Why I Don't Count Calories - Part 2
So Why else am I not a fan of calorie counting?
Quantity over Quality
Choosing nutrient-rich foods is fundamental to the nutritional therapist approach. I always encourage clients to view foods in a positive way. This means understanding the benefits of the different micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) as well as the macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) and how they can impact their individual health issues and goals. In other words - shifting from a restrictive approach towards food, to a proactive one.
For serial dieters this can represent a hugely positive change in thinking. Clients seeking nutritional therapy are looking for more than just weight loss, and want to know what foods can support their individual health needs.
Counting calories can encourage us to favour less nutrient dense, lower calorie foods over ones that might contain nutrients that we're lacking. At this time of year, it’s not uncommon to see comparison posts on social media thar promote lower calorie foods over higher calorie unprocessed, nutrient-rich options.
Whether they contain less fat, less sugar or sweeteners to replace sugar, people wanting to lose weight often feel that they are making a healthier choice with diet foods, rather than making changes to their overall diet.
It’s understandable, as it’s an easier option, but these foods are still processed and “diet” versions can often be unhealthier than the original.
Take sweeteners for example. There is still a large element of controversy around the safety of certain artificial sweeteners; however, even aside from those, I encourage clients to avoid them. Designed to taste several hundred times sweeter than regular sugar, they don’t help anyone trying to reduce their overall sugar content as they just further desensitise our taste buds. Taking a little sugar break can be a great way to re-sensitize your taste buds, and I’ll talk more about this another time...
In an overall 80:20 approach to nutrition (80% proactive healthy choices, and 20% leeway for a more relaxed and sustainable approach) most people should be able to have a sweet treat without any issues. There are a number of less processed healthy treats available, which use dried fruit for sweetness. There is also a huge selection of healthier treat recipes you can find online, that can help to satisfy the need for a treat. If your sweet craving extends beyond that, then it maybe a sign that your blood sugar levels are not being controlled very well.
Increasing diversity in our diet is not just important to help increase the range of nutrients we eat; but it can strongly affect the diversity of the good bacteria in our gut. This increased diversity has been linked to better health in many conditions as well as weight loss.
For more about the health of the gut microbiome, there’s a nice summary you can link to here on the BMJ website
Once you get on board with trying new foods as part of a positive dietary approach, it’s great to experiment with new recipes and ideas. Unfortunately, many of us are pushed for time when it comes to meals, so having to re-calculate calories or start from scratch for a meal can be off putting. It becomes very tempting to stick with what you know… (Doing this for sports nutrition clients, I can testify that it is a tedious process even with easy to use software).
Counting calories over a period of time can have a huge impact on your psychological relationship with food. Some people are prone to eating disorders and this can be a triggering factor.
From my own experience of dieting, it took a long while to get over calorie counting and the almost constant sense of anxiety or guilt around food to feel comfortable around it again. I could say that this was years ago before my studies; but it came back a few years ago when I had to “cut” weight for a K1 (martial arts) fight. I wasn’t losing weight for looks or health; but to be a certain weight in order to compete in my category. After the fight I found it incredibly difficult to recalibrate to a normal way of eating.
I appreciate that some people love to count calories, and can find a balance between the numbers and healthy and diverse food choices, and can maintain a positive approach towards food; but it’s not something that I do myself (for weight loss or maintenance) or for my weight loss clients.
The exception is that I do track calories and macronutrients for some sports nutrition clients, who need to reach a specific weight at a specified time; but this is always short-term. I may also use this if sports nutrition clients don’t seem to be eating enough for their activity levels, and who need to check this.
You could argue that calorie counting could work alongside many of the principles I’ve discussed – eg balancing blood sugar, including variety and focusing on the nutrients. But in my own personal experience, and in many of my own client’s experience, this is usually:
a) Not necessary. Changes in nutrition and lifestyle factors in their own right can often be enough.
b) Harmful. Not physically but mentally. I may be the final port of call after a history of different diets and unhealthy relationships with food.
As we start the new year, we see countless adverts for different diets and weight loss products. I totally understand and appreciate the calorie deficit backlash against many of these quick-fix products; but bear in mind that the calories in vs calories out model isn’t always so simple. It may not be the healthiest approach to eating, or help you find the best foods for your health.
Why don’t I count calories for myself or my clients?
Establishing a calorie allowance/deficit is descriptive. Other factors influence how much we eat, including:
- Blood sugar control
- Establishing portion and proportion control
- Mindful eating
- Emotional issues
Focusing on calories can:
- Steer us away from nutrient rich foods
- Promote “diet” foods with gut bacteria disruption sweeteners
- Discourage variety in our foods leading to a less diverse gut bacteria environment
- Encourage an unhealthy relationship with food.
Love your food and keep an eye out for tips, recipes and blogs from me in 2019!