Results of a recent study found our calorie counting methods may be all wrong. Instead of counting the number of calories we consume in a day, setting a limit of calories per meal may help with weight loss.

Researchers from Warwick Business School found dieters who set a calorie content limit for each of their meals ended up eating less than the people who limited the number of calories over the entire day.

The study of counting calories, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, asked people to work out their own budget.

Counting calories per meal may better support dieting efforts

Two groups of 50 participants were shown pictures of food that came with a suggestive amount of calories on each plate.

They were also provided with an idea daily calorie intake based on gender and age and were asked to work out their own calorie budget.

  • The first group worked out their daily calorie allowance per meal and per snack. On average, they set an overall calorie intake of 1,528 per day.
  • The second group thought about what they may eat throughout the day. On average, they set an overall calorie budget of 2,011 per day.

Dr Mialoeli Jia, associate professor at Warwick Business School and study’s lead author, explained those participants who set a daily calorie budget considered cutting their calories from meals like dinner and snacks, where they thought they’d have larger portion sizes and most likely to overeat. But in doing so, they didn’t think about the other meals they consumed.

“Those who budgeted on a meal-by-meal approach cut the calories in all the meals they ate, which drove down their daily allowance,” Assoc Prof Jia said. This meant they ate fewer calories which may help achieve their weight loss goals.

Meal timing is key to an effective weight loss diet

Despite the results of participants consuming fewer calories, meal timing may be what is required for long-term weight control.

Dr Alexandra Johnstone, a professor at the Rowett Institute at the University of Aberdeen, explained there is research to support reversing your daily calorie intake can encourage weight loss and may be better for weight management.

Skipping breakfast, for example, is linked to a 55% higher risk of becoming overweight or obese. Whereas, those who consume a high proportion of total daily calories in the morning, are likely to be of a lower body mass index (BMI).

This may also be associated with the fact most people are more active during the day and are likely to burn a higher number of total calories as your energy expenditure is higher.

With this in mind, an effective weight loss approach may be to consume your carbs at breakfast and adopt a low-carb way of eating for the rest of their day.

Intermittent fasting, a popular healthy eating approach for nutritionist, also considers meal timing.

Read about the benefits of intermittent fasting from weight loss to anti-aging here.

Research has found eating dinner in the afternoon and fasting for the remainder of the evening can help improve a person’s ability to switch from burning carbs for energy to burning body fat which can overtime help stimulate weight loss and achieve a healthy weight.

One thing to consider when counting calories or meal timing is that it’s not just the number you need to watch out for. The type of food you’re eating is also crucial in weight loss and overall health and well-being.

A meal plan that is nutrient-dense containing the macronutrients protein and fat, as well as micronutrients found in fresh fruit, veggies, whole grains and other whole foods, should be the focus. Keeping your intake of refined carbs and processed foods that are void of nutrients yet high in calories will also be critical for weight loss.

A low-protein or low-fat diet contains fewer calories, even if it’s predominately based on leafy greens, won’t be satiating or satisfying. You’ll have no energy for physical activity and feel deprived, over time this typically leads to overeating and snacking behaviours and weight gain.

Key takeaways:

  • Consider the calorie content of your individual meals and snacks
  • Consume your higher-energy foods in the morning or before physical activity
  • Assess the nutrient-density of your meals to ensure they’re balanced, keep you energised and fuller for longer.