Calorie counting doesn’t add up for long term weight-loss, survey reveals
- A survey about calorie counting as a weight loss method commissioned by Slimming World, which polled over 2,000 UK adults and over 2,500 Slimming World members*, has shown that calorie counting alone is not an easy, balanced or sustainable way to lose weight
- Almost three quarters of adults (72%) surveyed said they feel that counting calories takes away the freedom from enjoying food
- More than half of adults (51%) agree that calorie counting can lead to an unbalanced diet
- The survey went on to show the average amount of time adults spent calorie counting was just four months
The findings come at a time when new government plans propose that restaurants, cafes and pubs with more than 250 employees must include calorie counts on their menus. Over half of those surveyed (53%) said they’re looking to lose weight as lockdown restrictions are eased.
Of those questioned who had previously tried to lose weight by counting calories, nearly 7 in 10 (69%) said they found themselves focusing on the number of calories rather than the nutritional value of food and nearly 3 in 10 (29%) said they chose to use their calories on less healthy high calorie snacks, replacing regular meals with chocolate (22%), crisps (22%) biscuits and cheese (19%) and alcohol (12%).
Over half (51%) of calorie counters who didn’t find calorie counting a sustainable way to lose weight said they found it too difficult to keep count, 36% struggled in any situation where they weren’t sure of the calorie content, for example eating at a friend’s house or in a restaurant and 31% felt too hungry. The survey revealed nearly a fifth (19%) of adults who had calorie counted to lose weight said they went to bed hungry every day.
In contrast, Slimming World members polled separately reported forming a new healthy relationship with food, with 81% saying they’d learnt how to cut calories without counting each and every calorie they eat. Two-thirds (67%) of Slimming World members who had tried calorie counting to lose weight in the past agreed that it can result in an unbalanced diet, and 62% agreed that in their experience, calorie counting doesn’t lead to long term weight loss success. Over three-quarters of members (76%) said that they always feel satisfied or full when following Slimming World’s Food Optimising plan which is based on the energy density (calories/gram) and satiating quality of foods rather than just counting calories.
To achieve weight loss, we do have to eat or drink fewer calories than our bodies use, but that doesn’t mean we have to obsessively measure, weigh and count every calorie that passes our lips – there is an easier way.
Caitlin Trick, 21, from Swansea lost 7.5st in two years and says eating healthily has given her a new sense of freedom to lose weight and enjoy food. In January 2019, weighing over 17st, Caitlin Trick joined her local Slimming World group. Dropping 5 dress sizes in two years, Cait says, “I’d tried so many different ways to lose weight. I’d tried cutting out carbs and I used 16 different calorie counting apps, but they never worked. I could never stick to them long enough as they were restrictive and cut out so many options. The most I ever lost was almost 2 stone before I fell back off the wagon and back into my old habits. I used to have a very unhealthy relationship with food, now I love that I can eat almost everything that everyone else can eat!”
Previous research showed that eating a diet based around low energy dense foods – foods that contain fewer calories per gram – is more effective for weight loss than traditional calorie counting. That study showed that people who followed a diet of low energy density food were more likely to feel full than those who tried a restrictive approach by counting calories and eating smaller portions.
Professor of Appetite and Energy Balance James Stubbs from the University of Leeds says, “Losing weight isn’t easy. Self-management and self-monitoring are important for weight management. Excessive and exclusive focus on counting calories, can take a huge amount of effort and resource and can be a distraction from the package of evidence-based behaviour change approaches that are most likely to lead to more successful weight loss. A lot of people give up on diets because they feel hungry or deprived. Eating low energy density foods can help overcome that problem. Gram for gram, low energy dense foods contain fewer calories than high energy density foods, so people are able to eat a larger volume of food for the same (or lower) calorie intake, leading them to feel fuller. The best evidence for effective, sustainable, weight loss is to use techniques to self-manage food intake, physical activity and lapses in weight that we all experience during a weight loss journey - to use evidence-based behaviour change approaches that are more likely to help us change our habits around food.”
It’s significant that 99% of members said they felt their diet was healthy when following Slimming World’s Food Optimising plan
Raising awareness of the number of calories food and drink products contain including placing calorie counts on menus in restaurants, may make it easier to keep track of calorie consumption, however it’s clear from this survey that the majority of people struggle to sustain calorie counting over the long term.
