The short answers:
- It didn’t work.
- It made me miserable.
The slightly longer, more scientific answers:
- It is not sustainable in the long-term if you want to live a “normal” life.
- It oversimplifies the science of weight loss, to the detriment of the individual.
“Calories in, calories out,” am I right?!?
No. Not right. This “scientific” explanation of balancing the sheer number of calories we take in and those which we expend is reductionist and ignores many important factors that impact weight. First, it is fairly impossible to know the exact number of calories we expend. An elliptical machine, treadmill or Peloton can guess what we burn during a workout, and our basal metabolic rate can guess what we burn at rest, but these numbers aren’t individualized to OUR specific metabolisms and how WE respond to foods. So we obsess over how many calories we burn (I was quite guilty of this for some time), when it’s not even that accurate!
Google searches can tell us how many calories are in foods and apps like MyFitnessPal can help us track them, but again- the counts might not be all that precise given the different size and actual nutrient content of produce along with human error in inputing portion sizes. In the end, its SO much effort for a sense of balancing a self-imposed false equation.
Bottom line- 100 calories of broccoli DOES NOT EQUAL 100 calories of brownie. The way our bodies process the fiber and nutrients in broccoli is vastly different from brownies. After our tastebuds communicate to our brain while chewing, the enzymes that get triggered to break down the food in our stomachs are different. The speeds with which the various nutrients get absorbed into our bloodstream are different. The water content and therefore hydration we get from produce is different from that of dry foods. What our large intestine separates out for waste from these very different foods is DIFFERENT. How fast they are expelled from the body is different. How we feel afterwards is different regarding satiety, energy, and digestive symptoms. Our cravings and tendencies for certain foods based on how we feel will change depending on what we have already taken in that day. If we know these things, how can we possibly think that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie?
Now for more of the practical application of calorie counting, and breaking down how it doesn’t make sense for a normal lifestyle.
It does not make sense to cut back significantly on more than one of the three macronutrients at once. For satiety, sustainability and health, we need to consider this point. So why, then, would people think they need to cut carbs AND fat in order to lose weight? If you have ever gone on a diet, you probably cut out donuts and the like. But you also were likely counting calories, right? Since fat has 9 calories per gram and protein and carbs each have 4, fat inevitably becomes the “enemy” when calories are counted. This is why diets based on standard advice don’t work. People are leaving themselves on a low-fat, low-calorie diet with nothing filling to keep them going. If you cut (unhealthy) carbs and therefore regulate your blood sugar, your body adapts to burn fat for fuel. But if you’re not taking in any fat, your body has to work even harder to convert nutrients into fuel. You end up starving and this is when most people give up (it’s also dangerous to go into starvation mode and can mess up your metabolism for years to come if you do it long enough). Please stop counting calories. PLEASE.
I understand that food tracking can be helpful, especially in the beginning of lifestyle changes, because it informs you of what you’re putting in your body. It can be especially helpful to do this if you’re also tracking symptoms of a suspected food sensitivity. I actually recommend keeping a food journal if you are trying to figure out which foods make you feel certain ways. You can do this while leaving calories out of it, or you can count them for short periods out of curiosity without restricting. Some people count to make sure they are getting enough.
However, calorie counting in the name of “health,” but with the underlying goals of restriction and weight loss is not sustainable, is not fun, and it often doesn’t work. Sometimes, though, it does work- and that’s when it gets confusing. Restriction CAN work short term, but there are costs, and not many humans are willing to live that way long-term. It can end up doing lasting damage both physically and mentally. It encourages obsession with counting, “earning” foods/drinks and contributes to an unhealthy relationship with food that is hard to come back from. It took me literal YEARS, and I am here to help others break the cycle.
*Personal anecdote: I counted calories for about 3 years straight (about 8-9 years ago). I’m talking every Skittle and ounce of wine. I would do cardio workouts mostly because they “burned the most calories,” and I would stay on machines longer just to “earn” more wine later on so I could remain in a calorie deficit. I stayed around 1200-1500 calories per day throughout much of this time. I lost some weight, except for the periods of time where I was running a lot (I guess I was building up some muscle in my legs) which was frustrating to me at the time. I used an app to track my calories and I obsessively entered foods as I ate them, at the table (or sometimes before hand, careful not to exceed what I had entered). It’s almost comical to me now, because my lowest weight while counting is still higher than my most recent baseline weight, which was right before I got pregnant for the third time- this with having had 2 kids, just eating intuitively. I do not typically track my weight, but for curiosity’s sake I get on the scale occasionally. What got me to finally stop counting was being SO exhausted from doing it for so long without much to show for it, as well as discovering holistic nutrition (particularly, the book The Calorie Myth, by Jonathan Bailor- linked below) and realizing the science wasn’t even there to support this habit of mine.
“Okay, okay, calorie counting is BAD. So now what?”
Turn the focus to NUTRIENT DENSITY instead of calories, and you will be much better off.
Nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients in food (vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, carbohydrate) compared to the amount of calories it has (since calories are units of energy). If a food is nutrient-dense, it has a LOT of the “good stuff” for fewer calories. The phrase “empty calories” or “empty carbs” refers to foods with not much to offer in the nutrients department. There may be a ton of calories in a cinnamon bun, but it is very nutrient poor (pretty much nothing except quick burning energy in the form of sugar). Conversely, there may be a ton of calories in a grass-fed ribeye steak, but the amount of nourishing protein and filling fat is immense, and therefore this food is nutrient-rich.
Generally, the most nutrient-rich foods do not come in packages and can be found around the edges of the grocery store vs. in the middle aisles. Vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and eggs are where it’s at. Other foods can help support a balanced diet as well, such as full-fat dairy (if you tolerate it) and grains (if you tolerate them).
We are told that carbohydrates are one of the three essential macronutrients along with fat and protein. It is true that vegetables (especially vibrantly colored ones) promote growth of body tissues and that fiber helps pull toxins from the body. However, there is no such thing as a grain deficiency and there have been societies historically that only had access to animal products and thrived. I’m not saying to go on a carnivore diet, I just want to point out that you can get all the fiber you need from produce, without grains if you choose not to eat them or if they don’t work well for your digestion. Carbohydrates may not be essential to life, though healthy ones do provide hydration, fiber, micronutrients and energy.
What I suggest you do instead of calorie-counting should excite you!
- Eat as much as you want of the foods that you know are nutrient-dense.
- Eat mostly foods that DON’T come in a package
- Increase your servings of vegetables per day
- Drink 1/2 your body weight in ounces of water daily (more if you work out or drink alcohol/coffee)
- If you can, source your animal products from healthier places (i.e. grass-fed beef, free-range or pastured eggs, pastured dairy and even RAW dairy if possible!)
If you’d like to read more work on this topic, check out:
The Calorie Myth, by Jonathan Bailor
Why We Get Fat, by Gary Taubes
*When Weston A. Price did his research on ancestral diets around the globe, to his dismay he did not find a single group of people that were healthy vegans (for more on this, read his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration).