One of Lora Jordan's clients came to her recently with what she thought was good news. She had given up sugary snacks and was now munching on raw almonds throughout the day instead.
That's good, right? Well, that depends, says Ms. Jordan, a Toronto-based nutritionist. How many almonds? A full cup, it turned out.
Not so good.
"That's about 800 calories" - about two-thirds of the woman's recommended daily caloric intake, Ms. Jordan says.
It's proof that going by gut feel can sometimes wind up leaving you with more gut to feel.
The amount of things you can keep track of - calories, carbohydrates, sodium, fat, trans fat, ranking on the glycemic index - means that dieters can be as precise as they wish about what they are putting into their mouths. Numbers provide not only clarity to people trying to lose weight, but also a valuable framework. Once you know your recommended daily caloric intake, for instance, it's easier to plot howto best meet that target. It might not be easy to stick to just those foods, but the math doesn't lie.
"The evidence is very clear. The more that you monitor, the better you do," says Sean Wharton, an internal medicine specialist and founder of the Wharton Medical Clinic in Hamilton. "Without looking at calories, you will always have a very difficult time determining what you should or should not be taking in, and you'll have a difficult time with weight loss."
The benefits of monitoring are borne out by the U.S. National Weight Control Registry, an initiative established in 1994 by Rena Wing, a professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at Brown University in Rhode Island, and James Hill, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado, that has collected data from more than 5,000 people who have lost an average of 66 pounds and have kept it off for 5½ years.
Researchers found that registry members reported frequent monitoring of their weight. More than 44 per cent said they weighed themselves at least once a day and 31 per cent said they weighed themselves at least once a week.
Frequent monitoring allows people who are trying to lose weight to catch slips early -"I gained two pounds this week?"- and nip them in the bulge.
"It allows you to take a look at trends," Dr. Wharton says. "To know that your weight has gone up, you need to get on the scale, and then you need to make a change."
While the calories in minus calories out equation remains the biggest piece of that puzzle, it is not the only piece.
Dr. Wharton points to a diet study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine that found the optimal diet for weight loss was one consisting of 50 per cent carbohydrates, 25 per cent protein and 25 per cent fat. In other words, knowing where calories are coming from is more important than just calculating calories.
"It's not as simple as what you put in your mouth minus how much you exercise," says Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Body, who adds that "the type of calories that you consume is more important than the number. ... But tracking something is better than nothing because of the awareness it creates."
Yet the very tools that help some dieters is a deterrence for others - the counting and weighing and monitoring is a chore that brings confusion, not clarity.
People often ditch diets because "things are too complex" says Rick Gallop, a former president of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario and author of The G.I. Diet. "People don't like to count calories or points or blocks. They get very frustrated."
That is why Mr. Gallop's book uses a colour code - red, yellow and green - to classify which foods to eat and which ones to avoid. It's much simpler, he says, than having to add up numbers on the glycemic index, which measures the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Foods that are low on the G.I. digest more slowly, and because they digest more slowly, they leave you feeling fuller for longer, so you eat less.
Obsessing over numbers and losing sight of the big picture can lead to dangerous consequences.
"It can lead to things like eating disorders," Ms. Jordan says. For example, some people might restrict themselves to 1,400 calories a day, and meeting that target "consumes their life." They won't eat another bite, even if they are starving, which can lead to fatigue, stress and sleep issues, Ms. Jordan says. "You have to listen to your body sometimes as well."
Numbers need context to be helpful, she says. "Sometimes people will focus on one specific thing: They'll say, 'Oh, this is low in trans fat, I'll eat it.' But that doesn't necessarily mean it's healthy for you," Ms. Jordan says. "It's important to track, but understanding how to put all the pieces of the puzzle together is more important."
Like any diet, persistence will make eating right second nature, meaning that you can ditch the calculator soon enough.
"If you do it properly, you're going to start to eat similar foods. You won't have to count them over and over again," Dr. Wharton says. When you consider something new, you may need to check out the label, but for most foods you won't need to lug an abacus around with you.
Knowing numbers, whether it's the calories in certain foods, the maximum number of calories you should consume each day or how your weight is fluctuating, provides dieters with a sense of control, says David Macklin, founder of the Weightcare clinic in Toronto.
"It's empowering," he says.