Calorie counting came about around the same time scientists discovered food as an energy source. Since then, the popularity in calorie counting has made its way from the bodybuilding community to the mainstream. In many circles, it has become the only way forward for weight management and weight loss.
What if I told you that it’s a terrible method to use? That I haven’t counted calories in 5 years? That I can get pretty darn lean without going near a food scale or an app? Maybe we’d have a heated debate about calories and energy balance because the mother of all arguments is
“Eat more calories/energy than you burn = weight gain. Eat less calories/energy than you burn = weight loss”.
Yes, rigid Ron, you are right! Energy balance is a scientific fact; now have this 437-calorie cookie and log it into your app. Whilst munching on your cookie, ponder these 5 reasons why you need to stop counting calories:
1: Variables (oh so many variables)
The “calories in” is not simply the number on the Nutritional Facts panel, Just like the cardio machine that spits out a generic 'calories burned'. We are all physiologically unique, as is our ability to absorb nutrients from food. This takes many influential forms such as:
Whole food vs. process food (whole foods take up to 47% more energy to digest than processed foods) (1).
Protein requires more energy to digest than carbs and fats.
Rate of absorption: inefficient gut flora will lead to less absorption of calories and nutrients, efficient gut flora absorbs more calories and nutrients. Research shows intestinal microbes may contribute to weight gain (2) meaning gut health is important in getting and staying lean.
2. Inaccurate Information
Most people assume that the calories printed on
the back of food labels are 100% exact. They are not. Research shows they can be underreported by 15-25% due to incorrect labeling, laboratory error rates and the quality of the food. (3)
3. Calories are not created equally (are carrots really healthier than carrot cake if the calories are the same?)
Let me give you a fact, Ron, an apple is not the same as a 99-calorie granola bar made from processed grains and processed sugar. It’s just not. High-quality, nutrient dense foods higher in calories satisfy you for longer, therefore you eat less overall (4). Lower-calorie foods that are processed, like that “healthy low fat” granola bar, spike blood sugar levels, create blood sugar crashes, rob your body of vital nutrients, send your cravings through the roof and inspire binges. I don’t know about you Ron, but I want to be healthy as well as look good.
4. Food labels (as much use as a chocolate fireguard)
Not only are food labels inaccurate (see number 2)
but also people mistake “single serving calories” and “total calories”. Firstly, who eats just a single serving? Not me. There may be some superhuman out there that can eat a single serving of Cadbury’s dairy milk chocolate (read 3 measly squares) but, for the rest of us, we would like to finish the bar. That’s a difference of 73kcal vs 530kcal.
5. History (modern day invention)
Obesity is a modern day disease. There’s never been a time where food was so abundant, so heavily processed, so void of nutrients and yet we’re full of health complaints, diseases, poor energy levels, crap digestion, bloated, exhausted, the depressive list just continues. In fact, a recent study reports, “A fatter Britain really is consuming fewer calories” (5). This is due to underreporting calories but also other contributing factors like a sedentary lifestyle, choosing poor quality food which leads to poor digestion, disrupts gut balance, leads to gut issues, loss of energy, lack of motivation to move and then reaching for unhealthy foods to comfort us. Thus, the cycle continues.
I hope I’ve convinced you (and Ron) to at least question your reasons for calorie counting. Sure, for a short period of time they give you a sense of control but for most of us we become a slave to the numbers. Micromanaging tracking apps, obsessively entering inaccurate data, ignoring good quality food in favour of lower calories. Together, lets get away from this calorie counting culture and get back to a less mathematical approach to choosing and consuming our food. There are better, saner, methods for feeling in control of what you put in your mouth.
Tips to move forward:
Delete your tracking app
Choose whole foods (foods without labels, that rot, go off, get mouldy etc) 90% of the time
Eat protein at every meal
Choose good-quality fats over processed “fat free” food. Avocado, coconut products, nuts, seeds, olive oil, butter; eggs are your best friends.
Be present when you’re eating. Being in a stress-state (sympathetic nervous system) compromises digestion and promotes fat storage. Turn off the distractions and give yourself plenty of time to eat (15-20 minutes) in a relaxed state