No matter how small or big the group of women I talk to, inevitably I get the question about calorie counting.
When it comes to weight loss, the number one strategy for the majority of people is calorie counting.
Personally I’ve never counted calories. I’ve tried many different dietary strategies but never calorie counting. So I had to investigate it.
What is a calorie?
A calorie is the energy you get from what you eat and drink.
A little over 100 years ago, an American scientist named Wilbur Atwater created a machine, called the respiration caloriemeter “to measure precisely the energy provided by food and created a system to measure that energy in units, known as food calories.”
But it seems that it was a woman named Lulu Hunt Peters who popularized the idea of using food calories for weight loss at the beginning of the 20th century.
The right energy balance
Energy balance is the theory behind calorie counting.
What is the energy balance equation?
Body fat gained = Calories in – calories out. If you eat the same amount of calories/energy than you expend, then you’ll have a stable weight. However, if you eat more calories/energy than you expend, you’ll gain weight.
Therefore, in order to lose weight, you have to eat less and move more!
The first step is to identify your daily energy needs or Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), meaning how many calories your body burns each day simply to stay alive and keep all your systems running.
Once you know how many calories you need to stay alive, you simply decrease the number to lose extra weight. The rule of thumb is if you want to lose 1 lbs a week, you have to decrease your daily caloric intake by 500 calories a day. And you do that by counting the number of calories in every food you eat.
You’ll need a “few” tools to be able to do that according to calorie counting proponents:
- A portable calorie-tracking device or a downloadable app.
- Food journal to carry everywhere you go so you can write down everything that goes in your mouth
- Portion sizes utensils
- Kitchen scale
- Another app to record protein, carbohydrate and fat gram for each food you eat
- And an app to measure your calorie expenditure
Although it sounds very common sense, there are a couple of problems with that theory.
First of all, to get a somewhat accurate BMR, you’d have to be hooked to a specialized machine for a prolonged period of time to measure your oxygen intake and carbon dioxide expulsion. Asking for your age, gender, present weight, height and activity level as most apps do won’t cut it.
Second, when you eat less calories, your BMR drops. That means that when you eat less calories, you’re using less calories. Calories out are not just about the amount of exercise you do, but also the amount of energy your body uses when resting.
As a matter of fact, unless you exercise for more than 1 hour a day, exercise is generally a very small portion of the calories you use!
And how your unique body uses these calories, storing them as fat or using them as energy, is unpredictable and depends on so many factors like stress, sleep, hormonal changes..
The idea that if you eat extra calories you can balance them out by exercising harder is just not true!
What happens then? Something that every single woman I’ve ever talked to said, “I reached a plateau.” Usually that comes with symptoms like fatigue and feeling more cold, because again your body uses less energy.
Counting calories is not an accurate science
Third, you can never accurately count calories!
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows up to a 20% margin of error in the numbers on the nutrition labels. That means that the 250 calories snack you’re feeling good about might actually have 200 or 300 calories!
Even experts don’t really know! When 200 dietitians looked at 5 different meals served in restaurants, their estimates were inaccurate. Some of the meals contained double the calories that they predicted.
A survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation reports that “although 67% Americans report taking calories into account when making food purchases, nearly 9 out of 10 have no idea how many they actually need.” In an article in WebMD, Jenny Stamos Kovacs writes, “We tend to miscount what we eat. Although the U.S. food supply produces 3,900 calories for each person per day, men claim to eat an average of 2,618 daily calories, while women report eating only 1,877. And being overweight makes it even more likely that we’ll underestimate the calories in our meal.”
A new normal
The reason we underestimate the calories we eat is because food portions have changed drastically over a period of 30 years. And these portions have become the new normal.
Digestion is key
Research is confirming what Ayurveda has claimed for thousands of years. How you digest your food determines how many calories you absorb from it. Food habits and food choices impact how we digest our food.
HOW you eat your food affects digestion. For example if you’re stressed, depressed or anxious while you’re eating, this will impact how you digest your food. If you’re distracted while you eat, you’ll have a tendency to overeat and not be aware of your satiation signals. Click here for my 7 Food Habits for Healthy Digestion.
This has to do with the quality of the foods you eat.
A new research finding was published this year in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA). Christopher D. Gardner, director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center led the study. This new study “found that people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods, lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year.” This large and expensive trial involved more than 600 people.
These people didn’t count calories nor did they limit their portion sizes. They ate whole foods that were nutrient-dense, minimally processed and cooked mostly at home!
This makes sense! Nearly one-quarter of Americans’ calorie intake comes from sweets, desserts, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages. Another 5% comes from salty snacks and fruit-flavored drinks. While nutrient rich foods only make 10%.
Shifting the focus
So why do we keep counting calories? Habit. It’s a seemingly quick fix to a problem that really requires a shift in focus.
In an article in the New York Times, Dr. Gardner said, ” the people who lost the most weight reported that the study had changed their relationship with food. They no longer ate in their cars or in front of their television screens and they were cooking more at home.” “We really need to focus on that foundational diet, which is more vegetables, more whole foods, less added sugar and less refined grains”, he added.
Jenny Stamos Kovacs concurs, “You don’t need to count calories, but you should make all your calories count.”
I agree! The women I work with whether in the weight loss group coaching program or as a VIP client don’t count calories and yet they lose weight. That’s because they shift their approach to weight loss from a restrictive diet approach to a healthy digestion and lifestyle approach. And that makes all the difference!