Carolyn Pallister, Slimming World’s Nutrition and Health Policy Manager says: “To achieve weight loss, we do have to eat or drink fewer calories than our bodies use, but that doesn’t mean we have to obsessively measure, weigh and count every calorie that passes our lips – there is an easier way.
“While counting calories can work for some people and may work in the short term, the survey highlights how for many slimmers it can quickly become tedious, boring and limiting and leave you feeling hungry. From a health perspective and to aid weight-loss, it’s important to think about the foods you eat and not only the number of calories in them. Choosing less energy-dense, more satiating foods which are high in protein and fibre will help to keep you fuller for longer.
“A key part of long-term successful weight management is behaviour change support. Members of our community-based groups learn to plan and base meals on foods which are naturally low in calories and that will fill them up and keep them satisfied for longer. These are foods like lean meat, fish and poultry, beans, pulses, fruits, vegetables and high fibre starchy carbs. Slimming World calls these foods ‘Free Food’ because members enjoy them without restriction, and without the need to weigh, measure or count which, as our survey shows, can be both unsustainable and unenjoyable especially in the long term. These foods are the basis of a healthy diet so members learn to base meals and long-term eating habits on them and eat them without having to measure every mouthful.”
“I stopped counting calories and lost nearly 7.5st in two years! I had 16 different calorie counting apps, but they never worked. I couldn’t stick to them long enough as they were so restrictive. " Caitlin Trick
In January 2019, weighing over 17st, Caitlin Trick walked through the doors of her local Slimming World group, not realising the impact it would have on the rest of her life.
“I feel like I’ve been overweight my entire life. Looking back to when I was younger, I always felt bigger than other children and I was always conscience of my weight. I started to put weight on when I was 10 years old and hurt my knee. I had to use crutches and with reduced mobility and boredom, I piled on the pounds. As I recovered and got older, I developed a bad habit of grazing and waiting for the next thing to eat. The bigger I got the less I wanted to go out with my friends so I would stay home and spend that time eating. It was a vicious circle.
“I’d tried so many different ways to lose weight. I’d tried cutting out carbs and I used 16 different calorie counting apps, but they never worked. I could never stick to them long enough as they were restrictive and cut out so many options. The most I ever lost was almost 2 stone before I fell back off the wagon and back into my old habits.
“The final straw came when I was in my first year at Swansea University. I ran for a taxi after a night out with friends and ended up badly dislocating my knee cap. This led to me seeing a knee and joint specialist who carried out tests and advised that surgery was needed to repair my knees. The GP advised that for surgery to be considered, I needed to lose 5st, which was a real wake up call for me and it made me realise I had to make a change.
“My mum did some research into different weight loss options and suggested I join Slimming World. We found a group near where we live, and mum came with me at first as I was so nervous. It was daunting as I’d never done anything like it before. I thought everyone would be judgemental, especially as I was young, but I walked into a room of people who completely understood my difficulties. Everyone was so warm and friendly, it felt like a big family. I soon realised no one wants to judge you because everyone in group is going through the same thing. Before I joined, I was embarrassed to talk about my weight to others. Now I feel completely different. I love having a laugh with the other members and after each group session, it always amazes me how fun attending can be. It’s amazing to be in a room of people who completely understand what you’re going through and they support you on the weeks when you haven't done as well. I always leave group motivated and inspired for the week ahead. During lockdown it was fantastic to keep in touch via the virtual classes which were set up, but I can’t wait until we can all see each other in person again.
“In two years, I’ve lost 7.5st which has been life-changing for me. As the weight came off my confidence grew, and I now feel much more comfortable when giving presentations to my fellow students as part of my history degree. I’m now able to do simple things that I could never do before such as cross my legs when I sit down and run up and down stairs quickly without getting out of breath. I now love seeing my friends and family without feeling self-conscious too.
“Before I joined Slimming World, I used to have a very unhealthy relationship with food. I’d often have a take-away pizza at least three times a week and I’d make sure the order included wedges, garlic bread and cookies! Now I would say I’m a good cook and the more weight I lost, the more I saw I was naturally switching to healthier options. I love that I can eat almost everything that everyone else can eat. Nothing is off the menu. I can have pasta, burgers, chips and even chocolate. It’s easy to incorporate Slimming World’s flexible healthy eating plan, Food Optimising, into in my everyday life and it’s very adaptable when I go out for meals. I love the frozen range in Iceland too, for when I can’t be bothered to cook.
