As Registered Dietitian Nutritionists educated in the era of low-fat, high-carb diets we’ve done our share of calorie counting both professionally and personally, and then some. Counting calories and grams of fat in an effort to meet self-imposed calorie goals in the name of weight loss has been something we’ve both struggled with in the past. We know all too well the fear, anxiety, frustration and feelings of self-loathe that would come from eating more calories than we’d allotted ourselves.
Looking back, we see that calorie counting always dictated our food choices and our feelings of self-worth. We chose foods that lacked nutrition because they were low in calories in an effort to beat the system and manage our waistlines. And you know what?
Counting calories didn’t make us thinner – it just drove each of us to our respective edges of sanity.
The nearly constant thoughts of what to eat next ruled our days. We won’t even get into the amount of time and energy we wasted reading labels, Googling and thumbing though calorie tracker guides.
Thankfully, real food saved the day and showed us both a healthier, more organic and intuitive way to eat and nourish our bodies so that we could stop the calorie counting madness once and for all. And we want that for you too. So if you’re a calorie counter, this post is for you!
What is a calorie?
A calorie, (aka measurement of energy) according to Webster, is, “the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius (ºC).” In other words, as it applies to food and your body, it’s the amount of energy that a particular food will produce in the human body when consumed and metabolized.
And why should (or shouldn’t) you be counting them?
The way most people see a calorie, however, is more like currency, or money. You have a daily caloric ‘budget’ which is loosely determined by calculations involving age, gender, activity level, height and current weight. And to stay under that budget, as in the case of weight loss, one needs to know how many calories are assigned to the foods they eat.
This system of calorie accounting is a common tool for dieters and one you may be very familiar with. However, as clear cut as it may seem (energy in must equal energy out for weight to remain stable) it’s really much more complicated than just simple math. The human body is so incredibly complex (and smart and adaptable) that just simply eating fewer calories than your budget allows for, isn’t enough to budge the scale for most people. If calorie math really was a reliable way to lose weight, it would also be a reliable way to maintain and even gain weight.
For example, let’s say your basal metabolic rate (the estimation of your daily calorie needs) is 1800 calories. And a pound of body fat is equal to 3,500 calories. If you consumed just 10 extra calories each day for 1 year, you’d expect to weigh 1 pound more at the end of that same year. The same goes for weight loss, shave off an extra 10 calories each day and you should be 1 pound lighter after a year. That makes sense from a mathematical perspective but not from a physiological perspective when you’re dealing with the human body and all of it’s hormones and intricate biochemical processes like digestion, absorption, metabolism and aging.
Here’s the calorie kicker:
Many calorie counters eat ‘under budget’ in terms of the number of calories they consume daily, sometimes for weeks or months on end, without losing any weight. In fact, many people gain weight despite all of the calorie counting. Never as a nation have we had so much access to calorie information (food labels, reference books, online calculators, etc.) but yet, we’re more overweight than ever with more than 30% of the American population weighing in as overweight or obese.
Clearly, calorie counting isn’t working. And here’s why:
1. Labels can lie. Or at least be wrong. The number of calories on a label are an average, or sometimes even an estimate, of the calories actually contained in the product due to variations in the ingredients and the processing. Additionally, the FDA, who oversees nutrition labeling, allows for up to a 20% margin of error on labels for any nutrient listed (calories, fat, sodium, etc.)
That means that the calories in 1/6th of a frozen rising crust pepperoni pizza could be 385 rather than the 320 stated on the label. If you’re on a 1,500 calorie diet that 65 calorie discrepancy means you’ve inadvertently used up another 5% of your budget (or the equivalent of 1 medium apple, 2 small oranges or 4 cups of tossed green salad without dressing ).
2. Calorie counting is not an exact science. As mentioned above, there are many variables that influence weight loss or gain more than does just the number of calories eaten (IN) vs. burned (OUT). Hormones, especially for women, are a much more powerful driver of weight (gain, loss or maintenance) than are calories. So fixing the hormones, in addition to choosing the right foods, is the key to weight loss. Not calorie counting.
3. Counting calories is a waste of time. If you’ve ever been a slave to the calories like we have then you know first hand just how all-consuming counting calories can be. There’s the logging of the food (what and how much) then you have to either look up the calories or plug them into an online calculator. That’s just the time you spend physically counting calories.
The true cost (or waste) is the mental time and energy calorie counters spend each day that really adds up and wears on you. When you have a calorie budget of 1,500 calories (as is typical for most female dieters) you’re constantly thinking about what you’ll eat next and how to ration those calories out over the course of the day so you don’t come up short before dinner, etc. That mental time and energy is time that cannot be recouped and nor is it productive.
Just think of what you can do in a day if you’re not spending time thinking about and counting calories! We bet you’d have more than enough time to prepare a meal or fit in that workout that you never seem to have time for.
4. Calorie counting leads to restriction of healthy foods If you’ve ever counted calories you know just how hungry and cranky it makes you. Of course, it’s not the act of counting calories that makes you feel awful it’s the fact that counting calories restricts your intake of food in more ways than one.
First, you’re estimated calorie budget is likely not representative of your true energy needs.
If you’ve worked out, been under stress or are fighting an illness, the chances are good that you need more calories than the equation has allotted for you which means you’re probably not eating enough. Not eating enough calories in a day triggers the body’s starvation mechanism causing it to hang onto every calorie you consume for dear life and to store it as fat.
