I have never been a big fan of calorie counting, I believe that anyone can reach their ideal weight through simply eating whole foods and becoming more in tune with their bodies subtle signals, so they can learn what’s best for them by tuning into their true hunger & fullness signals. When I lost my weight 8 years ago, I never counted calories, preferring to focus on 6 small meals of whole foods, and exercising consistently.
I have had many friendly arguments with my personal trainer friends who swear by calorie counting and think my intuitive eating method is rubbish. Calorie counting is premised on the idea that in order to lose weight you must be in calorie deficit, this is mostly true, and is also a massive oversimplification of a complex process.
Recently when I came across My Fitness Pal and was focussing on getting lean after I had my baby, I thought I would give calorie counting a genuine go to see what difference it made. I’ve kept a diary now for a month and it has been an interesting experiment.
Calories are simply a measure of the heat energy in food, typically measured by burning 1 gram of the food. Kilojoules measure the same thing by a different measure. 1 calorie = 0.004184 kilojoules. 1 gram of Protein and Carbohydrate is 4 calories, whereas fat is more than double at 9 calories. 1 gram of alcohol is 7 calories.
Calorie counting is a very specific food diary. Food diaries have been proven to help assist with weight loss through keeping yourself accountable for what you eat. If you don’t want to write it down, then it’s probably not a good choice. This is especially true if your diary is being monitored by your dietician, nutritionist, personal trainer or other health professional.
When you understand that a Big Mac burger meal, with fries and a coke has the energy equivalent of 70% of the daily calorie recommendations for a sedentary woman, it can help you to realise just how much energy you’re overeating when you make poor food choices. This can lead you to searching for lower calorie and healthier options, and learning more about nutrition.
It’s pretty motivating to log a 500 calorie workout and know that the workout ‘counts’ towards your weight loss goals. Sometimes it is difficult to see how the everyday small choices lead to your weight loss goal, counting gives you a little bit of positive reinforcement for every workout you do and reminds you that every workout and every meal counts. This works even better when you wear a heart rate monitor and can accurately measure your workouts. It can also help to motivate you to exercise a bit more or harder on a day that you have overeaten so that you finish the day in calorie deficit.
What can be measured can be improved. When you log a days clean food, within your calorie goal, along with a good exercise session you know for sure that you’re ending the day one step closer to your goals. Calorie counting takes the guesswork out of losing weight and helps you to be specific, accurate and make every day count. It also gives you feedback that you can change. If you get to the end of a few weeks of counting and haven’t dropped centimetres then you can go back through your diary and reflect on what better choices you could have made. This can help to fast track improving your nutritional and exercise habits, and help you reach your goal faster.
Many people unwittingly eat almost double or triple the recommended serving sizes of foods, because they’ve never measured their portions. Spending a few weeks measuring all your food brings your portion control back into line, and teaches that you don’t need to stuff yourself.
Calorie counting can lead to becoming slightly obsessive about what you eat and how you exercise in order to finish every day in deficit. It can lead to black and white, good or bad type thinking that is a part of a dieting mentality and not ideal for long term, sustainable lifestyle change.
When you count calories, you are counting calories, and sometimes macronutrients; protein, carbs, fat. You’re not counting micronutrients, enzymes, phytonutrients, vitamins, fibre, nutrients. It might lull you into thinking that lower calorie foods are always better. This is not the case. Sometimes it is, for example when you compare a deep fried chips to oven – baked sweet potato chips. Sometimes it is not, like when you compare a homemade protein bar made with organic coconut oil, nuts, whey protein and mashed dates, to a store bought aspartame or sucralose sweetened protein bar, or when you compare fresh, ripe avocado to low fat processed mayonaise. With whole foods, in many cases the calories are higher because they include healthy, nutritious fats, the kind of fats that need to be included in a healthy diet. There are many, many nutrients that we need in real food, that processed foods just cannot compare to. If you are always chasing the lowest calorie option, then you may be missing out on lots of important nutrients. The key is to chase the most nourishment for every calorie you consume, making sure every calorie counts to nourish your body.
The calorie focussed mindset could possibly discount strength training, or restorative exercises like yoga or pilates, because they may not burn as many calories per hour as a spin or step class. However these types of exercises are critical for building lean body mass, improving core strength, balance, flexibility, fascia release and many other health benefits. It could also encourage overtraining, spending hours on the stepper or cross trainer to burn as many calories as possible. This kind of endurance training is ok sometimes, but can raise cortisol and can sometimes have detrimental effects on your health. Again, balance is the key, mix up your exercise week to include some strength, some endurance, some speed, some flexibility, balance and relaxation, in whatever forms take your fancy and you’ll be fine.
Calorie counting can be a little bit tedious, you have to remember to log everything a couple of times a day, so you don’t forget what you ate. For it to work accurately you must weigh, count and measure your food. This means that you need to eat in or prepare your food yourself, or keep yourself to very strict simple meals, like meat and veggies that you can estimate the measurements of when you are eating out. You must be honest, accurate, and consistent. It is much less tedious these days than how it was in the past having to write it all in a diary, working out the calories and counting them all yourself. Things like my fitness pal, and other online food diaries make counting really simple and easy to do on your iphone, but you still have to do the weighing and measuring.
Your body responds to each food differently. Each food has a massive impact on insulin and glucose on your blood stream which affects how, where and what, your body does with the energy from the food. A calorie of protein does not affect your body the same way that a calorie of carbohydrate does. It is far too simple to give you the whole picture.
The calories equation is often perceived to be calories in – through eating, and calories out – through exercise. However exercise is not the only way you can burn calories. You can burn LOADS of calories just keeping your body temperature stable. Cold exposure has been proven to massively affect fat burning. To understand more about these last two points I highly recommend reading the 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferris.
Calorie counting is not meal planning, its tracking what you ate, after you ate it. If you don’t track it quickly after you ate then you can forget what you really ate, forget to log condiments, sauces or dressings that can load up the cals. Counting is excellent for all the reasons I mentioned above, but it is not proactively meal planning. To create optimal health and body composition, co-create a few daily menu plans with a nutritionist, dietician or trainer, or research, learn about nutrition and create one yourself. Create a plan that suits your lifestyle, tastes and body goals, then follow your meal plans 6 and a half days per week. Yes, eat the same thing day after day, rotate the plans if you like, this is the simplest and most proven method of quickly reaching your body composition goals.
After giving it a real go and after considering all the benefits, I think calorie counting is an excellent short term tool to use for between 1- 2 months only to teach you about better nutrition habits, and to help you become more aware of what you eat and help yourself move forward towards your goals. Once you have learned about good nutrition, you can then more easily listen to your own intuition and hunger.
Calorie counting is not necessary for extended periods of time, it is not necessary for weight loss and can stop you enjoying your food and a balanced, relaxed healthy life. If you know you tend to get a bit obsessive, stick to counting for 1 week at a time only, here and there, to help educate yourself about your food habits or rein in your portions.
For more on the pros and cons of calorie counting check out Tom Venuto’s blog post here.
Let me know your experiences of calorie counting…
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