Every week, we’re bringing you a roundup of the latest health and wellness news to hit the wire. This week, we review the mounting evidence that calorie counting is an ineffective way to lose weight, and we learn more about how movement can boost your health for years to come, even if you’re not working out as much as you used to.

Is it time to stop counting calories?

For more than a century, health professionals have relied on the calories in/calories out method to help people shed pounds. Still, the majority of diets are doomed to fail. In this extensive piece in 1843 magazine, writer Peter Wilson looks at why the calorie, originally developed to measure the efficiency of steam engines, doesn’t work so well for most humans looking to lose weight.

What’s the problem? First, Wilson says, calorie counts are often wrong.

  • Labels on American packaged foods miss their true calorie counts by an average of 8 percent, according to Susan Roberts, Ph.D., a nutritionist at Tufts University in Boston.
  • American government regulations allow such labels to understate calories by up to 20 percent.
  • The information on some processed frozen foods misstates their calorie content by as much as 70 percent.

The other big issue is that people digest food very differently. While food takes about a day on average to go from plate to potty, researchers say, for some people it can take as little as eight hours or as many as 80.

Moreover, there’s a lot we’re still learning about how much calories get absorbed by the body and stored as fat. Last year, American researchers learned we’ve been exaggerating the number of calories we absorb from almonds by 20 percent.

The process of storing fat, Wilson argues, is influenced by many things, from our genetics to our gut bacteria to how food is prepared. And it’s influenced by the kinds of nutrients you’re taking in. Simple carbs broken down into sugar are more likely to be stored as fat than protein. The timing of when you eat also has an effect on how those nutrients will be absorbed.

The bottom line, Wilson asserts, is our fixation with counting calories is wrong because it makes the assumption that all calories are equal and that our bodies all respond to them in the same way. Just as Weight Watchers changed its system in 2001 to classify foods based on sugar, saturated fat and impact on appetite rather than calories alone, so too should people focus on the quality of food they’re eating and not the number on a package.

Gains for years

Good news, on again, off again fitness fanatics: That workout you completed years ago is still improving your health today, according to this article in The New York Times.

New research from Duke University examining the lives and health of people who took part in a workout study a decade before showed improvements in metabolic health and aerobic fitness, even if people are not working out to the same extent they did before. Those in the control group who didn’t work out in the earlier study had larger waistlines and were less fit than they were 10 years ago.

Those who worked out vigorously lost only 5 percent of the aerobic capacity, and those who kept up their sweaty routine were actually more fit than they were 10 years before. Those who had walked did not share the same fitness benefits—they lost about 10 percent of their aerobic capacity like the control group—but they still had healthier blood pressure and insulin sensitivity than they had before the study, even if they rarely worked out now.

And here’s the really interesting part: The walkers had relatively healthier metabolisms than the men and women who had worked out intensely all those years before. The study’s lead author says it shows that to build endurance, we need to sweat and strain, but to better our metabolic health, a walk just might do.

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