For more than 100 years calorie counting has been a mainstay of weight management programs. Its history within the US policy arena is even longer. How did this come about? Is there any scientific evidence that it leads to sustained weight loss?
At the end of the 19th century, calorie counting started as a food-valuing metric to encourage Americans to get the most bang for their buck and live with fewer food dollars. Then in the early 1900s, physician Lulu Peters, who struggled with her own weight issues, adopted the calorie as a way to value food and popularized the idea that constant attention and vigilance to calories was key to weight loss.¹ A century later calorie counting remains at the core of many weight loss programs and apps and is the method chosen by public health advocates to combat the obesity epidemic. This despite the fact there is limited scientific research to support it.
A provision in the 2010 Affordable Care Act, for example, requires that chain restaurants must display the caloric value on all their menu items. While this seems to be a positive step in increasing consumer awareness of healthier food choices, subsequent studies have shown that the overall effects of caloric labeling on food intake and ordering behavior are negligible for most people.2 A review of 31 studies concluded that although there are some populations that are more likely to use calorie information to make healthier choices—such as women and residents of wealthier neighborhoods—the abundance of evidence suggests that calorie labeling as it is currently being used has no impact on overall food purchases or consumption for the population as a whole.3
Although it may make sense in theory, in practice there are myriad reasons why calorie counting is ineffective. First, all calories are not created equal. Two meals can have the exact number of calories but be processed in your body completely different ways. For example, a 400-calorie nutrient-dense meal of healthy whole foods, will leave you more energized and feeling fuller longer, than a 400-calorie meal consisting of processed foods, trans fats and refined sugar which will lead to lower energy levels and increase the likelihood of weight gain.4 Calorie counting also changes one’s relationship with food. It puts the focus on numbers and turns eating into a restrictive, often unpleasant and stressful activity. Calorie counting also does not teach what makes a given food healthy or unhealthy. Research has shown a focus on calories is not a sustainable long-term solution. The need for alternative approaches, such as the Traffic Light System, is growing more and more apparent. In contrast to many traditional weight management programs, the Traffic Light Approach has a much lower cognitive load and doesn’t require the participant to purchase special diet meals or give up favorite foods.
To learn more about this exciting new design for weight management programs, please attend our webinar May 11th, 1 pm EST with presenters Kurbo Co-founder Thea Runyan, who has spent 15 years with the Stanford Center For Healthy Weight, and Anne Thorndike, MD, MPH, lead author of a Massachusetts General cafeteria study that examined the impact of traffic light labeling on food choice.
¹ Levine, D. I. (2017). The Curious History of the Calorie in US Policy. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 52(1), 125-129.
² Lee, M. S., & Thompson, J. K. (2016). Exploring enhanced menu labels’ influence on fast food selections and exercise-related attitudes, perceptions, and intentions. Appetite, 105, 416-422.
³ Kiszko, K. M., Martinez, O. D., Abrams, C., & Elbel, B. (2014). The influence of calorie labeling on food orders and consumption: a review of the literature. Journal of community health, 39(6), 1248-1269.