Almost on a daily basis, I overhear people talk about calories.
“Wow, these chips only have 120 calories!”
“I can’t eat that – I’m trying to watch my weight.”
Many people count calories to try to lose weight, and there’s plenty of websites to do it on.
I do think it can be a helpful method in certain cases, but overall, I am not a fan of calorie counting.
First off, you plug in a few numbers and your weight loss goal, and the website pops out a calorie goal for you. For women, it may be as low as 1200 calories, especially since most people type in the “2 pounds/week” loss goal. Depending on how much weight you realistically have to lose, you may lose at a faster or slower rate. It’s not as easy as cutting out 1000 calories and boom – 2 pounds per week gone!
Energy equations are estimations. Our bodies are much better gauges of how much energy we need.
Second, calories are not everything. Calories are measurements of energy, but it doesn’t take into account the quality of the calorie or how it is metabolized. Sorry, but your weight is not a simple math problem.
When you’re on the 1200-calorie-diet-that-will-lead-to-2-pounds-per-week-of-weight-loss diet, it will be very hard to take in adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals, and many people will not eat adequate protein. It’s both macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that drive health.
A lot of people unfortunately fall for the diet food because they’re low in calories, and 100 calorie packs easily fit within the “calorie budget” as snacks. The problem is diet food is processed food, devoid of nutrients, and often loaded with sugar. When you’re counting calories, it’s easy to fall for the “low calorie” options rather than high-quality, nutrient-dense foods that naturally have more calories.
Third, it can promote unhealthy behavior around food. Many of the calorie counters or dieters are adolescents or teenagers – some studies report over 50% American teenage girls engage in dieting. It may start out as a healthy goal to lose some weight, but quickly that 1200 calories becomes 1000 calories, then 800, 600, and so on. Or it turns into a yo-yo dieting cycle with restriction and binging. In one study on 14-15 year old girls, dieting led to an 18x increased risk of developing an eating disorder.
Once you start, you’re chained to the phone app or website where you’ll enter every morsel of food you ate that day. Many of these websites will turn your “calories eaten” bar from green (good) to red (bad) when you go over. To me, this makes food and eating good and bad. It shouldn’t be. You should be able to enjoy food guilt-free without worrying about every single calorie and gram of fat in it.
A lot of people fall for the calorie counting trap of eating LESS than they need. If the app tells you to eat 1500 calories, then eating 1200 will help me lose weight faster, right? Wrong! All that does is drop your metabolic rate, so you will likely have no energy for anything, especially exercise or any activity. You’ll also probably be pretty hungry.
If you’re used to counting calories, it may be scary to not know how many calories you eat each day. You have to nourish your body with nutrient-dense foods, and trust your body will provide you with hunger and fullness cues. Somedays, you will be hungrier. Give your body more food on those days – it needs it. Other days, you won’t need as much food. Your body does not run on exactly 1500 calories per day, everyday. It varies with your activity level, body composition, diet composition, and more.
Focus on real, whole food instead of processed foods with nutrition labels and calories.
Cook satisfying meals that engage all the senses. Make it balanced with high-quality protein, fat, carbohydrates, and fiber from fruits and vegetables. Eat slowly and mindfully. When your body sends out a signal that it’s full, put down your fork. Instead of “lean cuisines” that leave you hungry in an hour (and have glass shards in them), eat a meal with real food.
Develop a healthy relationship with food. Enjoy the preparation and mealtime. Eat the foods you like without guilt, just pay attention to how you feel after eating certain foods. Some foods will energize you; others will leave you with digestive distress (bloating, gas, pain, etc.).
Finally, don’t stress. Life isn’t about eating a clean diet 100% of the time. Perfection is not the goal. The goal should be to enjoy satisfying food that nourishes your body and mind. Somedays, this will be lots of veggies and protein, and other days, it may be ice cream. Either way, enjoy it and leave the calorie counting and guilt out of the picture.