Why I don’t believe in Counting Calories
I get so many questions about calories and about the proper ratio of carbohydrates to protein to fat. The truth is, I don’t believe in counting calories and I don’t think you should either.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done my share of counting calories. Over the years, I bought into many mainstream dieting programs that told me that I needed to know how many calories I was consuming each day, and fully believed the media messages proclaiming that the key to good health is balancing calories consumed with calories burned.
I know now, though, that there are many problems with that line of thinking.
First, counting calories is extremely time consuming and a lot of work.
The predominance of packaged foods marked with nutrition labels has made the tracking process much easier over the years. However, even with modern technology to facilitate the tracking process and databases full of information to pull from, the effort involved generally outweighs any return. In addition, what happens if you eat at a restaurant or a friend’s home where this information isn’t readily available? Do you stress over not knowing exactly how many calories you consumed? Do you feel guilty about the possibility of eating more than you might have been allotted that day? Or do you simply give up, eat with abandon and decide that you’ll just try to get back on track the following day?
Second, counting calories is difficult to sustain in the long-term.
Not only is the effort involved significant and time consuming, it’s also highly restrictive. Most people eat because they really enjoy food. When you begin attaching numbers to every meal, that enjoyment quickly fades and you end up feeling not only hungry, but also deprived.
Finally, and most importantly, all calories are NOT created equal.
While we certainly do want to find a balance between the food we are consuming and the energy we are expending each day, the dietary equation of “calories in versus calories out” does nothing to account for the micro and macronutrients that make up those calories.
As a runner, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Oh, you are so lucky … you can eat whatever you want because you’ll just burn it right off!”.
If only it were that simple! The reality is that it’s all about the quality of those calories, not the quantity.
In it’s simplest form, there are two types of calories: health promoting and disease promoting.
Health promoting calories come from vegetables, fruit, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Disease promoting calories come from sweets and refined carbohydrates, the two building blocks of nearly every processed food on the market. Let’s look at a really simple example:
Consider an apple. A medium apple contains approximately 95 calories and those calories are packed with fiber, minerals and vitamins, which work together to provide protective anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.
Now let’s look at a 100 calorie snack pack of Snack Wells Yogurt Coated Pretzels. Sounds healthy, right? Food manufacturers are constantly touting the fact that yogurt is healthy, and that pretzels are healthier than chips. And each snack pack is only 100 calories. Sounds like a perfect snack!
The reality, though, is that those 100 calories are empty calories. Instead of being filled with nutrients that your body is looking for, this snack is filled with sugar, color, artificial ingredients, enriched flour, and corn syrup. Suddenly, these 100 calories are sounding far from healthy! They are, in fact, disease promoting.
So what does this mean for you and your family? It’s simple. Rather than focusing on the number of calories you’re consuming each day, focus instead on filling your diet with health promoting calories. And I promise that the rest will take care of itself.
To get you started, here are three quick and easy steps you can take today:
1. Focus on whole, plant based foods including vegetables, fruit, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
When you do, the need to count calories and track macronutrient ratios becomes unnecessary, because it is really difficult to eat too much REAL food. Note that there are exceptions to this rule: the body’s dehydration signals being misinterpreted as hunger, emotional eating, eating too quickly, eating while distracted, etc. However, for the most part, the human body does an excellent job of signaling what we need to eat and when. We just need to listen to it.
Let’s return to our apple example: say I give you a bushel of apples and tell you to go ahead and eat as many as you want. How many could you eat? Probably not more than a few. The reason is that the fiber in the apple activates the stretch receptors in your stomach, which send a signal to your brain telling you that you are full. The nutrients in the apple have provided exactly what your body was looking for, so you stop eating and you feel satisfied.
In contrast, let’s say you’re watching TV and I hand you a bag of your favorite chips. You start eating and, before you know it, find yourself at the bottom of the bag. Sound familiar? I know, I’ve been there! Despite our best intentions, we just can’t stop ourselves. Our bodies literally can’t get enough. Why? Processed foods contain very little (if any!) fiber, which means that the stretch receptors in your stomach aren’t activated, and as a result your brain never gets a signal that you’re full. Then, because that food lacks the nutrients your body is looking for, your brain signals you to eat again. Finally, the sugar, artificial sweeteners and chemicals manufacturers deliberately add to these processed foods are designed to be highly addictive, so your body craves even more. The end result? You are caught in a never-ending cycle of overeating yet never feeling satisfied.
2. Make sure that every meal and snack contains a mix of brightly colored carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats.
This is the easiest way to ensure you are getting a balance of macronutrients in your diet. Some quick and easy examples include:
- Carrots and celery with hummus
- Green smoothies with chia or hemp seeds
- Apple slices with nut butter
- Rice and beans with salsa and avocado
In each example, the carbohydrates come from brightly colored fruits or vegetables and they are balanced with a generous dose of protein and healthy fats.
3. Aim for a variety of foods over the course of the week to ensure you’re getting a full range of nutrients.
This can be as simple as topping your salad with a new combination of chopped vegetables, nuts and seeds each day. Or rotating the fruit and greens you put in your morning smoothie. Or packing a different type of fruit in your child’s lunch box each day. Or alternating between different varieties of nut and seed butter on your sandwiches.
Incorporating these three easy steps into your daily routine will not only improve your health and the health of your family, but it will also free you from the burden of counting calories. You’ll feel less restricted by your diet, and far more satisfied.
If you’re currently counting calories in an effort to improve your health, I encourage you to give the steps above a try over the coming week. Please leave a comment below and share how things went. And if you’re stuck and are looking for additional support, know that I’m here for you. You can learn more about working with me here.