Everywhere I turn, it seems I"m constantly surrounded by calories. Calories listed on the front and back of foods, low calorie diets advertised in magazines, low calorie meal replacements advertised on social media.
Calories, calories, calories.
With all this focus on calories, you'd think we wouldn't be in the health crisis we are today. Maybe this is a sign that calories AREN'T the answer to the weight loss prayer we've been hoping for all these years.
Calories are a measure of energy needed to raise 1 gram of water through 1 degree Celcius. Yep. That's it. Contrary to popular belief, they aren't some little creatures designed to make you gain weight through the night.
When we try and count calories for weight loss, staying under the arbitrary (yet glorified) numbers of 1800, 1500, even 1200, we are setting ourselves up for failure? Why? Let's dive in.
1. When we focus only on calories, we often eliminate/limit nutrient dense foods and/or add in too many fake low-calorie foods.
Avocados, nuts and seeds, coconut products, certain cuts of meat - these are all foods that contain more calories because they are higher in fat. Fat is the most calorically-dense of the macronutrients, containing 9 calories per gram. However, as we've discussed before, FAT IS NOT THE ENEMY, especially when it is from whole food sources like those listed above.
If we are focusing only on calories, we may be tempted to cut these foods out of our diet and add in foods that contain little to no calories, often because the fat has been removed and replaced with sugar or artificial sweeteners. This is not good, not good at all.
Just because a food is low or no-calorie does NOT mean it is healthy or should be consumed at all. Diet soda, zero calorie Gatorade, light salad dressings - these are all examples of these frankenfoods that may be low in calories, but will not contribute to an overall healthy lifestyle. If anything, they'll make you even more unhealthy and cause you to overeat because you aren't getting the nutrients you actually need from the foods you are eating.
2. When we eat too low calorie for too long, we set our metabolism up for a host of issues in the future.
In the culture we live in today, it is ideal for us to have as high of a metabolism as possible. A high metabolism means that we are burning energy all day long and will have a harder time gaining weight. Why is this important? Because we sit ALL DAY LONG.
When we eat a low calorie diet (under 1500-1800 calories) for an extended period of time, we basically tell our metabolism to down regulate to that number. Then, whenever we eat even just a little over that amount, we gain weight and that weight won't budge.
Eating too low calorie also causes us to have metabolism problems in the future. Our body may start to think we are in a starvation state because we aren't eating enough which causes us to hold onto extra weight as a protective mechanism. Typically, this extra weight is carried around our midsection.
If you grew up dieting in your teens, 20s, and even 30s, you'll find that the "eat less, exercise more" and "eat low calorie" BS won't work for you anymore because of the damage that you did to your metabolism in your younger years (guilty as charged over here).
3. When we follow a prescribed calorie count (especially when it's from some random website or magazine or Instagram model), we don't learn to become intuitive and listen to our body and what it actually needs.
Our bodies need and crave real, whole foods that contain the nutrients our bodies need to thrive. When we follow a prescribed calorie count that tells us how many calories to have at each meal, we lose the ability to tune into our bodies and see what they actually want.
For instance, when I finish a long, hard workout, I can feel that my body is craving a lot of protein and carbs to help refuel and start the recovery process. The next day, I'll also feel the need to eat a bit more because my body is actively trying to build muscle and recover from my workout the day before.
Our hormones can also influence our appetite as well, especially as women. As the start of our cycle draws near, we may find that we are hungrier as our body prepares to go through some hormonal changes.
Learning to tune into what your body actually wants isn't always easy. We often think our body is craving sugar or carbs when it is actually craving a specific nutrient (magnesium, for instance, is commonly in need when we crave chocolate). Learning to connect your mood, energy, sleep, hormones, and overall health and well-being to your diet is critical to leading a healthy life beyond a magazine-prescribed diet plan.
4. When we focus solely on calories, we create more stress in our lives, lives that do NOT need any more stress.
Think about it- when you are counting calories all the time, you are constantly thinking about it. You have to make sure you get the food entered into your calorie counting app, which often leads to worry about whether or not the amount you entered is accurate or not. You might start to weigh and measure your food in an attempt to get the most accurate calorie count possible (which, by the way, will never be 100% accurate. Never.). You also start to stress about what you are going to eat later in the day so that you can make sure your calorie/macro count works out at the end of the day. Basically, you're setting yourself up for a day of stress, worry, and anxiety over something as stupid as calories.
5. When we focus only on calories, we lock ourselves into the "I'm on a diet" mindset, which comes along with a prize package of guilt, shame, and falling off the wagon.
The diet mentality doesn't work as it implies that there is a definitive beginning and end to whatever you are doing. This also means that you can go "off plan" and "eat bad" and "fall off the wagon."
I'm here to tell you that THERE IS NO WAGON. When we fall victim to the wagon mentality, we add even MORE stress to the table with the guilt and shame that comes alongside of when we eat something "off plan." Typically those "off plan" moments come in the form of binge eating because we have restricted and restricted ourselves so much that we snap and lose control.
Instead, we need to learn to build a lifestyle, one that may have ups and downs, yes, but is a lifestyle nonetheless, not some random diet we decide to try for a few weeks.
I hope this helps make my point very, VERY clear - counting calories is not the answer for long term health and success. Sure, it might work for a period of time, but in the end, the future repercussions will be worse than the original symptoms themselves. What does work is eating real, whole food; listening to your body; and avoiding the tendency to track or count.