To lose weight, “eat less and exercise more” has been beaten into our brains for too long now by fitness, nutrition and medical professionals. This dogma has made calories in versus calories out the dominant factor in our minds when it comes to weight. Calories are the standout component on nutritional labels, diets and food guides, as well as the deciding factor in many of our food choices. As we’ve seen over the last decade, the weight loss equation of calories in versus calories out is far oversimplified and in most circumstances, just plain wrong.
I’m a big proponent of ditching the calorie counter. I rarely mention calories in my nutrition sessions with clients and discourage use of programs and apps that put too much emphasis on calories. In today’s post, we’re going to explore why counting calories is often ineffective and how to lose or maintain your weight without relying on this antiquated method.
Not all calories are created equal
A calorie is a calorie, right? WRONG. In a laboratory setting, where the energy of an isolated system is constant, 500 calories of spinach and 500 calories of Skittles would, in fact, release the same amount of energy. But lab settings and the law of thermodynamics don’t translate to living, breathing organisms, as there is nothing “isolated” about our systems. The spinach and the Skittles interact with our biology which entails a very complex process of transformation. Food is much more than just calories; it is information for our cells.
Every bite of food you eat sends out a specific set of instructions to the body–instructions that influence satiety, metabolic rate, brain activity, blood sugar and the way we store fat. The same number of calories from different types of food can have very different biological effects. Let’s compare how your body deals with Skittles versus spinach.
When eat you Skittles, the huge amount of fructose heads straight to the liver, where is starts storing sugar as fat. Fructose bypasses your hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, so your brain never gets the message that you’ve just consumed a bunch of calories and do not need to eat more. Instead, your brain’s pleasure-based reward center is triggered by the sugar which prompts intense cravings and drives you to consume more sugar to maintain the high.
Low-starch vegetables such as spinach are high in fiber which is digested slowly and does not lead to glucose and insulin spikes. Because of all the fiber, your stomach would distend which sends the signal to your brain that you’re full. In addition to satiety, the nutrients and fiber in spinach optimize metabolism, reduce inflammation, protect against disease, lower cholesterol, boost detoxification and feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
As you can see, Skittles and spinach evoke an entirely different metabolic response, despite an identical calorie count. Many other factors, such as macronutrients, food quality, blood sugar regulation, gut bacteria, circadian rhythm, etc. are more influential over how much fat you accumulate than simply cutting calories.
So if you’re not counting calories, what do you do instead?
JERF (Just Eat Real Food)
It’s not that calories don’t matter at all; it’s that nutrients matter more. Considering calories as the most important factor in how we choose what foods to consume is an overly simplistic view that doesn’t consider nutritional quality.
If you’re living off of diet soda and 100-calorie snack packs, you may be eating very few calories but you’re consuming a ton of chemicals, GMOs, allergenic and inflammatory ingredients… and almost no nutrients. With a diet like this, you’re likely often hungry, cranky, brain-fogged, malnourished and struggling to maintain a healthy weight. Meanwhile, the person eating a higher-calorie, real foods diet which includes foods like avocados, macadamia nuts and coconut oil, is enjoying healthy weight, better moods, more energy, and good sleep as her body knows how to use these foods in service of health.
By cutting out processed and packaged foods and focusing on real whole foods, you’ll be providing your body with a wide variety of nutrients that it can use to promote optimal health. Aim to have 6-8 servings of nutrient-dense vegetables a day, and avoid inflammatory, nutrient-poor foods as much as possible–namely sugar, flour, refined flour, hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, etc.
If you want to count something, try counting nutrients!
One of the keys to successful and sustainable weight loss is eating the right combinations of macronutrients that fill you up and keep you satiated. I tell my clients to incorporate PFF (protein, fat and fiber) at every meal to fill their belly, balance blood sugar, send the message of satiety to the brain and supply the body with health-promoting nutrients.
If you snack on a handful of Skittles, you’ll be hungry shortly after and searching for your next hit of sugar. If you snack on a handful of almonds, the protein, fat and fiber will balance your blood sugar and keep you full and satiated for a few hours.
Get in touch with your hunger and satiety signals
Meticulously measuring, weighing and counting at each meal and snack sounds like a real pain! Not to mention, it fosters a disconnected, fearful and obsessive relationship with food–one that focuses on restriction and deprivation, sucking the joy right out of eating! It’s also not sustainable in the long-term. Rather than calorie counting, I support the concept of intuitive eating.
Intuitive listening and eating is one of the most important tools for attaining and maintaining a healthy weight. For many women, being on diets their whole lives has severed their mind-body connection, so it may take some time to re-learn how to recognize when you’re hungry and full.
Start each meal by rating your hunger on a scale of 0 to 10. Zero is full and 10 is ravenous. Remove all distractions, such as your phone, computer, and TV, and take a few deep breaths with the meal in front of you. Eat slowly, chewing each bite thoroughly, and noticing the tastes, textures and aromas of the food. When you’re halfway through the meal, rate your hunger again on a scale of 0 to 10. Aim to stop eating at 80% full.
Once you’ve gotten reacquainted with your body’s satiety signals, you’ll end up consuming the exact number of calories your body needs.
Pay attention to meal timing
We hear a lot about what we should be eating but minimal attention is given to when. Eating according to your body’s natural rhythms is crucial for weight loss. Your digestive fire is at its peak between 10am and 2pm so eating a big, healthy lunch during that time is most efficient for digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
Our bodies love routine so aim to eat at roughly the same times every day, i.e., breakfast at 8am, lunch at 1pm and dinner at 6pm. As the digestive fire is weak in the evening, try to stop eating by 7pm ideally, or 8pm at the latest. Fasting for at least 12 hours between dinner and breakfast helps burn fat. Fasting promotes the secretion of Human Growth Hormone, optimizes muscle building and normalizes insulin sensitivity.
If you’ve made the switch to a whole foods diet, but you’re still having issues getting to your goal weight, check out this post with 13 essential steps for weight loss. If you still feel stuck, I suggest working with a practitioner to take a closer look at your gut health, metabolism, nutritional status, cortisol, blood sugar markers (fasting glucose, insulin), sleep, physical activity, thyroid and sex hormones.