I do not take a calorie based approach in my practice. I encourage my clients to focus on eating real, wholesome foods and to listen to their bodies natural hunger and satiation signals. I find clients THRIVE on this method and many are relieved to be freed from years of feeling like a slave to a specific number of calories or “points”. The reason I have people completely ignore calories is because they really are not useful information. Read on to find out WHY they often give us a false sense of control and security that we are making good choices but can actually lead us astray.
You are not getting to the right number
In the United States, there is a 20% margin of error allowed on the calories on nutrition facts labels (1). That’s pretty huge. If you think something is 200 calories, it could be anywhere between 160 and 240 calories. If you extrapolate that margin of error through out your whole day, you could be over 100% wrong in your calorie calculations at the end of the day. Not to mention, this 20% only applies to foods that HAVE a label. But many people track the calories of foods without labels, like an apple for instance. Well if you are logging calories and say you ate an apple, whatever calorie app you are using might tell you that an apple is 80 calories. Which, it might be. But a small apple could be as low as 65 calories and a large apple could be 110 calories. Not to mention, did you eat the entire apple down to the core or was there some left on the core? So there goes that margin of error again. Long story short - it is near impossible to count your exact calorie intake each day, you will end up with a number at the end of the day, but it is not correct. So why spend precious time on earth counting?
Even if you were getting to the right number (which you are not) there is no perfect number
Let’s pretend you could calculate your EXACT calorie intake each day (which you can’t, I don’t care how diligent you are, based on the reasons above there will be some error) what will you do with that number? As much as online calculators and online macro coaches (who often do not have an education in nutrition) will promise that all your problems will be solved if you stick to a certain calorie and/or macro ratio every day, this magic number actually does not exist. Why? Because there are SO many factors affecting your calorie and nutrient needs. EveryDAY and everyBODY is different! So there truly is not a perfect number, it is just another construct created to give people a false sense of security and achievement, or, in other cases, cause unnecessary guilt and shame.
Like I said, every day is different. How much sleep we got the night before (2), our hormone levels (which are CONSTANTLY fluctuating) (3), our activity level (4) and so many factors will impact our daily food needs. Each of these factors changes on a daily basis, and thus, so does our nutrient needs. Also, I didn’t even mention the biggest, but least visible factor on our metabolism/calorie/nutrient needs … our microbiome. I know I might sound like a broken record with my gut talk but it truly impacts almost EVERY part of our wellbeing!
We have about a 10:1 ratio of microbial genes to human genes in our bodies (9). This means that we are more our microbiome (bacteria living in and on us) than ourselves. So it’s no wonder this plays a huge role in how our body functions including our metabolism and daily calorie and nutrient needs. There have been countless clinical studies on how shifts in the microbial community change metabolism and how many calories an individual even extracts from a given food (5, 6, 7). So back to that hypothetical situation where you are able to accurately calculate how many calories you eat in a day, you don’t know how much your body is EXTRACTING. Two specific strains of bacteria that are particularly important to this, are firmicutes and bacteroidetes. The higher the F/B ratio is, the more calories someone extracts from food and the higher their BMI and propensity towards obesity (8). As with most things in the body, gut health plays a HUGE but invisible role. I recommend everyone take a good prebiotic and probiotic like Just Thrive (code PRESS15 to save $$) to help optimize gut health (of course there is much more to this but Just Thrive is a good starting point).
Again, my point is don’t get caught up on a specific number because there really isn’t a perfect number.
not all calories are created equal
Different foods, even of equal calorie amounts, have completely different effects on the body. For instance, some foods have a higher thermic effect of feeding than others. Thermic effect of feeding (TEF) refers to the calorie burn (or diet-induced-thermogensis) caused by eating a food (11). Certain foods like, protein rich foods, have a very high TEF, while other foods have almost no TEF (10). So while two foods may have the same exact calories listed on the label, let’s say 100 calories for the purpose of this example, you may burn 20 calories eating a high protein food that has a high TEF, so you are only absorbing 80 calories, and you may absorb all 100 calories of a food with a low TEF, like a refined carbohydrate. So this goes back to the “you aren’t getting to the right number” argument I made at the beginning of this post. But foods have effects beyond calories too.
Different TYPES (not amounts) of calories/foods have different impacts on our hormones that regulate appetite, metabolism, body fat stores etc. Many people count calories as a means of weight control, but this ignores these hormonal effects. For instance, pure fat has no effect on insulin (13), which, is a blood sugar regulating hormone that can cause excess body fat storage. Fats often get demonized in the diet world because they are calorie-dense. But insulin will play a much bigger role on whether our body stores extra fat tissue than number of calories (12). When people are trying to stay within a certain calorie range, it can often encourage them to opt for “low-calorie” foods, like 100-calorie packs of cheek-its or low-calorie bread or peanut butter, when in fact these foods are much higher in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are what cause the biggest insulin spike, and thus body fat storage. If these same people did not make their decisions based on calories, and incorporated some healthy fats, which, have no effect on insulin, they may actually lose weight by eating more calories. In fact, this study showed that by pairing potatoes (simple carb) with butter (simple fat), subjects were able to significantly lower their insulin response after eating (14). So by adding calories (in the form of butter) they lowered their insulin and reduced their chance of body fat tissue storage. Thus proving calories are not the best tool for weight management.
