When you’re trying to lose weight, it’s easy to get sucked into counting calories. After all, that’s what weight loss is all about, right? To some extent, that’s true, says Keri Gans, MS, RDN, author of The Small Change Diet.
For example, if you usually consume 2,500 calories a day and then cut back to 1,600 calories, you’re going to lose weight from that 900-calorie daily deficit — even if all you ate was potato chips. But you won’t be healthy and you most likely won’t be able to keep the pounds off.
That’s because when it comes to losing weight and keeping it off, there’s much more going on behind the scenes than simply calories in, calories out. Here’s what you should know about the real role of nutrition in weight loss, and what you can do to set yourself up for success.
Calories: It’s All About Quality Over Quantity
If you’re only focused on calorie counting, you could be missing the bigger picture. Sure, cutting back on how much you eat will lead to weight loss, but what’s even more important than calories is the quality of the foods you’re choosing, says Gans. Eating balanced, healthful meals will not only ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need to improve your overall health status, but it will make your weight loss more sustainable.
“We can’t just look at a number on the scale when we think about weight loss,” she advises.
If you eat too few calories, or too many empty calories, you’ll wind up feeling hungry all the time. And you’ll likely overeat more unhealthy foods later on, she says. Going back to the potato chip example, you could eat 160 calories of chips, but it won’t hold you over. In an hour, you’ll be hungry for another 160 calories, or even double that, because your “meal” was lacking the variety, fiber and protein needed to keep you satisfied. Eating foods high in fiber, healthy fats and lean protein, such as eggs, grilled chicken, vegetables and fruit, nuts and seeds, avocados and olive oil, can keep hunger at bay and keep you fuller longer.
“If you had sat down at the beginning and had 300 calories of some whole grain bread, avocado, a little chicken, now all of a sudden you have a well-balanced meal and you’re not going to be hungry,” says Gans. “Those 300 calories are going to do a lot more for you.”
Calorie Counting Conundrum: You Can’t Out-Run a Bad Diet
If weight loss were as simple as calorie counting, you’d be able to lose as much weight as calories you could rack up on the treadmill screen. Unfortunately, no amount of exercise can make up for a poor diet, says Gans. It’s common for people to hit a weight loss plateau or even gain weight if they continue to follow a bad diet, despite becoming more active.
“If you’re exercising all the time but eating like crap or eating too many calories, you’re not going to lose weight,” she says. In other words, how many calories you burn in the gym is irrelevant if you’re overeating — or attempting to fuel with low-quality foods every day.
Meanwhile, while you can lose weight by cutting calories and not exercising at all, Gans strongly advises against it. Not only would you miss out on all the health benefits of exercise, but activities like running, swimming and cycling are lifestyle factors that often make it easier to keep the pounds off. Plus, exercise helps boost your metabolism, especially strength training. The more muscle mass you have, the more energy you’ll have to burn calories even when you’re just sitting down.
In fact, one 2014 scientific review found that diet plus exercise was more effective for weight loss than diet alone.
“This tells us it’s a lifestyle,” says Gans. “For those individuals who lose weight and incorporate exercise, it’s because they’ve made a better lifestyle of taking care of themselves. And that’s where you see the true success.”
Eat, Sleep, Train, Repeat: All in a Day’s Work
The three most important factors for weight loss are diet, exercise and sleep, says Gans. If you can work on improving the quality of one of those factors in your life, you can create a chain reaction for improving the rest.
“It’s almost like what came first, the chicken or the egg,” she says. “If you sleep well and have more energy, it stands to reason that you would be more likely to go to the gym. Now you’ve been going to the gym, you’re working out better, which makes you want to eat better. And so the cycle continues.”
When counseling patients, Gans stresses that even though what we put in our mouths is the most important thing for weight loss, if you’re exhausted it will be a lot more difficult to choose a yogurt and a banana over a donut on the way to work. She also emphasizes the importance of planning and getting enough sleep. Be sure to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night to help your body recover from the day, manage stress levels and improve your willpower so you reach for a kale salad instead of a burger a fries.
“Yogurt and fruit could have more calories than a donut. But we know that the donut is probably going to make you hungrier, and now you’re going to have a bigger lunch,” says Gans. “But if you had that yogurt and fruit because you planned for it, you might have been able to control what you had for lunch.”
Originally published August 2016. Updated January 2018.