Calorie counting can be a big debate nowadays. In fact, I have started this blog several times only to delete it due to many diverse viewpoints—as well as my own mixed feelings on the topic.
Traditionally, the gold standard for weight loss is to eat less and move more. To ensure that you are not eating too much, many people begin tracking calories and, thanks to technology, calorie counting is no longer a tedious pencil and paper task. Today, tracking dietary intake is as easy as scanning a bar code with your smart phone. There are labels on everything, books on “eat this not that” and even your restaurant menu items’ nutrition info is within a click of a button’s reach. Calories are everywhere. But are they really the thing we should be focusing on?
Here are a few reasons why we shouldn’t:
In many scenarios, people sacrifice quality, wholesome food for the sake of eating something lower in calories. Real food has calories and sometimes a lot of them! You know what doesn’t have calories? Chemicals. When you choose low-fat or reduced-calorie products, you actually are now choosing an item that is more chemical-based than one made with natural ingredients. Keep in mind that we were created to digest and metabolize real food, not man-made chemicals. Over the past several decades, our food has become more and more processed and you know what else has happened in that time frame? We have become more obese and more diabetic as a nation. While correlation does not prove causation, that’s some great “food for thought” to digest.
You know what else is magical about counting calories? In theory, you can still eat whatever you want as long as you are within your calorie goal for the day. For example, you can consume a McDonald’s Big Mac and fries for lunch but by only eating 75% of the meal, you stay within your total calories allotted for the day. In this particular example, counting calories did not change the fact that you still ate a crappy lunch. The scary thing is that counting calories still doesn’t necessarily teach people how to eat more nutritious food; it simply encourages individuals to reduce the portion sizes of their current dietary choices.
Counting can often lead to consuming too few calories.
I have had several encounters with patients who are highly motivated to lose weight. In fact, they are often already counting calories, following 1,200 calorie meal plans and exercising 6 days a week. They come to me asking what else they need to cut out of the diet to lose weight. Cutting more calories is not the solution. You see, you cannot continue to starve a burned-out metabolism. Consuming too little calories, skipping snacks and over-exercising all can cause the metabolism to down-regulate. At this point, it literally does not matter how healthy you eat, your body will only store that energy rather than burn it up as a fuel source. This is why it is so important to properly fuel your metabolism when losing weight rather than send it down a starvation spiral.
It can sometimes lead to an unhealthy obsession.
Losing weight can be a thrilling experience. I mean, who wouldn’t want to feel instant gratification for their hard work and efforts? But there is a very fine line drawn when calorie counting becomes an obsession. Soon, foods become “forbidden” because they are not healthy enough or too high in calories. Some individuals may bypass social interactions if they’re unsure if healthy food will be offered. Others may try to burn off excess calories by adding extra workouts to their day. Mealtimes should still be pleasurable, not a constant math exam of adding and subtracting calories from eating and exercising.
My argument is not stating that counting calories doesn’t work. I am merely shedding an opposing light on the topic. And as you can tell, it’s certainly not my first preference to recommend for individuals seeking weight loss advice. The reason is because most people need to first repair their metabolism. This can be accomplished by eating frequently, choosing whole forms of food over processed versions, reducing sugar intake and cooking in the kitchen. Once these issues are addressed, then I am happy to discuss calories and/or types of calories for weight loss. And believe me, I will not be putting anyone on a 1,200 calorie diet.
Remember, eating healthy should be about abundance, not deprivation.