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Weight Loss – Calorie Counting vs Health Halo

As humans we show bias in many different ways. We have a tendency to over-rely on mental shortcuts with food consumption or disregard the calories in healthy foods because they are healthy. For example you may not consider the calories in foods such as quinoa, nuts or fruit because they are deemed healthy yet, at the same time, you may not touch foods like bread, chocolate or cheese because they are seen as unhealthy. This is referred to as the health halo effect which is defined simply as the overestimating of the healthfulness of a food based on a single claim we deem to be true. Take Granola for example. Granola is marketed to be healthy with green labels saying high in fibre, low in fat and a good source of vitamins whereas in reality, per cup, Granola has around 50 calories more than a cup of Malteasers. But Malteasers would never in a million years be considered healthier than granola but in terms of weight loss, it is. This highlights the common mental shortcut of something being advertised as low fat. You suddenly believe this also means low calorie, resulting in the thoughtless consumption of this food when, in reality, calories may be high.


On the other hand there is calorie counting. Calorie counting means calculating your total calorie consumption for each day or week, or planning the amount of calories you intent to consume usually with the intention of consuming less than you use – leading to weight loss. The weight of scientific evidence strongly suggests that this is a more effective way to lose weight, but only hitting ‘X’ number of calories each day is a too simple method and is not optimal to improve body composition. The reasons for this include the potential under consumption of protein and protein timing to instigate protein synthesis, micronutrients, fibre and good fats. There’s also the psychological issue of not changing your lifestyle and therefore not creating a long term change, and the negative effects of what could be considered a crash diet.


It’s important to live a healthy lifestyle whilst at the same time being aware of what you’re eating and use some of the science in your decision making. If you’ve found yourself in one of the above categories more than once, here are a few suggestions. Have a calorie target with 10% leeway so you’re not obsessing over the minor details. Within that target, have a protein target in line with your bodyweight and approximate body fat, and have a fibre target. Once the numbers are set, try hitting these numbers with the majority of your food from the fresh food areas of the supermarket, and then leave some calories for a small treat in the evening. This is obviously not the case for everyone – if you’re in a contest prep and want to make the most out of the calories you’re allowed, or if you have an addictive personality and are best not touching a biscuit because you’ll eat the entire packet, don’t have a treat every evening. Instead you can save 200 calories 6 days of the week and then indulge in whatever 1200kcal meal you wish on Sunday (ideally a heavy training day). This isn’t optimal but consistency always wins and if it keeps you on track in the long term you’re more likely to succeed.

Gardener. C.D. (July 2012). Tailoring dietary approaches for weight loss. (International Journal of Obesity Supplements).

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