Still Counting Calories? Stop That, Right Now!

If your weight loss tactic is counting calories, you may want to re-think your approach.

The Energy Balance equation of still applies:

  • Eat fewer calories than you burn and you’ll lose weight.
  • Eat more calories than you burn and you’ll gain weight.
  • Eat the same number of calories you burn and your weight will remain stable.

That is simple science and remains true. However, there are a lot of factors that play into this simple equation.

The first problem with the energy balance is the theory that 3,500 calories is equal to a pound of body weight. Thus, if you cut 500 calories from your diet daily you should, in theory, lose a pound a week. Good theory. We know however, that this is not actually the case. How? Well, if that were indeed the way it worked a 120 pound person would end up weighing 0 pounds in just over 2 years. Of course this isn’t the case. Metabolism plays a big part here. Our bodies are highly efficient and our metabolism will slow down when calories are decreased for any length of time. Thus the initial weight loss on most diet plans followed by a plateau when our metabolism catches on to the steady decrease in fuel.

Other issues with the Energy Balance Equation come from calculating ‘calories in’ and ‘calories out’. While meticulous tracking of every calorie ingested and expended sounds like a foolproof plan (albeit tedious, time-consuming and stressful), this system will quickly lead to frustration due to the amount of variables that come into play. These include:

  • The number of calories printed on the nutrition label can be off by as much as 20-25 percent due to the imprecise method of determining these values.
  • A food calorie, calculated in a lab, may not be the food calorie we burn in our body. There are perhaps hundreds of variables at play that effect how much of the calorie we burn including age, weight, hormones, gender, lean muscle mass, etc.
  • The amount of energy we absorb, store and use from those calories can vary greatly depending on the food and our unique bodies. Minimally processed, ‘whole foods’, take more work for our bodies to digest, thus we absorb less energy (calories) from them. On the contrary, highly processed foods are readily absorbed and hit the blood stream at a much quicker rate.
  • There are many variables that make up the amount of calories we expend every day: Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), is the amount of fuel your body uses everyday, Thermic Effect of Eating (TEE) – the amount of calories used to digest your food, regular daily activity, additional physical activity you get (hopefully). It would nearly impossible to specifically and accurately measure the amount of calories you burn in a given day and it would need to be recalculated daily.
  • Not all calories are created equal. The calories in some processed foods are usually less nutrient dense and therefore less satisfying than the calories we get from whole foods. Foods such as peanuts and avocados, can tack on calories quickly but are great sources of healthy fats and will keep you filling full longer than Cheetos, for example, for the same amount of calories. Think quality over quantity.

Don’t get me wrong – I am a big advocate of food journaling, just not calorie counting. There are definite benefits:

  • Tracking and food journaling are great ways to get a handle on what you eating, when you are eating it and why you are eating. You can uncover patterns like always eating sweets before bed or snacking as a way to avoid work.
  • Calorie awareness is also good. Educating yourself on what foods are high or low in calories helps you make better choices.
  • Knowing how your macronutrients (protein, carbs and fats) stack up for the day is also a powerful tool when it comes to weight loss.

I’m talking about 1200 calories being a ‘good day’ and 1201 calories being a ‘bad day’. Don’t do that to yourself. Obsessing over the numbers is stressful, it squashes the satisfaction of enjoying food and is counterproductive because stress is directly related to weight gain. You will also find yourself on the express route to Crazy Town.

So, how do you eat well, maintain weight or even lose weight without having to count calories?

  • Focus on building your meals around healthy, nutrient rich foods that satisfy your appetite and boost metabolism.
  • Concentrate on what you are eating, not how many calories are in it.
  • Listen to your body for hunger and fullness cues, not the calorie tally in your journal.
  • Do a quick self monitor when making a food choice, “Is this getting me closer to goal or further away from my goal?’, then make the choice and own it.