When it comes to wanting to lose a few extra pounds, most of us immediately think about the calories we eat versus the calories we burn through exercise. We come up with an arbitrary number of calories we should be eating, very loosely based on some research we read about somewhere, and start our own opposed diet. Quickly we realize that the only thing going down is our mood and our motivation to continue starving ourselves in the kitchen and killing ourselves at the gym.
Let me tell you a secret!
It’s never about the calories in versus the calories out. Yes, this is a big statement, and I know a lot of people will protest in their minds and stop reading. I humor you to just continue until the end.
Checking calories has been drilled into us since we can remember. Most children see parents or other family members dieting. Doctors have told us to watch our calorie intake. TV ads sell us products based on as little calories as possible. We choose exercise classes purely based on the amount of calories we can burn. When eating we are bombarded with calorie information on the menu. Plus most of us are wandering calorie encyclopedias.
And what has all of this information done for us?
The world population as a whole is bigger and heavier than ever before. Almost a third of the world population is overweight - that is over 2 billion people! If it was so easy to lose weight with calories in versus calories out, why isn’t everyone doing it? Here is why I don’t believe calorie counting works.
Calories are not created equal
Let’s say you pick a number of eating 1500 calories a day (I made up this number, I am not saying that is what you should be eating :-)). Most people think that it doesn’t matter what they eat, as long as they stay within their calorie limit.
Well, a large meal at a fast food joint with a burger, fries, and a soft drink can already bring you pretty close to this number. And that is just one meal, which means you will technically need to starve for the rest of the day. Besides this, think about processed ingredients in this food: the white flour for the bun, the meat inflated with additives to keep it looking fresh, the ketchup with the spoonfuls of white sugar. When we break down the meal, there are really not a lot of nutrients that help us feel alive and fresh. The meal is lacking essential vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants. The same amount of calories from great quality fats, whole grains, and fresh vegetables is a very different nutrient profile that will make you feel alive and vibrant.
Calories listed are very generalized
Do you know how the calorie content ends up on the back of a food package? Knowing how many calories are in something is very time consuming and expensive. There is something called calorimetry, which is a way to measure how many calories are for example in a tomato. The tomato gets put into a bulb like looking machine and burned. The heat that evaporates during this process of burning is measured, plus the ash that stays behind. With this, the amount of calories can be determined for this specific tomato. This has been done for numerous ingredients, however not every single packaged food goes through this process. When you buy a jar of tomato sauce, the company uses average calorie numbers for the tomato, basil, and other ingredients to calculate the calorie content of the tomato sauce. That in itself is highly inaccurate, since not every kind of tomato has the same calorie content. We then take this number as the golden standard, and only eat as much of this tomato sauce that fits with our already arbitrary number of how many calories we can eat per day. Do you see what I am getting at? Everything regarding calories is extremely inaccurate, yet we freak out if we had 10 calories too much for the day and think that is why we can't lose weight!
Every body is different
We don’t all fit into a box. Yes, you can learn about anatomy (the structure of the body) and physiology (the inner workings of the body). It is quite mind blowing how many millions of things happen at the same time just for us to be able to take a breath… and we never think about it! Of course there is room for small errors, and they do happen every time. Which makes every single body different and unique. Just like no one else looks like you, no other person functions exactly the way you do. Even though there are some basics of how your metabolism functions to use the calories you eat, your sex, your weight, your height, your age, your genes, your childhood, the foods you eat, the kind of exercise you choose to do, the environment you live in, the level of stress you live with, the beliefs you have formed around your body, and so much more all influence how you use the calories you eat and how you burn calories when you exercise. Knowing all this, doesn’t it make you wonder how a spin class is advertised as burning 1000 calories in 30 minutes? This is based on some people, but not on you. You might only walk out burning 200 for all you know. And don’t even get me started on exercise watches that tell you all about the calories you have burnt. Just inputting your height, weight, sex, and age is not an accurate way to track the calories you burn.
The complexity of what happens can never be mirrored in a number
Most of us A-type personalities, who have the need to obsessively track and control everything, thrive on controlling the amount of calories going in versus the calories going out. We make ourselves believe that if we can control everything, we must be able to change our body. And yet it never works this way. I hope you see that counting calories both going in and going out is extremely inaccurate. Instead it drives most of us crazy, and we end up bingeing on chocolate in the middle of the night, because maybe calories that we eat at night and don’t write down in our food journal or app don’t count?
The missing part: joy
Even if you put two people with a similar body metabolism on the same food and exercise path, they will have very different results. While one may enjoy the routine of exercises and food prescribed, the other may hate every bit of it. And here lies the key of what we often forget when we talk about diets and extreme workout programs. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s probably not going to work for you. I am not saying you have to love every minute of burpees or downward dog, but in general you want to look forward to your exercise and food. If a salad at lunch makes you cringe every time your fork digs in, it will never nourish you. You need to really enjoy the process in order to see results. You body is not going to change if it believes it is suffering because of the path you have chosen. Your body will always protect you, and in this case it means keeping the weight on.
Quit the calorie counting already
We try to count calories to feel in control of a topic that is so emotional and so out of control. It is something we need to feel, rather than count. When you feel strong from your push ups, when you feel alive from the green smoothie, when you feel full of energy in the morning jumping out of bed, that is when you know you have succeeded. The weight will just take care of itself then. But because all of these things are not instant gratification, we often give up. We can track calories in real time - a better immune system might only become important when the winter months are here. One of my favorite nutritional biochemists, Dr. Libby, always says: “If you have to count something, count nutrients instead of calories”. I love that. When you eat food that nourishes you, when you move your body in a way you enjoy, you will never have to worry about your weight, because you just feel so much better inside. And that will show on the outside!
Think of all the brain space you can free up when you forget all about the calories :-)