Giving too much weight to the kilojoule count? There are better ways.

Giving too much weight to the kilojoule count? There are better ways. Photo: Jeffrey Coolidge

We can all exercise our inner control freak by counting kilojoules. But at what cost?

Getting caught up in a numbers game might be a swift way to lose weight. It can also be a swift way to extract any joy from eating and puts us at dire risk of becoming obsessive food bores.

Besides, it can be detrimental to our health.

This is because if we're only counting kilojoules, spinach and soft drink can be the same. In the kilojoule-governed kingdom, an additive-laden, pre-packed meal can be seen as superior to a homemade meal full of fresh greens and good fats.

You don't have to be a mathematician to see that the numbers don't add up.

Kilojoules don't account for the quality of what we put in our bodies so there is a good argument for not counting them. Here are five reasons to quit the kilojoule count for good.

It's a recent phenomenon

Kilojoule counting only became popular at the start of the 20th century, largely as a result of the work of an Yale chemist, Wilbur Atwater who burnt food to calculate its energy content.

Since then, kilojoule counting has become commonplace in the diet industry, despite soaring rates of obesity.

"I hate it," says author and dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan of people slavishly eating by arithmetic. "We've been evolving for over seven million years and we didn't know about calories or kilojoules ... what did we do then?

"We trusted our hunger levels and ate the right foods ... if you're in touch with your body, you can trust it."

Somewhat shockingly, for a company that has championed calorie-counting, even the CEO of Weight Watchers has recognised its redundancy. "Calorie-counting has become unhelpful," David Kirchoff said in 2011.

A better approach, according to McMillan is having "kilojoule awareness" of the typical daily recommendation of 8700 kilojoules. "It's not counting every morsel that goes into your mouth," McMillan explains, "but if you pick up a Mars bar, having a rough sense of what percentage of your daily intake it is."

All kilojoules are not created equal

One Harvard study from 2012 found that different diets had different weight outcomes among participants, despite them consuming the same number of kilojoules.

"From a metabolic perspective our study suggests that all calories are not alike," David Ludwig, the study's author, told WebMD. "The quality of the calories going in is going to affect the number of calories going out."

This is because some calories, like those from protein or plants, take more energy for the body to process, affecting your net calorie count.

McMillan says the debate around kilojoules being equal or not is "ongoing". She says that if you lock people up and restrict their kilojoules then they will lose weight regardless of whether they come from fat, carbohydrate or protein.

"But, when we look in the real world, the way our appetite is influenced and where those calories go in the body, it does matter."

Author and integrative doctor Dr Frank Lipman agrees.

"Granted, by definition calories represent units of energy provided by a particular food, but thinking they're all alike is like saying a diamond and a rhinestone are the same because they both glitter," he writes.

Sometimes it's not about kilojoules at all

Dietitian and biochemist, Dr Libby Weaver explains that when we're in a state of stress, the body can shut down the metabolism to protect it from "famine". Reducing "kilojoules", when we are in this state, can exacerbate this effect.

Addressing stress so that the body is in an optimal state for burning fuel is as important as the addressing the type of fuel, she believes.

"Most people believe that in order to become healthy, they must lose some weight. I believe the opposite is true; in order to lose weight, we must become healthy," she says.

McMillan agrees, adding that extended periods on a very low-kiljoule diet can also put the body into fat-storage "survival" mode. "Research has shown that the body becomes very good at storing it to become ready for famine," she says.

Crap is still crap, regardless of kilojoules

There are numerous nasty knock-on effects from consuming too many nutrient poor, crappy foods, Frank Lipman explains.

"Healthy, nutrient rich foods will keep hunger at bay, help maintain stable blood sugar levels, minimise cravings and enable your brain to signal your belly that it's full," he says.

"Nutrient poor foods will have the opposite effect, wreaking hormonal havoc, spiking insulin, setting off cravings, dulling satiety signals and encouraging overeating."

Crappy foods encourage overeating because we get the energy easily but are not satiated past our mouths.

"We get the calories but the body is still feeling like it needs food because it hasn't got the nutrients it needs," McMillan explains.

Stock up on the good stuff

Overeating vegetables (no, potatoes don't count), given their high water content and low energy-density, is not only hard to do, it rarely results in being overweight.

As Frank Lipman points out: "nutrient dense foods help keep weight in check naturally, no calculator required."

Instead of focusing on the figures, we're better off focusing on filling our figures with things that make them, not just our mouths, feel good.

"You want to look at both nutrient density and energy-density," McMillan says.

The benefits of nutrient-dense foods (as opposed to energy-dense foods) like plants, are not just their array of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, she explains, they are also good for gut health.

And we don't have to subsist on kale for our bodies to feel good and run well, says Lipman.

He suggests a three-fold focus: "good" fats like coconut oil, avocados, nuts, wild fish and grass fed, organic meats to balance hormonal and metabolic responses; non starchy vegetables, to fill us up and for their nutrient density; and protein, for satiety and because takes more energy for the body to metabolise.

"Bottom line, all three will help reduce appetite with little effort, blood sugar spikes and no counting. All you need to do is enjoy them."