Tim Spector: Calories equal energy?

Theoretically yes. The doctor Tim Spector still thinks that we can finally stop counting our calories.

BRIGITTE: For decades we have been taught that we should keep an eye on our calorie consumption. What’s wrong with that?

TIM SPECTOR: There are various reasons to finally stop. First: Because calorie restriction doesn’t work as a method of losing weight. The body adapts, slowing down its metabolism and increasing appetite. Most people gain weight again in the long term, as the increasing number of overweight people shows. Second: It is virtually impossible to accurately determine calorie content and calculate how much you burn per day.

And thirdly?

A calorie is not just a calorie. Take, for example, whole nuts compared to ground ones: they have the same calorie content, but still have a different effect on the body. The body does not utilize all the calories from the whole nuts. Food also changes its energy content depending on how you prepare it. Raw beef tartare provides the body with fewer calories than a well-done burger. And 200 calories from gummy bears cannot be compared to 200 calories from peanuts because the sugar in gummy bears is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing glucose levels to rise. This increases appetite and leads to inflammation if this occurs often. This doesn’t happen with peanuts. But there is a fourth point: Calorie counting is used by the food industry to persuade us to eat foods that are low in calories but of poor quality.

Please explain that…

In the supermarket you can find many products with labels such as low-calorie or low-fat. Studies show that these highly processed foods – compared to meals with the same calorie count and made fresh at home – make us eat 25 percent more. They increase our appetite and we gain weight. So the problem is: When we focus on calories, we don’t pay attention to the quality of the food – namely those that are good for our intestines, for example.

So what should we eat instead to feel fit and energetic?

For people who want to live healthier, and sustainably, the first step is: To say goodbye to the idea that all problems will be solved in six weeks. We like quick, easy solutions. That’s why calorie counting was so successful, that’s why weight loss companies made millions. But when we eat high-quality food, it improves our health and energy levels – and that takes time.

What do I put on my plate for this?

A lot of different food, for example 30 different plants per week, fermented foods, lots of fiber. This reduces appetite, improves mood and energy levels. Nothing is forbidden, it’s a question of balance. However, snacking is a problem. In the UK, 22 percent of calories come from snacking. Germany is almost on par.

Does that mean you have to cook yourself? Many people don’t have time for that.

It’s time-consuming to change your patterns, of course. I think we should invest more time in our food, for example making breakfast healthy and hearty, looking for healthier alternatives in the supermarket, taking something healthy from the previous day’s dinner to work instead of buying ready-made food, identifying highly processed foods by paying attention to them Look at the ingredient list. If there are only a few ingredients that I know of, that’s a good sign. And: We don’t have to eat six times a day. Two to three times is enough.

They also advise not to pay too much attention to proteins, carbohydrates and fats.

The problem is: We reduce the complexity of foods that contain thousands of substances to these three groups. We rate proteins as good, fats as bad and carbohydrates too. Food companies use this rating for their marketing. This obscures the view of the quality: For example, that a protein bar contains 20 substances that you cannot find in your kitchen, that harm the body, that trigger hunger signals. What we don’t get enough of is fiber, a form of carbohydrates. 95 percent of us don’t consume enough of it.

So eat more vegetables?

Exactly. They contain a lot of fiber. And above all polyphenols.

What is that?

These are substances that plants use to defend themselves: against predators, wind, cold, insects, infections. There are thousands of them – and they are real superheroes. When we eat them – by the way, they are usually bitter and are found in colorful vegetables – they help our intestinal bacteria. They provide the bacteria with energy so that they can grow and multiply. For example, olive oil, coffee, nuts, dark chocolate and colorful berries contain many polyphenols.

Very briefly: What are your top 5 tips for living longer?

If we want to stay healthy for as long as possible, we should take care of our gut microbes, by: 1. Consuming thirty different plants per week. 2. Eat the rainbow: as colorful and varied foods as possible that are rich in polyphenols. 3. Consume fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi and yogurt. 4. See if we can have a meal break of 14 hours or longer overnight. And 5. reduce highly processed foods – to less than 15 percent instead of the current 50 to 60 percent. These are fake foods that stimulate hunger.

Tim Spector is professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, expert in personalized medicine and author (“Food for Life”, 684 pages, 32 euros, Dumont).

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