Chances are you know someone who diligently counts every calorie in an effort to lose or maintain their weight. While there is no one-size-fits all approach to weight loss (or anything else, for that matter), this method does work for some individuals; however, for others, when it comes to weight loss, counting calories can backfire and lead to weight gain instead.
Research from the University of California San Francisco reveals dieters who restrict calories as well as those who count calories without restricting them have increased cortisol levels.
Before we realize the connection between increased cortisol levels and weight gain, let’s discuss what cortisol is and its function in the body.
Why Counting Calories Makes You Gain Weight and What to Do about It
Cortisol: what is it and why does it cause weight gain?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands (these glands rest atop each kidney).
Contrary to what you may hear on radio or television ads (or in inaccurate discussions online about “adrenal fatigue”), cortisol is not entirely evil. It serves a necessary set of functions in the body.
Cortisol’s primary function is to regulate and mobilize energy. In other words, cortisol “decides” which macronutrient (protein, fat or carbohydrate) is needed by the body for a particular physiological event.
Cortisol also taps into the body’s fat stores and shifts stored fat to various tissues where it is required to carry out reactions in the body.
Perhaps a more familiar aspect of cortisol is in its role as a stress hormone. When we are under stress (physical or emotional), the hormone provides our body with protein for energy. Cortisol also elevates blood sugar as another way to increase energy.
When Cortisol is Good: Fight or Flight
For example, if a vicious dog chases you, you will likely flee suddenly as if your life depends on it! In this scenario, cortisol is your best friend. It provides that quick burst of energy the body needs to remove you quickly from danger. This is called the “fight or flight” response.
Unfortunately, cortisol is not selective when it comes to stressors. That means, whether we’re chased by that vicious dog or we lose or job (or go through a divorce, or lose a loved one) cortisol is released.
Calorie Counting is a Stressor
In the research I cited at the beginning of this article about dieters who restrict and/or count calories, scientists determined that calorie counting – even for individuals with a positive attitude and strong desire to lose weight – is a stressor. Again, regardless of the source of stress, cortisol is released in the body.
Now the cortisol-weight gain connection is coming into focus, isn’t it?
Also think back to what we said about cortisol’s role in fat mobilization – moving fat from where it is stored in the body to another area to be used for various reactions.
Cortisol = Belly Fat
There is a particular connection between adipose tissue (fat cells) in the abdominal region and cortisol levels in the body.
Certain chemical reactions in our body cause cortisol to store fat in the abdominal area. So, counting calories to lose weight can actually lead to weight gain and increased belly fat!
Elevated Blood Sugar = Over-consumption of Calories
There’s more connecting excess cortisol to weight gain, too. Because cortisol elevates blood sugar during times of stress, it increases overall appetite, causing us to consume many more calories than we need. So, counting calories to lose weight causes stress (even when we aren’t aware of it). That leads to cortisol release, which causes our blood sugar to rise, then we eat more. Total dieting backfire!
To Count or Not to Count?
If you’ve had success with counting calories and losing weight, then you’re golden! But if you rigidly count every calorie and still can’t lose weight, it’s time to step back and rethink your approach.
Don’t be afraid to let go a little. Try to identify stumbling blocks in your diet.
Alternative Approaches for Losing Weight
There are many ways to alter your diet without keeping up with every calorie. Try one (or more) of these approaches if you’re struggling with the calorie counting.
1 – Be honest with yourself about how much sugar you eat.
You do not have to share an answer with anyone, but you must tell yourself the truth to solve the issue. If sugar is your issue, focus on cutting sugar and let go of counting calories. Give it two weeks and see the difference in how you feel and quite possible how your pants fit!
Not to mention, sugar is metabolically harmful because of what it does to the body. Dr. Robert Lustig, pediatric endocrinologist at UCSF Children’s Hospital in San Francisco continues to bring to light the many ways excess sugar destroys the body’s systems. In this article, he shares how simply reducing sugar intake – even without lowering caloric intake – can have an extraordinary effect on children’s health in only 10 days.
2 – Get a good night’s sleep, regularly.
Research from BYU shows that getting adequate sleep leads to fewer calories consumed during waking hours. This is the simplest, most health-forward thing you can do to reduce your weight, no calorie counting required. The best part is that more rest actually helps keep your cortisol in check, too.
3 – Get on the mat.
Yoga is shown to reduce cortisol in general, acting at the neural level of the hippocampus in the brain. This effect has been studied in various groups, including individuals exposed to domestic violence and breast cancer patients. Across the board, gentle yoga practiced for about half an hour daily had significant positive effects on cortisol production. Of course, there’s also the added benefit of stretching out the body and improving flexibility.
There are many ways to achieve your weight loss goals. Everyone is unique in body type and what works best, but remember, the ultimate goal should always be wellness, achieved by balanced living.
Helpful Tools for Losing Weight
You might also consider how trace minerals (or lack of certain ones) impact weight and overall health. I share about this in my eBook, Trace Minerals for Weight Loss and tell you which trace minerals you need and how to get them via foods you eat.
If you’re into healthy smoothies, you will love 12 Guilt Free Great Tasting Smoothies, all GF and DF with nourishing ingredients.
Try my 5 Point Approach to Weight Loss that Really Works to set yourself on a course for success in losing unwanted pounds and maintaining a healthy weight, effortlessly!
Have you experienced a dieting backfire when you tried to count calories? Have you had success with any of the non-calorie counting methods described above? Let me know in the comments.