Why Calorie Counting Counts, but why Exercise matters!

So, you want to lose weight…Why Calorie Counting Counts, but why Exercise matters!

Recently there has been much interest in the concept of Fasting, highlighted in the BBC programme by Michael Mosley  Horizon: Eat, Fast and Live Longer  (

As far back as 2004 it was known that caloric restriction, i.e., undernutrition not malnutrition, significantly increases the survival of laboratory animals by delaying the aging process (J Nutr Health Aging. 2004;8(1):38-47.). No such conclusions can be draw for Humans but even a cursory look down your high street confirms that most of us are overweight – and the negative short and long-term health consequences of that are undeniable.

In fact many people have been calorie restricting as part of a ‘Diet’ in many weird and wonderful ways for years. It is widely accepted that losing weight is primarily a factor of controlling (improving the quality i.e. low fat, and amount) food consumed; and that apart from cholesterol which is very dependent on fat consumed, exercise is a vital mediator of long-term ‘health’. However ANY fat you now have stored in that spare tire can only be removed if you use it and whilst food restriction might achieve that alone the cost is a lack of muscle tone (flabby skin) and you won’t get the benefit of improved calorie consumption (resting metabolic rate) associated with muscle tone (muscle is the most metabolically active tissue in the body so the more of it there is within reason, or the more toned it is, the more calories are used to keep it alive)… hence the huge benefits of resistance training (see coming article).

Most of us realise losing weight is a balance between energy in versus energy out. Most of us don’t know how best to do that and it can be easy to default to the latest diet or trend. So let’s cut the fat and learn some facts.

1. To lose a pound of (stored) fat requires burning 3,500 calories. This can be done either by way of exercise or calorie restriction.

2. All food ends up as one of four energy substrates once metabolized; proteins, carbohydrates (simple sugars or more complex starches), fats or alcohol (which is a sugar and pure source of energy). One gram of each gives up the following:

a. Protein = 4 calories

b. Carbohydrate = 4 calories

c. Fat = 9 calories

d. Alcohol = 7 calories

So you can see why some foods are far more ‘fattening’ than others. Interestingly those high calorie foods tend to be the ones we can eat and drink excessively before we feel full – and others, such as protein, tend to make us feel full sooner hence we tend to eat less of them at any one time. (the reason we can over eat carbohydrate is because of what we add to it i.e. fat, salt & flavors (try eating lots of potatoes or pasta without oils or sauces i.e. plain!)

3. Losing around one pound of weight (fat) a week is considered safe and something that can become part of a person’s lifestyle. This ‘lifestyle’ approach is far more sustainable that periodic bursts of exercise or dieting as you know.

4. To lose (burn) 3,500 calories, one pound of fat, a week requires a deficit of 500 calories a day. Pretty easy really; the options are;

a. Reduce food intake (but lose the benefits of exercise)

b. Exercise only (but you risk mitigating the calories burned in one post exercise fed! and you probably won’t improve blood lipids or sugars that much)

c. Do both a. and b. and get the benefits of both.

Reducing 500 calories a day by counting calories i.e. restricting intake to around 2,000 calories a day from say 3,000 a day (which it is not unusual for someone to consume) is easy if you are an overeater – providing you have some willpower.

If you have already reduced how much you eat and improved the quality of your nutrition then adding exercise can seem a low return for the time put in. For a 70kg person walking for 30 minutes at 4-4.5 mph burns around 200 calories, jogging will take that up to around 350.  Have a look at this to see how many calories you would use per 30 minutes for dozens of activity options

However if you walked for just 30 minutes 4 times (ideally at once, but it can be broken down into 2 fifteen minute periods or 3 ten minutes blocks) a week that is 800 calories burned. If you reduced food intake by 300 calories a day that’s a further 2,100 calories, a weekly total of 2,900.

Over a month that’s 11,600 calories (3.3 pounds of fat); over 6 months that’s 19.8 pounds of fat or 1.4 stone – with the added benefits of exercise! Not a bad return on a walk and reducing HOW MUCH you eat by roughly 20% per meal (portion size) or cutting out those high fat options, having at least two alcohol free days a week or a combination there of.

So as trends (with or without any scientific basis!) and new science adds to what we know and can then thereafter be applied to helping us become healthy and control our weight more efficiently, the fundamentals remain.


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Pat Fox

Pat Fox is an exercise physiologist and exercise specialist. After graduating from Otago University in sport and exercise science he completed his MSc in exercise physiology at Brunel University. Pat has worked with a wide range of groups from young developing sportspeople, older age groups and those with specific needs such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, musculo-skeletal injury, high blood pressure, arthritis, obesity and those new to exercise.

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