Why I Don't Count Calories - Part 1
Back in my teens I knew the calorie count for almost all the foods in our kitchen. Bear in mind, this was pre-Google and pre-app days, so this took a fair amount of label obsessing and research. When it came to my food, calories and fat content (ah, the low-fat 90s!) reigned supreme and actual healthy choices were generally a bit of an afterthought.
Switching on to healthy eating and stopping calorie counting was liberating. Admittedly it was scary at first, but learning more about the health effects of foods opened my eyes, prompted me to start my nutritional therapy degree, and actually got me excited about food again!
When most weight loss clients come to me, they’ve already been through a slew of short-term diets; had a history of weight loss and gain in yo-yo cycles and are looking for sustainable weight loss, maintenance and great health. They’ve come to view food in such a negative way, and see it as something always needing to be restricted.
We know that eating less calories than we expend should lead to weight loss; but sometimes it’s not so simple. There can be other important physiological factors to consider – hormones, such as insulin and the gut microbiome (bacteria) for starters – which can impact weight loss. But for the sake of this blog I’ll put those aside for now.
Let’s not forget – we’re not machines. Numbers are one thing, but sometimes there are different reasons why we eat more energy than we need – both physiological as well as emotional reasons. And those often need a lot more focus than the numbers themselves.
So why might we eat more calories than our body needs?
Blood Sugar Balance
Our blood sugar levels fluctuate throughout the day, increasing after we eat, and falling in between meals. Poorly managed blood sugar fluctuations (ie. spikes and crashes) can result from a diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates (often found in low-fat, low-calorie foods). This can lead to poor appetite control and fluctuating energy levels. When insulin, one of the most important hormones for blood sugar regulation, is poorly managed, then this can lead to increased fat storage in the body.
As a starting point, getting blood sugar fluctuations on track can therefore have a profound effect on a client’s hunger. Not to mention their energy levels, mood, and of course – weight loss. Stabilising blood sugar usually involves including fats and proteins in each meal. Given that fats contain the highest number of calories per gram, this is something dieters tend to skip.
For many people, reducing the frequency of meals and snacks can have a huge impact on weight loss too.
Many clients feel confused when it comes to portion control, and unless a recipe is very specific, meticulously measuring or weighing each food is generally unrealistic. Not to mention an unhealthy way to approach eating.
Using basic visual guidelines for each food group, as well as looking at the proportions of different food groups in a typical food plate can be hugely helpful.
I love using the Alliance for Natural Health food plate as a guide for this and find it really effective when getting clients to move beyond the standard 5 a day goal and moving closer in line with 6-8 portions of vegetables and an optional 2 portions of fruit a day.
Increasing non-starchy vegetables isn’t just a great way to increase natural forms of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, water and fibre; but when they take up half your plate, then there is less room for other foods that may be more calorie dense, such as rice or pasta.
Yes, this reduces calorie content – but this is not the main purpose of boosting vegetables!
It’s never been easier to count your calories or “track” your food intake. We have a range of apps to choose from, internet access, clear food labels and a growing number of restaurants who have started to label their menus with calorie information (I’m so not on board with that!).
In a nutshell anyone can work out their calorie intake and deficit that they need; but many of us who carry unwanted weight, eat beyond the point of satisfaction, beyond our calorie “allowance”- often as a form of comfort or punishment. In this case numbers won’t help; but rather making lifestyle changes to address underlying issues. Sometimes these changes will be the priority when it comes weight loss; and some of these, including depression and anxiety can be supported with nutritional intervention (alongside other therapies).
Mealtimes aren’t what they used to be and many of us find ourselves eating lunch at our desk, grabbing breakfast on the go or eating dinner in front of the TV or laptop. As a result we pay little attention to our food, feelings of satisfaction and our enjoyment. This makes it easy to eat more than our body naturally needs. Mindful eating is a fantastic way to re-tune yourself to what your body needs – a more intuitive way of eating.
For more on this I can highly recommend the Mindfulness Based Eating Solution by Lyn Rossy and you can also find a course on the Headspace app.
It’s a no-brainer that we will feel the need to eat more when we are tired. But lack of sleep can impact the food choices that we make as well as having a physiological impact on the body’s natural appetite regulating hormones and ones that can directly affect fat gain or loss.
Focusing on increasing good quality sleep can have a profound impact on food choices and weight. Speaking from personal experience, I know that my food choices are noticeably different if I’m not getting at least 7 ½ hours sleep each night. I’ll be coming back to the importance of sleep in a future blog.
So it’s not just lack of willpower or caloric knowledge. Several factors can influence the amount of food we eat and energy we take in. Many of these can be positively and healthily influenced in the ways I’ve just outlined.
Do bear in mind that calorie counting also fails to address other aspects of health and nutrition, such as micronutrients, and diversity, which, I’ll discuss in part 2.