I’d be lying if I told you that I never counted calories myself. Or that I never put a client (or friend or family member) on a calorie-specific plan in the past. I actually cringe a little to think about some of the calorie-restricted plans I recommended during my training and in my early years as a dietitian. You might be thinking: Isn’t calories in vs. calories out is the answer to all of our weight concerns? That’s what many health and fitness professionals will have you believe. But what if I told you they’ve got it all wrong and calorie counting could be doing more harm than good? Or that counting calories may actually lead to weight gain and more stress? (Ok, pick your jaw up off the floor now and read on). Here’s why:
- All calories are not created equal. The calories in a medium apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter is about the same as one serving of potato chips. Yet, the apple with peanut butter provides fiber, protein, and healthy fats that will keep you feeling full much longer than the chips. Plus you get a dose of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients from the apple with peanut butter. I realize that this is not earth-shattering information. The important takeaway is that when you only pay attention to calories, you could miss out on important nutrients and never feel fully satiated.
- Most people (and phone apps/websites) grossly underestimate how many calories you actually need to eat to survive. To put it very simply, when you eat fewer calories than your body needs for daily functions like breathing (this is known as your basal metabolic rate, or BMR), your body acts as if you are starving yourself and shifts into fat-storage mode. This is great for surviving times of famine but not so great for someone trying to lose weight. I once had a client come to me eating about 30 percent fewer calories than her estimated BMR. She was frustrated and couldn’t understand why she was actually gaining weight. Once she started eating more, she began to get back to a weight that was right for her body type and genetics. Newer research also suggests that people who have a history of restricting calories and/or dieting actually burn fewer calories at rest than a person of the same size that never dieted. How ironic, right?
- Counting calories is exhausting and stressful. Do you really want to spend your day tracking every single bite of food you put in your mouth? I still remember a time when I counted the number of cherries I was “allowed” to eat because an app told me that one serving was 17 cherries. Yes, you read that correctly. 17 cherries. It’s not a sustainable. Research shows that counting calories and restricting calories increases psychological stress and cortisol levels, both of which are actually tied to weight gain.
- It takes the joy out of eating. When you’re constantly focused on how many calories (or grams of protein, carbohydrates, or fat) are in a particular food or meal, how much do you actually enjoy eating? My guess is not very much. Eating is one of the great pleasures in life and people who take time to mindfully enjoy their meals feel more satisfied are less likely to overeat later in the day.
- Our bodies like averages. No one needs or eats the same exact number of calories every day. Activity levels, sleep, and shifts in hormones from stress (or, for the ladies, a menstrual cycle) can affect how much you need to eat. The good news is if you eat a little more than you “need” one day, your body will typically compensate by not being as hungry the next day.
- A calorie goal doesn’t take into account your hunger. What happens if you are hungry after you’ve eaten your “allotted” number of calories for the day? Do you go hungry? Do you eat more and then beat yourself up over it? What if you end your day and have calories left in the “bank?” Do you feel a need to eat when you’re not hungry? Our bodies are pretty amazing at actually telling us when and how much we need to eat if you listen to the signals.
- Calorie restricted diets ultimately lead to a binge (for most people). Have you ever noticed that if you don’t allow yourself to eat a certain food, all you want is that food? Chances are, if you’re counting calories, you’re restricting in some manner. Whether it’s eating too few calories or not allowing yourself to eat your favorite foods, it’s a form a restriction. Restriction has been shown to lead to binges and weight gain in the long run.
So, if calorie counting isn’t the answer…what is? I work with my clients on getting back in touch with their internal hunger and fullness cues (instead of listening to external diet rules or arbitrary calorie goals) and fueling their bodies with nourishing foods without restriction. (This is what you’ll hear referred to as intuitive eating.) Intuitive eaters experience less stress, more joy, and even tend to weigh less than chronic dieters. If you’re tired of counting nutrients in your food or following strict diets and food rules, I’d love to help you get there. Click here to get started.