An introduction to calorie counting
For many of us, certainly when trying to lose weight, calorie counting comes top of mind. This has been drilled into us, and to be fair, there is some truth in it. To lose weight we need to be expending more energy than we are consuming – this is a law of physics, there’s no disputing it. However, what can be disputed is how we go about doing this – you can still lose weight (if this is necessary), and more importantly, support a healthy body and metabolism without having to obsess over every calorie. Here I explain 6 reasons why calorie counting may not be the best practice.
1. You probably don’t know exactly how many calories you should be consuming anyway
Although you may need to expend more calories than you are consuming to lose weight, do you know where your basal metabolic rate is sitting? Doubtful. The ball park figure of 2000 calories is thrown around, but actually this is an AVERAGE. A very rough one at that. Depending on your body composition, activity levels, and funnily enough, what we eat, the amount of calories we burn can greatly varies.
Around 10% of the calories we expend each day is as a result of digesting the food we eat – and did you know that by eating good quality, whole foods, we can expend up to 50% extra calories than when eating processed rubbish? So, if you’re obsessing over a specific number of calories each day, it most likely isn’t accurate.
2. Obsessing over labels means more processed foods
Too many people, worryingly, seem to know exactly how many calories they are consuming, to the single calorie, each day, which means they are reading each and every food label. Hold on, if you’re reading every label to get a perfect calculation (all the ones that scan successfully on your Slimming World app) this means you aren’t likely to be eating much fresh food... only packaged foods have labels, and packaged foods are often processed.
We can get rough estimates of the calories of fresh foods, but we know that these can vary slightly with how and where the foods are grown, and this is just fine with us – it’s natural!
3. You risk counting calories rather than nutrients
Calories are calories... a pint of beer contains around the same calories as a small fillet of salmon. But what’s the crucial difference? The nutrients that they contain, that’s what.
Alcohol is an extreme example, but actually, many processed foods aren’t much better – they have what we call empty calories. Empty calories mean that yes, they may provide us with energy initially, but the calories are used very quickly for energy so we aren’t able to store much for later, and they are also generally very low in nutrients.
Instead, good quality fats, complex carbohydrates and protein can provide longer-lasting resources that we can use for energy. They also help keep us full up and satisfied, plus, keep our intake of essential vitamins and minerals tip top.
4. Fats are likely to take a back seat
If you’re obsessing over calories then no doubt you’ll be opting for the ‘low calorie’ options wherever possible. One big problem with that is that you’re most likely to be missing out on healthy fats. Fat has been wrongly demonised in the past1 which has led to the over consumption of carbohydrates and sugar (hello diabetes epidemic!). ‘Low fat’ products are often loaded with sugar; definitely something to be aware of.
Fats are actually extremely important for supporting our metabolism – they help with the manufacturing of hormones which are important for helping to keep us lean. So, believe it or not, good fats mean a healthy body.
5. Strict calorie restriction can have the opposite effects
Although, as before, generally we need to be expending more energy than we are consuming in order to lose weight, there is a catch. If we cut our calories too drastically, over time our bodies go into survival mode (it thinks there is a famine!) so it tries to store as much energy as possible. Your metabolism slows and you store more energy, which means you risk putting on weight2. The main issue comes if you start eating normally again (inevitable on many of these unsustainable plans) because your metabolism has slowed and you’re stocking up on some extra calories – a sure way to pile on the pounds.
6. Obsessive behaviours aren’t healthy
Plain and simple, we aren’t designed to count calories. We should be eating what we need to fuel our bodies, eating when we feel hungry and stopping when we are full, end of. Anything outwith this simply isn’t natural. Plus, you do risk taking all of the pleasure out of eating! Too meticulous over ingredients, quantities and portion sizes, you risk making eating a boring and, let’s be honest, draining chore. Eating should be fun and not a burden – enjoy it!
To sum up, here are some of my tips for enjoying a calorie-counting-free diet and lifestyle.
Firstly, listen to your body – eat what you feel you need (within reason, think fresh ingredients), eat when you’re hungry and don’t overeat. Your body will soon tell you when you’re full – if you eat the right foods and slowly enough that is. We know that fats and protein are more satiating than carbohydrates, so always have a balanced plate which includes sources of good quality protein and fats.
Next, take your time over food. Not only does this mean you can enjoy the flavours and textures, but you will also chew your food properly which means you can digest and make the most of all the lovely nutrients it contains! Eating slower will also mean you will feel fuller more quickly – long before you’ve manage to eat yourself into a food coma!
In terms of maintaining a healthy weight, in most cases, relaxing and eating fresh (this really is key) will mean that your body finds its own natural weight.
1. Malhotra A, Redberg RF, Meier P. Saturated fat does not clog the arteries: coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition, the risk of which can be effectively reduced from healthy lifestyle interventions. Br J Sports Med, 2017; 51, (1111-1112)
2. Benton D, Young HA. Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight. Perspect Psychol Sci, 2017; 12(5), (703-714)