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The truth about a counting calories diet

How could a counting calories diet be a cause of obesity? Isn't this the best way to lose weight? The only way to lose weight? Many people start counting calories when they want to slim down.

Why do we count calories?

Health professionals teach us to do this. Doctors tell their overweight patients to cut back on calories. Dietitians design meal plans that contain 1200 calories, or 1500 calories, or some other number that is supposed to be perfect for each client.

Before we became vegans, we did this too. We had a book that listed the calorie count of thousands of different foods. When we went on a diet, we looked up every food we ate. When we were at home, we used a scale and weighed our portions to be sure our calorie count was accurate.

If you are overweight, you have probably tried this kind of diet. Most people like the concept of losing weight with a counting calories diet. It seems like a good idea because you can still eat and drink some of your favorite foods: french fries, chocolate cake, candy, chips, or alcohol. You just have to keep track of portion sizes and calories.

This is similar to the concept of eating in moderation. Eating in moderation implies that:
  • You can eat all of your favorite foods...you just have to eat small quantities of the fattening ones.

  • You can easily stop eating whenever you want. You can just stop eating before you are completely satisfied.
Eating in moderation is a great theory. Unfortunately, our hunger drive often makes it impossible in practice.

Hunger strikes again

What happens if you eat a moderate amount, maybe 1200 calories for the day, and you are still hungry?
  • You can be miserable for the rest of the day and then go to bed hungry.

  • You can go ahead and eat. If you are super hungry, you might eat and eat until you can't swallow another bite.
You are not alone. Millions of people have used a counting calories diet and failed. They lose some weight at first. They can't control the constant hunger. They eat. They gain back all of the weight, plus more. This is how the counting calories diet causes obesity.

Why does this happen? It is not a lack of will power. Your body is just taking care of you. To be healthy, you need a certain number of calories per day, but you need more than calories. You need those calories in a good ratio of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. You need vitamins, minerals, fiber, water, antioxidants, and hundreds of different plant phytochemicals.

Your body checks to see if you are getting all the necessary nutrients. Two ways it checks are with stretch receptors and nutrient receptors.

Stretch receptors and nutrient receptors

The weight and volume of the foods we eat trigger stretch receptors in our stomach. Stretch receptors activate when our stomach is full. They tell us to quit eating when we have enough calories, but not too many.

Stretch receptors evolved when the main foods available to our ancestors were whole plant foods. They work perfectly when we eat foods that contain plenty of fiber and water, and not too much fat.

Foods like cake, candy, and chips did not exist when our stretch receptors formed. These processed foods are low in fiber, low in water content, and high in fat. By the time they trigger the stretch receptors, we have eaten too many calories.
Nutrient receptors in our cells accept the nutrients we eat. When we have enough nutrients, the receptors tell our brain that we are satisfied. When nutrients are missing, our body asks for them. It tells us to eat. We can fight the hunger for a while, but not forever. Eventually it takes control and forces us to eat, searching for those missing nutrients.

If we eat a vegan diet of low calorie foods, our stretch receptors and nutrient receptors are satisfied with a modest number of calories. We don't need to use a counting calories diet at all. It is just not necessary. But if you love to count calories and want to do it anyway, feel free. You will be amazed at how much food you can eat within your calorie limits.

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