Secondly, not all calories are created equal.
A 100-calorie snack pack of cookies is low in fat but high in refined carbohydrates and sugars. Consuming these 100 innocent little calories (or possibly 120 calories) causes blood sugar levels to spike within 30 minutes of eating since there’s only 3g of fat (from inflammatory canola oil) and virtually no protein to slow digestion and buffer the speed with which those carbs are broken down and enter the bloodstream. Insulin is released in response to this spike in blood sugar and if you’re not active immediately after consuming this ‘snack’ then you’re going to be storing that extra sugar as fat. So it’s not the fat that makes you fat, it’s those lower calorie sugars and refined carbs that are making you fat.
And to add insult to injury, without adequate amounts of protein and healthy fats you’re going to be hungry (if not hungrier than you were before the snack) in about an hour or less.
5. Calories tell you nothing about the quality of a food. Counting calories is just that, counting calories. It’s not looking at the true nutritional value (or lack thereof) of the foods you’re eating. You can’t judge a food for it’s ability to nourish your body simply by looking at it’s calorie count and here’s why:
When we talk about food we talk about three categories of macronutrients: Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat. The former two, protein and carbohydrates, provide 4 calories per gram when eaten. Fat on the other hand, is twice as energy-dense delivering 9 calories per gram than does carbs or protein. Do you see where this is going? Counting calories naturally causes you to choose foods that are low in fat because they’re also lower in calories. And because many foods are made up of more than one macronutrient, counting calories often leads us to choose less protein because protein foods often contain fat (meat, fish, poultry and eggs) making them higher in calories than low-fat carbs like bread, pasta, rice, crackers, fat-free cookies, candy, etc.
Diets low in fat and protein (and high in carbohydrates) are unsatisfying and set you up for failure thanks to blood sugar fluctuations, cravings and the need to employ more willpower than is humanly possible to stay on your ‘diet’.
Eating whole, unprocessed foods that provide adequate protein, ample fat and moderate carbohydrate keeps your blood sugars stable, reduces secretion of insulin (the fat storage hormone) and allows your brain to be able to register satiety after a meal (thanks to hormones released by the gut when fat and protein are consumed).
It’s time to stop counting calories and do this instead:
- Listen to your body: Your body is incredibly smart and when not subjected to restriction/starvation and use of hyper-palatable food-like products (those sweet, salty and/or savory snacks designed to not let you eat just one) it can tell you a lot of things. Your body, when consuming nutrient-dense real food that’s balanced in carbs, fat and protein will tell you when it’s hungry, when it’s had enough and whether those cravings are real (meaning your body is lacking in a particular nutrient) or just a figment of your sugar-loving imagination.
- Eat for pleasure: Eat foods that minimally-processed, if at all, that provide a variety of tastes, textures and nutrients. Enjoy your food and see it as an opportunity to fuel your body rather than just squelch negative emotions or fill the empty void in your belly. When you indulge, do so with total presence, choose wisely and savor each bite without guilt or remorse.
- Use a smaller plate, bowl and cup: If large portions are your thing or you regularly eat to a point of discomfort because you feel as though you have to ‘clean your plate’ then using smaller plates, bowls and cups can be a way to help you eat less. You can serve up smaller portions without your mind registering that it’s going to get less (because the plate appears to be full, not half empty). It’s also easier to stop and assess your level of satiety when the small plate is empty rather than having to stop yourself halfway through a big plate of food. This ‘satiety check’ allows you to assess whether or not you really want to eat more or if what you’ve already eaten is satisfying.
- Focus on your food: Eat mindfully and use all of your senses. Turning off the TV, putting down the smartphone and setting aside the laptop/book/magazine/newspaper, etc. allows you to be fully present and in the moment with the food you are eating. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013 found that ‘distracted eating’ led to a moderate increase in immediate intake but to a greater increase in intake later in the day because participants essentially ‘forgot’ that they’d eaten earlier. Ouch! If you suffer from mindless eating and snacking (especially late in the day) then paying attention to your food may be a good place to start.
- Don’t fear fat: Seriously, when it comes to weight loss fat is your friend not our enemy. Fat, though more calorically-dense gram for gram than protein or carbs is intensely satisfying and satiating. Healthy fats such as coconut (oil, butter, milk, avocados, nuts and seeds, butter and olives -and their oils) have long been vilified for being the reason for weight gain. However, recent research indicates that it’s time to burn that myth at the stake and start giving fat the recognition it deserves. Remember those hormones that influence whether you gain or lose weight? Hormones are made from fat and cholesterol, as are the walls of every cell in your body. Don’t fear fat but don’t go overboard either. The healthiest diet is one that’s built on whole, nourishing foods that offer a balance of protein, fat and carbs.
Though we no longer count calories or fat grams or ask that our clients do it, we do have one caveat: And that’s that although calorie counting isn’t an exact science and we as humans are complicated, not counting calories isn’t an invitation to eat all the things. Consuming more energy than your body is able to use, regardless of the source, will eventually lead to weight gain. The trick is to find the ‘sweet spot’ and a way of eating that allows you to be satisfied, optimally nourished and happy while achieving and maintaining a healthful weight and body composition.
Contributed by Jessica Beacom, RDN, CLT of Simply Nourished!