Open any women's fitness or health magazine and you will be guaranteed to find something that looks like this: "5 Easy Meals Under 600 Calories", or "Low Calorie Versions of Your Favorite Guilty Pleasures", or "3 Ways to Easily Cut 300 Calories a Day", or some other calorie-centric headline that proceeds to tell you why you'll need your daily limit to never exceed 1200 if you want that "bikini body" in time for summer. (Insert eye roll here. Side note: Don't buy those magazines, people!). We live in a calorie-focused nation right now, and at one point or another, most of us have probably been there: A slave to the calorie limit we have imprinted in our mind dictating whether we’ve been “bad” or “good” that day. We've counted Points (I'm looking at you, Weight Watchers), used apps on our phones, kept a running tally in our head, and made countless decisions based on how close we were to our daily limit ("Well I did have three handfuls of almonds and cheese on my salad so I'll skip the butter on my sweet potato tonight"). I mean if you want to lose weight and get healthy, your daily calorie count should be less than what you are expending in the gym; Weight loss is calories in vs calories out, right? Turns out, not so much.
Counting calories is absolutely useless. Not to mention it makes us insane and obsessed. Yes, you heard that right- counting calories is of no value to your healthwhatsoever! (We can hear women everywhere breathe a collective sigh of relief!). So here's what DOES count: The nutritional quality of food and the signals your body gives you. Here are five reasons why tracking calories won't help your health:
1. NUTRIENT VALUE. Most Americans are overweight but malnourished.. seems like an oxymoron, right? But this is why: The nutrient quality of foods is much more important than the calorie content of foods. Foods affect the hormones in our bodies that control tons of functions, like energy, satiety, hunger, mood, body fat usage, body fat storage, and so on, and the nutrient content of your food dictates how the cards get dealt to all those systems. For example, a 375 calorie meal of healthy protein and fat, like a grilled steak topped with quacamole and veggies, will keep your blood sugar low preventing fat storage, keep energy levels up, actually increase your metabolism, stave off sugar cravings, help build and repair muscle tissue, replenish healthy hormones, and keep you satisfied until your next meal. In comparison, a 375 calorie low-fat scone will not provide you with any nutrients your body needs, will spike your blood sugar levels (signaling your body to store fat), cause a blood sugar crash an hour later making you hungry (hangry?), deplete important hormone levels, slow down your metabolism, cause inflammation, and irritate your digestive system.
2. CALORIES ARE NOT ALL EQUAL. Eating 1200 calories a day of chemical laden, industrially produced, low fat, processed, grain and/or sugar filled "food" will make you far more unhealthy and overweight than eating 2500 calories a day of real, whole food, period. This is where the calories in vs calories out theory falls apart, and it's furthered by the fact that it is just not sustainable to survive on such nutrient-poor, low calorie foods. While you may be able to drop a couple pounds with a severe calorie restricted diet for a week or two, you will be miserable, hungry, cranky, and it will not be a long term road to health (read: right back where you started once it's over). If you want to get healthy, lean, happy, vibrant and energized for the long haul, you've got to give your body the nutrients it needs to survive.
3. SATIETY. Have you ever noticed that when you've enjoyed a meal like the one above (steak, avocado, veggies), you probably hit a wall where you just couldn't eat one. more. bite? But when you're eating pretzels, popcorn, or Wheat Thins, you have to really force yourself to stop (or you just eat the whole box). It is all too easy to over indulge on cheap grain based carbohydrates, or other low-cal foods, like that diet frozen dinner, or your low-fat yogurt breakfast. But it's really hard to completely over-do it on steak. Or pork chops. Or (bunless) burgers. And you probably couldn't sit down and eat 10 avocados, even though they're the most delicious things ever- your body will tell you it's had enough. The reason for this is because there are zero (zip!) nutrients in those whole grain crackers, so there's nothing telling your body to stop eating. When you feed it nutrient dense foods, filled with protein and healthy fats (and no sugar!), your body is getting precisely what it has evolved to eat, recognize, and utilize, and it will tell you to stop. Promise. Add lots of good fat onto your high quality proteins (Gasp! Lots of calories!), and you will find yourself eating to satiety (and not beyond) every time, and you'll stay full until your next meal. More butter please!
4. EVERYONE'S DIFFERENT. The idea that a certain number of calories a day is adequate for all people, regardless of body type, stage of life, or activity level is absurd. The 1200 a day suggestion most fitness mags are recommending? First of all that is very low, and your body may go into starvation mode causing all sorts of problems (weight gain can be one). Second, our bodies require a different amount of energy (calories) from day to day, depending on our activity levels, our body type/size, and what is going on with our body at the moment (pregnant, training for a competition, etc.). Finding out exactly how many calories our bodies need daily would involve an intense process of a daily evaluation of energy levels, activity levels, food quality, blood tests that can only be done at a doctor's office, and a whole lot of math (Read: Impossible to figure out unless you're a lab rat). Different bodies use some foods differently, and everyone is unique in what they need on a daily basis to feel their best.
5. CRAZYTOWN. It's also worth noting that counting calories can create an unhealthy obsession in some people, causing stress, anxiety, and self-loathing, which can cause health issues all by itself. So let it go and eat to your heart's content of the real stuff!
SO HERE'S THE BOTTOM LINE. Eat nutrient dense foods. Avoid foods that you know don’t agree with your body. Stop eating grain-based nutirition-less foods. Cut out sugar and processed foods. Eat when you are hungry. Eat slowly, chew your food well, and enjoy your meals. Stop checking calorie and fat contentand instead focus on the ingredient list and sugar content. Drink enough water. And most of all, listen to your body, it will tell you how much to feed it.