The Un-Diet Diet: Stop Counting Calories
Most likely in your journey of staying healthy and fit you count, or have counted, calories. Whether in the pursuit of some number on the scale or an improvement in health markers, counting calories seems like a smart way to stay on target with your goals. You may even use a fancy gadget to tell you how many steps you’ve taken, how many calories you’ve burned and how you’ve slept. These gadgets can be very useful to motivate you to move more or go to bed earlier, but they won’t necessarily help you reach your health goals by counting calories alone. That is because the number of calories your body actually consumes and burns is mostly a guessing game.
The Problem with Calorie Counting
It is assumed that every number on a food label, piece of cardio equipment or fitness tracker must be accurate. In reality, the amount of calories you absorb from a food and how your body burns those calories varies wildly from day to day and person to person.
1. Calories In. There are many problems with accurately estimating how many calories your body absorbs in a day.
- Food companies and databases are allowed to use average calories for a specific food item. This makes sense, but the food you choose may not be the exact calories they predict. For instance, an apple could be anywhere from 80 to 120 calories and a “large” sweet potato calorie count could vary by over 300 calories!
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows food companies to be up to 20% inaccurate with their calorie estimate. This means a “100 Calorie” snack pack could actually be 120 calories and a 150 calorie yogurt may be closer to 200.
- Your body absorbs fewer calories from nuts and seeds and more calories from fiber rich foods. Counting calories for a kale salad with slivered almonds would be very imprecise since you may absorb 32% less of estimated calories from almonds and 28% more than estimated for kale.
- The way you prepare your food will change its calorie count. Chopping or blending your food as well as cooking your meats will increase calories absorbed from those foods.
- Eyeballing your portion sizes will affect the calories consumed. It is very easy to scoop a spoonful of nut butter on your oatmeal and say it is one tablespoon – and track it as such. However, a rounded spoonful of nut butter can add 100+ calories to your estimate.
- Your gut bacteria has a say in how you absorb calories. Based on the ratio of different species of gut bacteria, your body could absorb an additional 150 calories.
2. Calories Out. Measuring how many calories you’ve burned in a day is not an exact science. There are many things that influence how you burn calories.
- Exercise equipment, databases and fitness trackers guesstimate. Nearly every estimate you see for calories burned on equipment and databases can have up to a 45% margin of error. Additionally, fitness trackers can be off by as much as 30%. For example, if your fitness tracker says you burned 300 calories, you may have only burned 210 calories.
- Your genes and environment dictate calories burned. Your genetics can definitely play a part in how efficiently you burn calories, but your environment may be even more important. Your environment can both negatively affect your metabolism – such as toxins from your food, drink and home – and positively affect the expression of your genes – think lots of colorful plants. How you choose your environment can either minimize or maximize the calories you burn in a day and in your workouts.
- Sleep matters. Just one night of sleep deprivation can decrease calories burned by as much as 20%. Your quality of sleep is important when it comes to calculating calories burned.
- Hormones affect calories too. During a woman’s menstrual cycle, resting metabolic rate (how many calories you burn at rest) can vary by over 100 calories per day.
- How you adapt to calories consumed can affect calories burned. Adaptive metabolism is your body adjusting to food intake. It allows you to increase metabolism in response to overeating. However, not everyone is lucky enough to adapt. In one study, people who consumed 1,000 extra calories per day for 8 weeks had varying weight gains – from as little as less than a pound to almost 10 pounds of weight gain. If you seem to gain weight easily, you may have poor adaptive metabolism.
- Having a history of being overweight or obese can make things harder. Adaptive thermogenesis is what happens when your body adapts to a lower calorie input. Your body will require less calories in order to survive. This means your muscles work more efficiently and burn less calories with exercise and daily living. If you’ve ever lost weight on a very calorie restrictive diet, your body may have adapted to be more efficient in times of “starvation” and now needs 300 fewer calories than predicted for your new body. Adaptive thermogenesis means it will be harder to maintain your current weight without continuing to severely restrict calories.
- You burn calories differently based on the macronutrient you’ve consumed. You may burn up to 30% protein, 10% carbohydrates and 3% of fat consumed just in the process of digesting your food. That leaves less calories to burn for the rest of your body’s functions.
On top of calorie counting, you may decide to pick foods labeled to fit your current diet of choice. You may choose “low fat” ice cream which could be just as high if not higher in calories than regular ice cream. You may choose “low calorie” or “sugar free” products, which brings toxic artificial ingredients into the mix. You may even go the seemingly healthier route of picking “keto” drinks because, well Keto is the new trending diet and your friend lost a lot of weight doing it. All of these have one thing in common – you’re still eating processed foods. You can make any diet a bad diet when you’re consuming mostly packaged foods. There are vegan donuts, Paleo cookies and Keto shakes. These processed foods disrupt your body’s natural cues for hunger and satiety. So whether you’re counting calories or not, being on a diet filled with processed foods may not give you lasting results.