“I wasn’t very active at all before I lost weight. My dad bought me a bike, but I didn’t use it as I had no confidence. As a family we can now go on long walks with our two dogs without me moaning that I’m tired. I enjoy going to the gym a few times a week, I’m using the bike dad bought me and I love attending yoga classes which I could never do before.
“We can now all go shopping too without me getting bored because nothing in the shop fits me – I love going shopping with my younger sister. I never understood the appeal of clothes shopping before and now I’ve gone down from a size 20 to a size 10, I love it! Sadly, I found when you're plus sized and young it can sometimes be difficult to get hold of the latest trends in your size. Now I can walk into any shop and I know the clothes I want to try on will fit me and even better, I feel confident they’ll look good!
“I’m so glad I listened to my mum and decided to join Slimming World. My group’s Consultant Joanna has supported my all the way through. I’m always able to ring or text her if I have any issues throughout the week. Losing weight has changed every part of my life. I graduate in the summer and now I’ve lost weight my main ambition in life is to always be happy and never miss another minute! I aim to finish my history degree and would love to be able to help others the way Joanna has helped me.
“I joined Slimming World to lose weight, what I didn’t expect was to gain a sense of freedom, for my outlook on life to be brighter and for the first time to be genuinely excited about what the future holds for me.”
Starting weight: 17st
Current weight: 9st 7lbs
Breakfast - massive bowl of cereal OR toast with thick layers of Nutella (sometimes both)
Lunch - sandwich with thick crusty bread and loads of crisps or pasty from the bakery
Dinner – large take-away pizza, wedges, garlic bread and cookies
Breakfast - yogurt with fruit
Lunch - soup or an omelette
Dinner - beef tagliatelle or shepherd’s pie
Snacks: apple, banana or a high fibre bar
*Between 7th and 18th May 2021, the survey questioned over 2,500 Slimming World members and a representative sample of 2008 adults in the general population completed an online survey asking their opinions about previous weight loss methods and weight management.
 NJ Buckland, D Camidge, F Croden, JH Lavin, RJ Stubbs, MM Hetherington, JE Blundell, G Finlayson 2018, A Low Energy–Dense Diet in the Context of a Weight-Management Program Affects Appetite Control in Overweight and Obese Women, The Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 145 no.5 pp 798-806
Interested in hearing more? Slimming World dietician and public health manager, Carolyn Pallister and Professor of appetite and energy balance, James Stubbs join Clare Freeman and Anna Mangan on the Slimming World Podcast in a fascinating discussion revealing what we really need to know about calorie counting: Slimming World Podcast
Slimming World was founded by Margaret Miles-Bramwell OBE in Derbyshire in 1969 and has become the UK and Ireland’s leading weight loss organisation with more people choosing to attend a Slimming World group each week than any other weight loss programme. We support hundreds of thousands of people, both in our groups and online, to lose weight and to adopt new habits to stay slim for life.
Over the years our founding principles haven’t changed:
- Our unique programme is based on a powerfully motivating support system called IMAGE (Individual Motivation and Group Experience) Therapy. Underpinned by a deep understanding of the psychology of overweight people, and incorporating the most effective sustainable behaviour change techniques, IMAGE Therapy is designed to inspire and motivate slimmers to make positive changes and to develop new, healthier habits around food and activity.
- Food Optimising is our healthy eating plan, based on the liberating concept of Free Food. We encourage our members to fill up on those foods that are naturally lower in energy density (calories per gram) and also highly satisfying while limiting foods that are highest in fat and sugar and are less satisfying, so they lose weight without ever feeling hungry or deprived and without having to weigh, measure or count everything they eat.
- Our activity programme, Body Magic, encourages members to become more active, more often in ways that they enjoy, until regular physical activity becomes an intrinsic part of daily routine.
Above all, at the heart of everything we do, lies our passion for treating every member with genuine care, empathy and respect.
We’re proud to work with the NHS, Public Health England, The Royal College of Midwives and others to help shape the future of weight management in the UK.
For more information about Slimming World’s approach visit slimmingworld.co.uk. Follow Slimming World on Twitter at www.twitter.com/slimmingworld or become a Slimming World fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/slimmingworld