Is Calorie Counting Necessary?
Calorie counting is a hot topic in the world of nutrition, but is calorie counting truly necessary? Although the camp surely divides on this topic I think the answer is quite simple.
The funny thing about calorie counting is that most people a) don’t know what calories are, and b) don’t know where calories come from. Every day we are bombarded with information about how many calories foods contain, how many we should be eating, and how many calories we need to burn to lose weight, but we actually have no idea what calories actually do for us.
The definition of a calorie is; the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1°C. Sounds complicated, right? It is. Essentially, a calorie is a unit of energy and the number of calories contained in a food tell us how much energy that particular food provides.
In my opinion, for most people, the idea of counting calories is fundamentally flawed. We have taken something so basic (nourishing our bodies) and made is so complicated (a mathematical equation). People have been eating food since the dawn of civilization without the need to count, understand or measure calories. In fact, we are the only species on the planet that actually considers calories. When was last time your dog read the calorie content on its dog food? Or when was the last time you saw a cheetah count the number of calories in its prey? Don’t get me wrong, I do think there are specific people and specific situations where calorie counting might be beneficial. For instance, if you are an elite athlete trying to shave fractions of a second off your times, add in inches to your score or win a gold medal, the more factors you can control the greater your performance will be, so calorie counting and macronutrient balancing can be incredibly important. However, for the average individual, I don’t think it is worth the fuss. The process of eating is meant to be intuitive and natural, but unfortunately as humans have lost touch with this intuition. We no longer need to listen to our hunger cues or hunt and gather our food, we can simply run to the corner store or order delivery any time we are hungry (or have a craving) and fill our bellies with anything our heart’s desire.
Not All Calories are Created Equal
The concept that a “calorie is a calorie” is simply wrong, and it is damaging. Thinking that all calories are created equal is like thinking that a golf cart is like a Rolls Royce just because they both drive. Although a calorie does measure the total amount of energy in a food, the source of the calories is what determines how beneficial they are. Calories come from three places; carbohydrates, protein and fat, and for every gram of these that you eat, you eat a certain number of calories. However, since these different macronutrients have different, yet integral, functions in the body, the format in which you consume your calories has a big impact on your overall health. For instance, if you compare a 100 calorie pack of Oreos to a 100 calorie handful of almonds there is a dramatic difference in their nutritional value and how they will support the function of your body. A 100 calorie serving of almonds contains protein, fibre, healthy fats, and a wealth of nutrients, while a 100 calorie pack of Oreos contains added sugar, zero fibre, zero nutrition and 12 processed ingredients.
Your Body Doesn’t Work Like a Computer
The idea that health or weight loss is merely about calories in vs. calories out is simplistic. The human body is a highly complex and elaborate mechanism with many systems at work at one time. Different foods, macronutrients and micronutrients all have different effects on the body at any given time. Anything from your muscle mass, to the size of your organs, body temperature, how much you fidget, your sleep and your hormones can all impact how calories are used in your body. The calories in vs. calories out model would leave us to believe that 2,000 calories of sugar has the same metabolic effect as 2,000 calories of chicken, broccoli and sweet potato, but not we now know not all calories are created equal. Although determining how many calories your body burns daily might give you a ballpark figure, there are so many other factors at play.
Processed Food is Processed Food
If you find yourself standing in the grocery store comparing how many calories are in Cheerios vs. Rice Krispies, you are missing the point. Processed food is processed food, whether it is low calorie, high fibre, low-fat or gluten-free. Processed foods are typically devoid of their own nutrients and have added by-products and preservatives that our useless to our bodies no matter how many calories they contain. In fact, processed food is where things can get rather confusing for consumers as food manufacturers can manipulate a food’s macronutrient balance to make it lower in calories. For example, plain yoghurt is a rich source of natural fat, however, flavoured non-fat versions are often lower in calories than their plain full-fat counterparts. Because, gram per gram, fat contains more calories than sugar when they remove grams of fat from the yogurt and add grams of sugar for flavour, the calorie content will actually be lower, yet the sugar content will be much higher. This is why the quality of a food far outweighs the calorie content it contains.
