloween candy in one sitting? And then you did it anyway and you felt sick and probably crashed after your brief sugar high. The same thing is going on to a lesser degree when you’re consistently eating junk food. Not only are you not feeling great, but this can also affect your energy levels, especially when exercising, sleep quality, digestive health, and mood.
Sustainable weight loss and healthy living isn’t as simplistic as calories in and calories out. The pyramid shows the importance of a variety of factors when losing weight, maintaining weight loss, and living an overall healthy lifestyle.
As you can see, calorie balance is the crux of the plan. However, it isn’t the only factor. Isn’t the point of losing weight to stay at that smaller size? That weight loss isn’t going to be sustainable or feel all that great if all you’re not eating a balanced diet.
All that being said, there are ways to make this diet work effectively for you. Finding a balance between healthy eating, exercise, and treating yourself can be difficult. In this diet, you are allowing yourself indulgences while still balancing them out in some other form.
Make a plan that works for you
No one can be expected to eat healthy 100% of the time. In fact, I would argue that it’s not healthy to only eat “health foods” 100% of the time. Balance is important.
This is where the fundamental theory behind CICO can work for everyone. Planning on eating out later in the day? Have a salad for lunch. Accidentally binged and ate an entire sleeve of cookies? Forgive yourself and go for a run.
By no means does this mean you should obsessively count calories or feel obligated to exercise after a high fat meal. As your dietitian, I’m telling you that it is ok to eat pizza and then sit on your couch and do nothing every once in a while.
Eating well and exercising is important, but it shouldn’t rule your life. Aim to be healthy most of the time. Keep in mind that nutrient quality is just as important to weight loss as total overall calories. You’ll feel better and have more success at weight loss if the quality of your food is just as big of a player as the calorie amount.