In the last few years I have tried a number of diets. A week of Keto (which I loved because, who doesn’t like butter and chicken and eggs?), some Mind diet (which was trending in 2016 and I decided to should try for myself), Juicing (I like juices, but this did nothing for my energy and I gave it up in a day and half), intermittent fasting (I spent my fasting window thinking of questions like…What if I could eat a slice of pizza now? What if someone offers me cake?)—I have done them all. And what has my weighing scale said about these experiments? Nothing! That is right. None of the diets have worked in the long run.
However, I started tracking my calories during the lockdown and realised that the only way to lose (or gain) weight is to follow the calories in versus calories out method. It is simple science: when the calories you put into your body (i.e. calories in) is more than the amount of calories you burn (calories out), the body gains weight. The reverse, i.e. when calories out is more than calories in, makes the body shed weight. And if the two are balanced, then you more of less maintain the weight you are in.
The calories in part is easy—you eat or drink and you take in calories. The calories out bit, however, is more complex. The body burns calories through three basic methods. One is metabolism—the calories required to sustain basic functions like standing, sleeping, breathing etc. Then there’s digestion, or the calories needed to digest your food; and finally, physical activity. We often use a calories counter or calculator (say a smartwatch) to check the amount of calories we’ve burnt at the end of a workout. But one must remember these are approximate values. You can never know the exact calorie-count.
But this doesn’t mean that you can just eat burger and fries, reach your calorie goal and not eat the rest of the day. The source of the calories are far more important than the calories themselves, believes Amita Salvi, head-of department, Dietetics, at Mumbai's Saifee Hospital.
“You should look at what the food does to you. Does it offer benefits other than just hitting the calorie goal and filling you up for the time being? For example, fibre and protein rich foods are known to rank high in the satiety index. Unprocessed foods are also likely to satiate your hunger more than processed food,” she says.
So even if item A has the same calories as item B for the same weight, A might be better if it keeps you full longer, and have other benefits, like being a source of iron or calcium or vitamins, like vegetables. Vegetables are also high-volume, low-calorie foods. They contain fibre and water, which adds bulk to your meals and helps fill you up. Other items that have high satiety value include paneer, daal, eggs, fish, oats and boiled potatoes.
Another area to be mindful of is the effect of what you eat on your hormones. Two food items can have the same amount of calories (per gram) but your body may metabolise them in different ways. A study published in The Journal Of Clinical Investigation in April 2009 found that glucose and fructose can have different impacts on hormones, even though the two sugars provide the same calories per gram. A diet that’s too rich in added fructose is linked to insulin resistance, increased blood sugar levels, and higher triglyceride and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels than a diet providing the same number of calories from glucose.
Similarly, the type of fat present in your diet can have different effects on your reproductive hormone levels. “Polyunsaturated fats can have a positive effect on the fertility rates of women, but on men can have a completely different impact,” says Salvi.
She further adds that sleep, stress and other factors can have an impact on the food we eat as well. “If we are deficient in sleep, we tend to eat more, snack often, drink fizzy drinks and crave sugar highs. These can have the calories your daily limit requires...but they are empty calories. You should choose food which fill you up, keep you healthy and meet your calorie requirements as well.”
So while calories in vs. calories out is a mathematically sure-shot way of losing weight, you might want to consider the source of your calories and their effect on your body as well. Being lighter or thinner can only count as good if you are fit and healthy at the same time.