Quality over Quantity
We have become obsessed with size; bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger wardrobes, but when it comes to food this concept does not align. Eating well is not about eating food with less calories so that you can eat more of it, it is about eating food that is actually nourishing to our bodies. It’s easy to eat that 100 calorie pack of Oreos as a snack thinking you are doing yourself a favour by eating less calories, but when you are hungry 30 minutes later and reaching for that 2nd or 3rd pack of cookies you are missing the mark. The goal of eating is to eat nutrient-rich real food (not calorie-deficient processed foods) to satiety to fuel your body, maintain stable blood sugar, minimize cravings and provide energy for your brain. That doesn’t mean you can never indulge in a treat, not at all, but rather those times you do want a treat, opt for a homemade cookie with all natural ingredients as opposed to a processed, preservative loaded 100 calorie Oreo pack.
Calories are the Symptom, not the Cause
The need to count calories has spawned from one thing; the transition from home cooking to store-bought packaged foods. Look back 100 or 200 years and calorie counting was not even a topic of conversation. People cooked at home with fresh ingredient from their farm, or a local farm, and made meals from scratch. They used all of the cuts and all of the ingredients at their disposal. These foods didn’t have labels with calorie counts, not to mention ingredients list, because they were simply whole foods in their whole format. Fast forward to 2017 and the average American diet is loaded with boxed this and packaged that. When breakfast consists of boxed cereal and cartoned milk, lunch consists of bagged bread and packaged meats, and dinner consists of boxed pasta and jarred sauce you can see how whole foods are few and far between. When you chose not to cook from home, and rely on a food industry to prepare your foods, you may not pay the price at the cash register, but you pay the price in your health.
Of course, even you are eating whole foods the volume of food you eat is important, but it much harder to overeat an entire carton of eggs versus a box of donuts for breakfast. Processed foods are hyper-palatable and can lead to overeating as they are not nourishing to your body and therefore do not provide satiety. Rather, whole foods are rich in nutrients, vitamins, minerals and fibre and can satiate us easily. So instead of burning up your calculator calorie counting, here are some easy things to consider when it comes to eating well:
1. Opt for Label-Less Foods
I’ve said it once and I will say it again, if you want to eat well, you simply need to eat whole foods. It is truly that easy; 80 to 90 percent of what you put in your mouth should be whole foods in their whole format, and if you are able to follow that logic the other 10-20 percent don’t matter so much. You can enjoy your cocktail, your chocolate and some fried food when you need to, but only if you are putting in the work the other 80-90 percent of the time. You should indulge and enjoy your treats, but you can’t build a house if the foundation is on fire.
2. Read Ingredients, Not Calories
If you are buying a packaged food, ignore the calories and look at the ingredients list first. The list of ingredients on a food is the single greatest indicator to help you determine whether it is a good option or poor option. Reading the calorie count of a packaged food is irrelevant unless you know where the calories are actually coming from. Know that the ingredients are listed from most to least, so be cautious of the what is at the start of this list when you make a decision.
3. Monitor your Hunger Cues
This is easier said that done, but if you are able to distinguish the difference between hunger and hanger, you will be much better off. You should build your meals in a way that satiate you and keep you full for 3 to 4 hours. If you find yourself peckish every couple of hours and are always looking for a little snack to hold you over, the snacks are not the issue it is that your meals aren’t setting you up for success. If you are able to build your breakfast, lunch and dinner with whole foods and a good balance of protein, fats and carbohydrates you should easily be able to go from meal to meal without getting hungry. Snacks are useful in specific situations but the need for multiple daily snacks means you are not eating to satiety and managing your hunger cues.
4. Seek Nutrients, Don’t Avoid Calories
The intention of eating is to add nourishment not to avoid calories. The concept of avoiding calories creates a notion of restriction and deprivation and it is a dangerous game to play. In order to stop the fearmongering associated with food we need to strip things down and get back to the basics; eat the most nutrient dense foods available and don’t pay attention to whatever calorie content they may, or may not, contain. Eat foods that make you feel good, look good and perform even better.
The fact of the matter is that the simpler you keep your food, the more beneficial it will be. Focus on a diet of whole, unprocessed natural foods and the rest will take care of itself. There is no need to stress over a number or calorie count, this will only add more stress to a situation that is not meant to be stressful at all. Cook whole foods, move your body, sleep well and leave the math for the classroom.