Ghrelin is another hormone impacted by the TYPE of calories eaten. Ghrelin is known as the hunger hormone, increased ghrelin will increase appetite. Studies have shown that eating more fat (again, calorie dense) can reduce ghrelin production (15). So eating calorie-dense fats can actually just reduce appetite naturally. Many low-calorie foods do not have this ghrelin-suppressive effect, and in fact, when your body is in calorie restriction mode, it upregulates ghrelin production, thus increasing appetite. If you haven’t yet, you might enjoy my “don’t fear fat” blog post! More proof that a calorie is not a calorie is not a calorie.
calories don’t tell us anything about the long-term benefits or implications of eating a food
Calories tell us nothing about the nutrient value of a food. For instance, any brightly colored fruit or vegetable is loaded with phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are basically plant superpowers. They help the body do all sorts of incredible things: fight off free radical damage and inflammation, improve eyesight, improve metabolic function, balance hormones, detox harmful substances, make hair shinier and so much more (16)! Also, foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids (yep high calorie fat again) have been proven to have beneficial effects on the brain including improving brain development, preventing Alzheimer’s and more AND have been shown to reduce inflammation (20). This has nothing to do with their calorie count, in fact, most foods that contain omega-3s are high in calories. Calories tell us nothing about the phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and long-term benefits that foods can provide our bodies. Additionally, calories don’t tell is which foods can help or harm our gut bacteria (microbiome), which, plays a major role in our immune system, serotonin production, skin health, metabolism and more!
Often, when we get focused on counting calories, we actually choose foods that can be harmful to overall health and avoid foods that are beneficial. I have seen clients, before they started working with me, so laser-focused on a calorie number that they often choose “sugar-free” foods. These foods usually use fake sugars like aspartame, neotame, sucralose etc. Although they are low-calorie, these artificial sweeteners can completely wipe out strains of good bacteria in the microbiome (17, 18). This reduces metabolic function (causing someone to think they need to cut calories even more and probably choose more of these foods with artificial sweeteners and avoid healthful but high calorie foods like those containing omega-3 fatty acids mentioned above). These artificial, low-calorie sweeteners also can be carcinogens, endocrine-disruptors and cause so much more damage (19). So while you may be hitting your calorie goal short-term, they can cause some real long-term damage behind the scenes. These are just a few EXAMPLES of how properties of a food can benefit or detriment our overall health, but how these properties have nothing to do with the calorie count.
calorie counting takes us away from mindful eating
When we get too focused on calorie counting, we forget to think about how foods make us feel and what foods we really enjoy. Counting is truly the opposite of intuitive eating. This goes for both the physical health aspect of food (like I mentioned above calorie counting can discourage health-promoting fats while encouraging low-calorie processed junky carbs) and the mental health aspect of food. Food is emotional and should be enjoyed. When we get too caught up in the calorie count, we often forget to savor and ENJOY our food, which, contributes to our physical satiation and leptin release (fullness hormone) (21) and our happiness, which, is a huge part of overall wellbeing! Also, calorie counting can strip us of our natural skills that help us internally judge portions. When we are too reliant on a number, we forget to queue into our body’s natural signals that tell us we are hungry or full. This can cause both over and undereating. Our bodies know best but we need to listen to them and TRUST them! And remember, they are not calculators! PS - you might like my blog post on the terminology “cheat meal” and why this is not always healthy.
but so and so lost a lot of weight counting calories, what’s up with that
Yes, you can lose weight by calorie restriction but this is a short-term weight loss. Not only does losing weight this way ignore all the underlying health factors we talked about above (gut health, missing vitamins, minerals and other nutrients etc.) but it also can down-regulate your metabolism if you consume too little calories daily (22). This means, too much calorie restriction tells your body it is in “starvation mode” and thus tells your body to “slow down on burning”. So eating less calories actually causes your body to burn less calories and thus slow down metabolism (23). Once you go back to eating a normal amount, people often gain back lost weight plus more. Unfortunately, like I said, I have seen many frustrated clients come to me after having this happen on “diet”programs.
Often diet programs* that encourage calorie restriction without paying much attention to the TYPES of foods people are eating cause rapid short-term weight loss (to keep customers happy), which is followed by a slowed metabolic rate (which can frustrate customers and make them think they need another “diet”), which can then be followed by either further calorie restriction to maintain the same weight, or the customer gains the weight back plus more since their metabolism is now slowed so eating the same amount of food they used to eat causes them to gain weight. I won’t mention any names, but I have seen some very popular and common diet programs do this to NUMEROUS of my clients, who have come to me frustrated and discouraged, understandably so. Which, is why I want to change the conversation around calorie counting and show the science behind it!
*There is one program in particular that I have seen do this most frequently and it does pretend like it pays attention to type of food, but really the designations of types are mostly determined by calorie count and thus it is a low-calorie, low-fat diet. However, that program is not the only offender of this mindset so just be wary when taking on a new “diet”!
eating whole, unprocessed foods is naturally satiating, so there is no need to count
Finally, calories say nothing about food QUALITY! If you improve your food quality, you should not need to count calories. What do I mean by this? I mean, eating whole, unprocessed foods as often as possible. These are naturally satiating and self-regulating so you don’t need to count anything! If you picture yourself eating salmon, sweet potato, and broccoli, you will naturally get full and there is only so much you can eat. Your body will tell you, and you’ll stop eating. If you think of eating a bag of “reduced-calorie” chips or crackers, it is EASY to eat the whole bag (maybe four servings in one sitting) without giving it a second thought. The first meal is higher quality food, less processed and thus, there is no need to count. The second example is of highly processed foods that contain multiple ingredients, many of which actually interfere with our natural hunger and satiation signals (even if the packaging advertises it as low calorie). And don’t forget, eating unprocessed foods most of the time, does not mean you don’t get to eat foods you enjoy. I like to recreate all my favorite treats using only unprocessed ingredients (that link goes to my sweet treats recipes) PLUS indulging in some processed foods here and there won’t kill you and can only contribute to your mental health. And if you’re not counting calories (which by this point, I hope you are not) who cares?!
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!