Stuck on calorie counting as a way to manage your weight? Sharing reasons why counting calories doesn’t work and how to transition away from calorie counts.
The only thing that counting calories achieves effectively…is making you feel miserable and anxious.
There was a time when I thought calories mattered. A time when I believed in the calories in versus calories out equation. I think that most of us (dietitians included!) have fallen pray to the promise of an equation and numbers game equaling weight loss. I was never an avid calorie counter but there was a time when I was committed to counting points (yup, thanks Weight Watchers). And looking back, I can see how detrimental this was. For one, I was 12 or 13 years old at the time and an obsession with trying to stay under a certain point number for the day ended up developing into a full blown eating disorder. What started out in my head as an innocent health challenge quickly took a turn for the worst.
I would imagine for many that counting calories starts out rather innocently too but focusing on numbers like calories is a form of dieting and we know from my recent blog post why diets don’t work. But today we are focusing specifically on why counting calories don’t work. So many of my clients believe that counting calories is going to help them lose weight or at least maintain their weight and avoid weight gain, and so I figured it was time do debunk this outside of my client sessions.
WHAT ARE CALORIES?
Calories are not evil. Calories are not something to avoid. A calorie is simply a unit of measurement. A calorie measures how much energy we are getting from a food. And last time I checked energy is a good thing, especially how busy our society is today. Another way to think of energy is fuel. Now imagine you were going to the gas station to fill up your car and that station attendant said okay, we’ve got two different types of fuel here. We’ve got one fuel that is very low energy and another type of fuel that is high energy, which gas would you choose for your car? THE HIGH ENERGY ONE! Because the low energy fuel is only going to get your car a few miles down the road, while the high energy fuel is going to help your car run a lot longer. Would you be scared of the high energy fuel? Would you deem the high energy fuel as evil? Would you think that the high energy fuel was going to wreak havoc on the health of your car? So why is it that we label calories as bad? It’s the same thing as energy and fuel for our bodies. I don’t know about you but given my busy work schedule, I’m over here like, more energy please!! The last thing I’d want to do was give my body less energy than it needs for the day to run efficiently. Can we stop looking at calories as bad and something to restrict and start viewing them as necessary fuel and energy for our bodies to thrive?
WHY CALORIES IN, CALORIES OUT IS OUTDATED
It makes sense when you punch it into a computer. Ok, calorie tracker app, here’s all my calorie intake for the day and here’s my calorie expenditure, did I meet my calorie goal for weight loss? It spits out a number that you compare to another number (your goal) that was also likely calculated by a computer. Computers follow these sort of equations well. They are number machines. The problem here is this: OUR BODIES ARE NOT COMPUTERS. Our bodies are not robots. Our bodies do not require precision and mathematical equations to thrive. Our bodies like averages. They like knowing that over the course of a week or a month that you ate a variety of different foods and nutrients. They are not responding to some daily mathematical equation. The other problem with following an equation that you’ve deemed to be precise is that it’s not as precise as you think. That calorie goal you estimated online based on your age, height, weight and activity level? That’s an estimate. The calories you see listed on nutrition facts labels? Estimates. Food companies are allowed to have up to 20% variation in the numbers they report on their labels versus actual values. Twenty percent. So much for that precise equation. But that’s all good because our bodies don’t care about precision anyways. Unless of course, you are a robot from the future who has time traveled back to present day. In which case, I’d love to meet you.
ALL CALORIES ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL
We used to think a calorie is a calorie. Today, we know that’s not the case. Imagine you had the choice of 200 calories of a slice of cake and 200 calories of nuts. Both calorically equivalent but are they going to give you the same thing? Some weight loss/diet enthusiasts might say yes, a calorie is a calorie. But quite frankly, that’s bullshit because cake and nuts are not nutritionally equivalent and they will probably make you feel differently too. I’m not saying that one is better than the other but they are not the same, despite their calories matching. For instance, the nuts provide carbs, fiber, protein, fat and vitamins and minerals while the cake provides carbs and fat, not to mention the satisfaction and pleasure you might receive from the cake. So if you’re choosing a lower-calorie option, that doesn’t mean you’re choosing the best option for your health and your satiety. Like those 100 calorie packs? They might suppress your hunger for 0.2 seconds. And what nutrition are you getting from them? I doubt you’re getting any protein or fiber or fat, aka the three essential macronutrients that we need to stay satiated, energized and well. Try not to judge a food by its calorie count. Calories are just one teeny tiny piece of the pie when it comes to the value of that food. When you reduce food to its calorie count, you miss out on the beauty, joy and satisfaction of that food.
HOW TO STOP CALORIE COUNTING
First, make sure you are getting ENOUGH energy. So many clients I see who are restricting their calories, are actually putting their bodies into starvation mode, which you can learn more about my blog post on why diets don’t work. Then, rather than jumping from counting calories straight to intuitive eating, which may feel like a big leap, implement some gentle structure around your eating. I like to use the guideline of 3’s, meaning you aim for 3 meals and 3 snacks, every 3 hours and aim for all 3 macronutrients at each meal. It’s not a rigid rule you have to follow 100% of the time but it may help you to transition from one type of rigid structure to another that has more room for flexibility. And eventually, you can start incorporating the principles of intuitive eating like choosing foods that are satisfying, listening to your hunger/fullness cues, and letting go of the food police. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight and it’s completely normal for it to feel overwhelming (especially if you’ve been calorie counting for years!) but there are plenty of registered dietitians out there who specialize in intuitive eating (including myself!) who can help support you on your journey.
What other reasons would you add to this list of why calorie counting doesn’t work?