All of these things combined with the human tendency to naturally underestimate calories consumed and overestimate calories burned, it’s no wonder it may feel hard to reach your weight goals. Of course, this does not mean you need to obsessively avoid blended or cooked foods to absorb less calories, incessantly weigh and measure everything you put in your mouth, pick a high protein and low-fat diet just to burn more calories digesting your foods, or totally give up because you were once, or are now, overweight. These are the antithesis of health! Food is life, it is community, and it is family. Food is meant to be enjoyed. When you focus too much on arbitrary numbers you disconnect with how your body feels and the experience food brings when you share it with others. It is the act of reconnecting with your food that will get you to your weight and health goals.
Rest and Digest, and Do Not Obsess
Many of us are disconnected from food and the present. We play on our phones, we spend hours on the computer and unwind in front of the television. We are very connected to technology, but very disconnected to our food. Do you remember the last time you sat down to a meal and ate mindfully with no electronic distractions? Was it before cell phones became popular?
Society keeps us plugged in more and more every decade and we have forgotten how to live in the present. Societal norms also include working as much as possible, skipping lunch breaks and consistently staying on-the-go with work and family obligations in order to feel successful with life. This creates a chronic state of stress. No downtime, no “me” time, and certainly no mindfulness eating time.
Any time your body encounters a stressor, your sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system kicks into gear. If you’ve ever been up to the last minute of a deadline; your heart racing, your mind and fingers quicker than lightening, a shot of adrenaline got you to the finish line. This was your sympathetic nervous system at work. The issue, however, is when you are living in fight or flight it prevents you from entering “rest and digest.” Your parasympathetic nervous system, also called the “rest and digest” nervous system, is what allows your body to relax and your digestive system to operate smoothly. These two nervous systems work in opposition of each other. If you are in fight or flight mode you cannot be in rest and digest.
This means when you eat under stress whether eating quickly, obsessing about every calorie, feeling guilty while eating an indulgent food or otherwise being stressed while you’re eating, your body cannot properly breakdown food and utilize its nutrients. Without enough nutrients, guess what? Your body will crave more food! You haven’t allowed your brain to register food entering your body so you could still be hungry even after a big meal. Mindless eating can be just as bad as eating highly processed foods, and if you’re mindlessly eating a lot of processed foods you’ve doubled down on hindering your weight and health goals.
Finding (Macro) Balance
Although you may have set patterns of obsessively counting calories or eating mindlessly, there is hope for change. It’s about finding balance and letting go of numbers. You are unique and many things affect how your body absorbs and burns calories, so obsessing about arbitrary numbers can work against your goals.
Instead, it is time to pay attention to how food makes you feel. Here are tips to help you live a more balanced life in food, stress and weight.
1. Work towards consuming only whole or minimally processed foods. When you consume food in its most natural state your body has the best chance to feel satisfied with the fuel and nutrients it provides. A whole foods menu will help you naturally eat the amount of food that sustains you without counting one calorie.
2. Uncover potential hidden food allergens. Once you are eating a whole foods meal plan, you may still be hindered by foods that are working against you. One or more of the six common food allergens; gluten, dairy, corn, soy, peanuts, and eggs may be creating inflammation in the body and promoting weight gain. If you still feel like you’re not reaching your goals, try an elimination diet to see if any common allergens are halting your progress.
3. Understand what ratio of macronutrients works for your body. Once you have found a whole foods plan that eliminates your specific allergens, you can dive deeper to determine what fuels your body best. You may do really well on a higher fat menu, or abound with energy when you eat higher protein. Once you are eating foods in their natural state it is much easier to understand how these foods affect your energy and health.
4. Eat slowly and mindfully. The more aware you are during your meal, the more in tune your body will be with how many calories it needs. This is what will set you on the course to proper portions and calories while setting you on your path to optimal weight.
It’s time to stop crunching those numbers! Instead, let go of the mindless patterns and invite the mindful changes in. Your body will thank you.
Stephanie Walsh, MNT, CEPC, CPT is a Master Nutrition Therapist, Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition®, Certified Eating Psychology Coach and Personal Trainer. Her work with clients focuses on the individual as a whole – considering your diet is just one small piece of the puzzle. Her holistic approach considers your stressors, sleep quality, digestive complaints, food choices, activity level, readiness for change, social support and much more in order to help you optimize your health and wellbeing for the long term. Contact Stephanie at 207-730-2208 or email her: firstname.lastname@example.org.