Diet vs calories
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Frustrated because you’ve been eating clean, wholesome food but still aren’t losing weight? That Instagram-friendly bowl of acai berries and granola topped with cashew butter may be one of the culprits – as could that peanut butter smoothie. Three tablespoons of peanut butter could take 250 calories or approximately 12.5 per cent from your recommended daily allowance.

You may be eating clean, but you may end also end up eating too much – because the bowl is unlikely to keep you feeling full.

Focus on both quality and quantity in order to control your weight, says Nathalie Djabrayan, a licensed Clinical Dietitian practising in the UAE and Lebanon. “If you eat more than your calculated needs you will likely gain weight and mainly fat, regardless of the quality of your meals and diet design,” she says. “Your body requires a certain number of calories derived from nutrient-dense, real foods in adequate portions. A mild reduction in the total number of calories helps you reach a healthy weight, causing sustained fat loss, as compared to restrictive and extreme diets which may cause muscle loss.”

Farheen Dhinda, Clinical Dietitian at the Dubai Health Authority (DHA), is unequivocal: “I do not recommend the concept of following any fad diets that do not have a strong scientific basis. Diet trends come and go, and end up causing faulty eating behaviours. Instead, focus on building a positive relationship with food.”

She says terms such as clean eating leave people with the wrong impression. Other foods aren’t dirty or unhealthy, it’s how you prepare them that matters. “It is possible to lose weight by eating your traditional foods and still lose weight if that is the goal for your health,” Dhinda says. “Moderation and healthy cooking practices are the key. Choose locally grown foods and steam, boil, grill or sauté them in healthy fats and the chances are your meal might be healthier and lower in calorie than a fancy so called ‘clean’ alternative.”

The multi-billion-dollar reason to promote fad diets

“The diet industry is a multi-billion-dollar business,” says Victoria Tipper, a qualified nutritionist based in Dubai. According to ResearchAndMarkets, the global weight management market at $189.8 Billion in 2018 – a figure the research and consulting firm forecasts to grow to $269.2 billion by 2024, or a growth of 6 per cent per year. “A lot of the new diets will focus on restriction and in the short-term results can be achieved but in the long-term people often regain the weight. It is more important to adopt a healthy lifestyle that can be sustained and there is a lot to be said for positive nutrition, focusing on foods that nourish the body.”

Whatever the name of the diet – Keto, the Snake Diet, Paleo, low-carb, the Body Type Diet, Detox – it is unlikely to meet all your nutritional needs. “Just because these may help short-term weight loss, that doesn’t mean they are science-based, sustainable and healthy. It’s all about the calories in vs calories burnt! No magic here,” Djabrayan says. “On the other hand, restricted fad diets with quick weight loss are linked to water and muscle loss, nutrient deficiencies, binging, craving and regaining double the weight!”

Within those guidelines, the specific foods you eat may not even matter when it comes to weight loss. You don’t need to cut out carbs or eat high-fat diets, as research has repeatedly demonstrated.

Calories from different foods have different effects

That isn’t a free pass to load up on obviously unhealthy foods, of course. Eating is about more than the amount of energy consumed – this reductive approach has long been dismissed. As Tipper says, the source of the calories plays a major role.

She compares the effects of consuming 500 calories of vegetables with 500 calories of soda. “In a lab, both food sources will release the same amount of energy when burned but this isolated system of the laboratory is very different to our bodies, where the foods are processed by our metabolism, where hormones and neurotransmitters are triggered,” she explains. “When we consume the vegetables, we keep our blood sugars balanced and we feel fuller, with our appetites being suppressed. The soda is a different story: on consuming it, we experience a spike in insulin and a disruption of neurotransmitters leading to sweet cravings, production of pro-inflammatory markers and an increase in fat storage. So, to keep a healthy weight it is important to focus on the source of the calories, as well as caloric intake.”

Lose the obsession with numbers

While it’s good to have a general idea of how many calories you’re consuming on a daily basis, an obsession with numbers is counterproductive, Dhinda says. “There can be so many negative implications to advising a patient or client to count their calories.

“Often, it may lead to disordered eating behaviours and body image issues among people who may obsessively begin counting calories in every food eaten, which causes a lot more harm and psychological damage.”

Indeed, if you’ve ever tried to use one of those calorie-counting apps, you will realise how imprecise counting calories is. Instead of worrying about the details, Dhinda advises discussing things with a health professional and leaving him or her to come up with an eating plan that works for you.

“Doctors and clinical dietitians follow evidence-based approach to their clinical practice. Not all diets will be right for you, so discuss any proposed eating plans with your dietetic consultant for its authenticity and suitability,” she says. “No diet should work on deprivation; instead, it must instil positive eating behaviours and a good relationship with food.”