What comes to mind when you think of calories? Tiny evil things lurking in your favourite foods? The stuff burnt off when slogging it out on the treadmill? Or maybe you're thinking “calories in vs. calories out”, that oh-so-simple equation bandied about. Food packages give us tallies of them, we've got apps to track them and we have a specific number we're allowed per day. But here's why counting calories is actually at best, unnecessary and at worst, downright dangerous!
What is a calorie?
A calorie is simply a unit of measure we use for energy. What we think of as calories are in fact kilocalories (kcal) = 1000 cal, we shorted it to calorie in spoken language for simplicity’s sake. A calorie (kcal) is the amount of heat (energy) needed to raise the temperature of 1000g/1L of water by 1°C. Calories are not bad or something to be feared. They are energy, which we humans need to survive and function. We can’t produce our own energy from sunlight like plants so we take energy in, usually in the form of food.
4 Reasons Counting just Doesn't Add Up:
1. Inaccurate estimations
The actual number of calories in foods are determined in the lab using a “bomb calorimeter”. The food is burned up in a little chamber and the heat generated during its combustion is measured. The calorie content of prepackaged food, such as the sandwiches or soups you buy from the supermarket are actually estimations, arrived at by adding the calories of the different components of the food which are based on indirect calorie estimations, leaving a fair bit of room for error (2). Not only are the calorie contents we see on nutrition info displays pretty inaccurate but the “a calories in vs. calories out” equation is a massive oversimplification of a complex process.
There are many, many factors that have an effect on the number of calories we actually absorb. Firstly, the processing of food before it even enters our bodies can change the number of calories available for digestion and absorption. For example, cooking, blending, chopping all have an effect on this amount. Secondly, the amount of calories used in the digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients differs from food to food. The different macronutrients, carbs, protein and fat, all require different amounts of energy to digest and process. Even our gut bacteria population, individual to each person, affects calorie absorption!
Another snag in the reliability of this calorie maths is the complexity in the way we expend energy. Our bodies are not cars, food is not simply fuel. Our metabolic rate, which adjusts to energy intake and is affected by our hormones, genetics, sleep quality and quantity, the environment, the amount of fidgeting we do - all affect how much energy we expend, which also varies day to day. So even if we were to track calories, it’s a bit of a stab in the dark as well as having other potentially detrimental effects.
Counting calories is at best, unnecessary and at worst, downright dangerous.
3. Obsession and Preoccupation
The danger of tracking calories is that even if it starts off innocently enough it can lead to preoccupation and obsession. Dietary restraint has been shown to be a risk factor for disordered eating (1,3). On a practical level, it's also a major distraction from other really important and healthy things. Think about eating a delicious meal with friends on holiday by the sea. Would you rather be taking in the beautiful atmosphere, laughing and connecting over the table with the people you love, enjoying the delicious meal in front of you, or, spend the entire time doing mental arithmetic and choosing a menu item purely because it meets your calorie quota for that day? When food is reduced to just it’s calorie content we stand to miss out on a lot more than just engaging with our dining companions.
4. Nutrition and Satisfaction Count Too
Consider this, a pot of low-fat strawberry-flavoured yoghurt has fewer calories in it than the same amount of full-fat Greek yoghurt, topped with sliced fresh strawberries - I know which one I’d go for! Not only does the nutritional quality of the two differ wildly with the second option containing more fibre, less sugar, more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants but it would also be much more satisfying! If your primary focus is on the calorie content of foods it will make it difficult to choose foods or meals for other, more healthful reasons. For example their taste, the nutrients they contain and how much they will satisfy you.
What to do instead:
Ok, so basically counting calories is fairly inaccurate, unhelpful and steals the joy out of the eating experience - what can we do instead?
Be adequately fed -
Ensure that you are physically getting enough food to sustain you. If you feel like your eating habits are chaotic and you don’t know where to start, try three meals and three snacks a day. You can go from there and find what works best for you and your body but it’s difficult to do this, or implement anything really, when you aren’t eating enough.
Throw away the calorie rules -
Ask yourself, “What do I think will happen if I stop counting calories?” What was your answer? Does this line up with the truth? The real answer is, probably nothing, expect you’ll have a lot more time and head-space to do things that you actually enjoy! Try and let go of the numbers, focus on the experience, the taste, the conversation. If you do feel your mind going to the numbers, gently bring it back to the moment you're in.
Learn your hunger and fullness cues -
What does it feel like in your body to feel hungry, ravenous, comfortably full, overly full? You might not know the answers if you’ve been focusing solely on calorie counts rather than your body’s cues but you can learn. All you need to do is take note, tune in.
Choose foods based on preference and desire -
When was the last time you chose something off the menu that you really, actually wanted, not simply because it seemed healthier or lower calorie? Give yourself permission to do just that and notice how satisfying it is.
If counting calories or points is something you feel like you just can’t or don’t know how to give up, get in touch for a free 20-min Intro call and see how I can help!
Delinsky, S. S., & Wilson, G. T. (2008, 01). Weight gain, dietary restraint, and disordered eating in the freshman year of college. Eating Behaviors, 9(1), 82-90. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2007.06.001
How Do Food Manufacturers Calculate the Calorie Count of Packaged Foods? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-food-manufacturers/
Schaumberg, K., & Anderson, D. (2016, 12). Dietary restraint and weight loss as risk factors for eating pathology. Eating Behaviors, 23, 97-103. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2016.08.009