Why Calories Don't Count

Why counting calories does not work

Hey You! 

I got inspired to write this blog in response to all of the messages flying at me about how much to eat (or not to eat) while pregnant. 

As a pregnant dietitian, I've been all too eager to dive head first into the nutrition recommendations advising how to best nourish my growing baby and keep my energy up in a body that just wants to sleep and sleep and sleep....

I quickly realized that most of the recommendations focus not on the best quality fuel to help us thrive, but instead on how many calories to eat, with a giant emphasis on not overdoing it. I guess the days of eating for two are gone... :(

Pregnant or not, this bad rumor flying around that food is merely a summation of calories, is not serving us. 

Nutrition is so much more than calories! Not to mention, counting those things is tedious and not very helpful.

In my years of coaching women, the one scenario I have found a calorie count helpful is to illustrate when someone is eating way too little. I see this most often with athletes in training - they don't realize how much more fuel they need to optimize performance. Even in these cases, calorie intake launches us into a conversation about how to improve overall diet quality; calories never serve as the focal point. 

Whether your goal is weight loss, building strength, recovery from illness or overall optimal health, we don't recommend calorie counting. Here's why.  

why counting calories doesn't work: 

1. Calories do not measure pleasure. 

Food provides the nutrients you need to focus on your work, to laugh with your friends, to play with your family and the energy to conquer your goals. Not to mention, food is delicious and fun to eat! Boiling it all down to just calories misses all the ways that food can nourish you, sustain you and make your life more fun. Rather than setting a calorie goal, focus on eating what brings you closest to your happiest, healthiest, most authentic self. 

2. Calories do not measure health.

An example I often use is comparing a 100 calorie apple to a 100 calorie cookie. Obviously these two foods don't have the same health benefits. The apple gives you antioxidants to fight cancer, fiber to boost your immune system and energizing hydration. The sugar-laden cookie disrupts your hormone balance, causing your energy to soar, then crash, then come crawling back for more. An apple vs a cookie can mean the difference between an energized, feeling-good you, and a cranky, sluggish you.

Too often calorie counting results in restriction of healthful foods, particularly healthy fats, like avocados, nuts/seeds, olive oil, full fat grass-fed yogurt, etc. These fats are needed for absorption of vitamins, for your brain function, for mood regulation, for staving off disease and so much more. Too often I see women who are irritable, blue and low energy and come to find out, they're following a low-fat/ low-calorie diet. Don't let this be your story. 

Instead of looking at the calories in a food, think about how that food can serve you and further goals. 

3. Calories do not determine your weight. 

True, overeating can cause weight gain. However, you can throw the overly-simplistic equation, weight = calories in vs calories out, straight out the window.  This outdated theory fails to consider the underlying causes of overeating. There are a lot of factors, beyond calories, that determine your ability to gain or lose weight. Here are a few: 

Quality vs quantity. Let's go back to the apple/cookie example above. The fiber and hydration in the apple keep you satisfied longer. By contrast, the sugar crash from the cookie quickly makes you hangry for fast-energy carbs. The apple, and other high-quality, nutrient dense foods help you eat less; the nutrient-poor cookie triggers you to eat more. Ultimately, what you eat determines how much you eat. 

This is why the U.S. faces an obesity epidemic coinciding with rampant micronutrient deficiencies. The typical American diet, of mostly nutrient deplete foods, tells the body it's not getting the nourishment it needs, which in turn triggers hunger and craving fast-acting carbs. It's a vicious cycle of undernutrition and overeating that can be solved with higher quality foods, not by cutting calories. 

Metabolic rate. It turns out that cutting calories slows your metabolism. Although cutting calories can make you lose weight in the short term, the net effect is that your body gets more efficient by burning fewer calories and storing more fat. This explains why The Biggest Loser contestants couldn't keep the weight off. 

Calories also fall short of taking into account all of the determinants of your metabolic rate like your thyroid health, your blood sugar control, your stress levels and how much muscle you have. If your thyroid hormone levels are off or if your pancreas is over producing insulin, a calorie restricted diet will make you hungry, tired and probably cranky, but it won't help with weight loss. 

Fat needs fuel to burn. Fuel is needed to trigger the metabolic pathway that burns fat. If your body is underfed, you will store fat and instead burn muscle. To build long, lean muscles and ramp up your metabolism, you need the right fuel at the right times. Whole, nutrient-dense foods are that fuel; not calorie-free food substitutes. 

4. Counting calories is not fun. 

At Eat with Zest, we are all about getting more joy from food and from life. Counting calories is more soul-sucking than life-giving, not to mention, soooo time consuming. We recommend you skip all the math and save your brain power :)  

5. Most importantly, calories don't know what's best for you. 

My biggest complaint against calorie counting is that it does not teach you to trust your body's wisdom. You know yourself best. You know when you need more fuel and when you have had enough. Defying those physical cues for the sake of sticking to a calorie goal only makes it more challenging to figure out what your body really needs. For your long-term health and happiness, honor your hunger and throw out your worries about calories. 

Looking for guidance to achieve your health goals? We offer personalized nutrition plans that offer a holistic approach based on what's right for you and your life. 

LOVE THE FOOD THAT FUELS YOU!

Love & Zest,

Anna