Calories have long been a measurement that we associate with health. Understand its true context, and start challenging whether they need to have meaning in your life.
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 prey 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.
The only thing that counting calories achieves effectively…is making you feel miserable and anxious.
When I was 12 or 13 years old, I had an obsession with trying to stay under a certain point number for the day, which 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.
For many, counting calories also starts out rather innocently, but focusing on numbers like calories is a form of dieting. As we know by now, diets just don’t work.
The same also goes for counting calories. So many people believe that counting calories will help them lose weight, maintain their weight, and avoid weight gain. Let’s do a little debunking, shall we?
But first, what are calories?
Calories are not evil, and 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 we are in the day-to-day.
Another way to think of energy is fuel. Now imagine you were going to the gas station to fill up your car and there are two different types of fuel. There’s 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, of course!
Because the low energy fuel is only going to get your car a few miles down the road, while the high energy fuel will 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 will wreak havoc on the health of your car? Probably not, yet we tend to label calories as ‘bad’. Why is that?
That’s because the popular notion of ‘calories in, calories out’ is outdated.
Sure, it makes sense when you punch it into a tracker or digital calculator that determined through set equations. The problem here is that our bodies are not digital. Our bodies do not require precision and mathematical equations to thrive.
Our bodies operate based on 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 and menus? 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.
It’s also important to remember that 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 and diet enthusiasts might say yes, a calorie is a calorie. But quite frankly, we all know that cake and nuts are not nutritionally equivalent and they will probably make you feel differently too. However, they provide different, yet equally important, values.
Nuts provide carbs, fiber, protein, fat and vitamins and minerals, while 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? Probably not much protein, fiber, or fat, also known as the three essential macronutrients that we need to stay satiated, energized and well.
Bottom line: Don’t 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. It’s more important to ensure you are getting enough energy. People who are restricting their calories are actually putting their bodies into starvation mode. Consider aiming for a gentle guideline of 3’s: 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 transition from one type of rigid structure to another that has more room for flexibility.
Don’t overwhelm yourself with counting, and find satisfaction by listening to what your body needs.
Adapted from the original article.
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Kara Lydon, RD, LDN, RYT is a nationally-recognized and award-winning registered dietitian nutritionist, certified intuitive eating counselor, and yoga teacher. She believes that the key to authentic health and wellbeing is celebrating food and our bodies, a philosophy that she instills in the kitchen, yoga studio, with her clients, and in her popularly featured food and healthy living blog The Foodie Dietitian.