We live in a world where “calories” and “dieting” are everyday words in the English language. While caloric information can sometimes be used as great information, much of the time those tiny little numbers are used as weapons in a battle against ourselves.
It’s not uncommon to feel almost paralyzed at times when obsessing over calories. They cannot only get in the way of you meeting your daily energy needs but counting them can also get in the way of simply having a good time. There is a plethora of misinformation regarding diets and suggested caloric intakes and the “promise” that you will be healthy as a result.
Counting calories isn’t always the way to go when your goal is to be healthy. In my office, I often help clients view calorie counting in a different light. Instead of looking at calorie counting as the only way to health, weight loss, etc., think of all the things calorie counting could be taking away from your life.
Our basic foundation of nourishment as humans hundreds of years ago didn’t revolve around calories or nutrition labels. Neither existed at the dawn of mankind, yet the human race not only survived, it flourished. People ate whole foods (nothing processed to be low-cal or low-fat) on a regular basis and turned out just fine.
Could calorie counting lead you down a not-so-healthy path? Let’s look at three ways that calorie counting may actually be working against your health efforts.
1. Eating based on calories (or quantity) may prevent a quality nutritional intake.
Eating based on calories alone can lead you to eat in a way that may sacrifice quality nutrients for a low-calorie count. For example, if you’re focused on counting calories or points, you may choose a fat-free, sugar-free cup of “pudding” over a snack like almonds because the pudding has fewer calories. However, those almonds have many quality nutrients. When eating lower calories is the goal, we often miss out eating real, nutrient-dense, whole foods. A quantity-based eating style may cause you to miss out on foods that contain awesome nutrients and fats (think avocado, olive oil, nuts, etc.), but are higher in calories. Focus on quality (vs. quantity) instead of just basing your food choices off the number of calories on the food label. You might just end up eating more whole foods too!
2. Low-calorie eating may promote fat storage and overeating.
Counting calories almost always leads to under eating, or restriction. If we base our intake off how many calories a magazine or online calculator suggests that we need, it can scare us into eating too little. Sticking with the same amount of calories each day isn’t what your body needs. If you stay at a low energy level for a long period of time, you’re teaching your body to run on less energy, which can cause fat storage. If you’re following a low-calorie diet, like 1,200 calories, over time it’s likely your body will adapt to less energy in and start holding on to as much as possible. Even on a low-calorie diet. Bottom line- It takes energy to burn energy! Restriction via calorie counting can also set you up for over-eating. When we’re under fueled we can become more and more hungry, especially as the day goes by; then we end up overcompensating in the evening. Some of my clients even report binging after being on a low-calorie diet. And, if you’re underfed, I don’t really want to hang out with you. Nobody wants to be around a hangry (hunger that makes you angry) person!
3. Calorie counting prevents intuitive eating.
When you really pay attention to your body and know what true physical hunger, satisfaction, and fullness, feel like, you can allow your body to be the guide to what and how much you eat. This is intuitive eating. For example, many people eat purely by the clock. If you’re used to eating at noon because its “lunchtime,” but you’re not hungry, there’s really no reason to eat. If you’re eating solely because “it’s time” and you’ve already accounted for your calories, you may end up eating your entire meal even though you weren’t truly hungry enough to need it all. On the flip side, the meal you consume might not be enough food. When you’re focused on calorie counting, you forfeit the experience of intuitive eating. Think about feeding a baby or toddler. When they’re full, they refuse food or spit it out. This is a sign that we all have internal cues telling us when we’re finished, calorie totals aside. Dieting, restriction, and calorie counting lead us to believe we can’t trust our bodies.
It's not all about calories in versus calories out.
We often get too wrapped up in the numbers and forget to let our bodies be our guides. Don’t forget that your body is much more sophisticated than a math equation. It’s not just about calories in or calories out. If we learn to use numbers as knowledge (like this has 20 grams of satisfying protein) instead of as a weapon (how little can I eat), we can keep our focus on true health and wellness through pleasurable eating.