Counting calories to lose weight…one of the many weight loss debates. I have read numerous books and articles addressing this very question, and guess what they all had different philosophies (shocking)! So to answer the question “should I count calories to lose weight?” I say, it depends. Is that ambiguous enough for you? Let’s start with a few facts:
- A calorie is a calorie no matter what it comes from. A calorie is a unit of measurement and 100 calories from broccoli is the same as 100 calories from a handful of candy – just like 1 pound of feathers weighs the same as 1 pound of lead. Although the calorie content is the same, the nutrient value and the way the body utilizes the nutrients from the two foods is significantly different.
- Overeating will cause weight gain. If I consume more calories than what my body is able to utilize, the remaining unused “energy” will be stored, usually as fat…so if I consume 2,500 calories, but only use 2,100 calories, my body will store the remaining 400 calories (even if it is 2,500 calories from healthy whole foods)…this however doesn’t mean that fewer is better. Without enough calories the body will become stressed, release more cortisol, and go into fight or flight mode – which would backfire on weight loss goals (we will have to get into that topic in another post). It’s important to find a happy medium.
- Eating fat does NOT make you fat, the body needs fat to absorb vitamins and minerals and to “run” at full capacity. However, fat is more calorie dense than carbohydrates and proteins (which is why it has gotten such a bad rep in the past, and that it is named “fat.” Aren’t we are trying to lose fat?)
- 1 gram carbohydrate = 4 calories
- 1 gram protein = 4 calories
- 1 gram fat = 9 calories
Based on the above facts, it seems like we could enjoy a 1,500 calorie diet of donuts, diet coke, and french fries and still lose weight. Saving us from having to eat “rabbit food.” Technically, that is true, studies have been done proving it…but those studies are short term, they don’t get into long term weight maintenance, energy levels, and overall well being. A 1,500 calorie diet full of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, healthy proteins, and healthy fats is going to leave us way more satisfied (we will be able to consume A LOT more food) and provide our bodies with the nutrients it needs. The body thrives on adequate nutrition. When we are properly fueling our body, it will run like a well oiled machine. The vitamins and minerals that are absorbed from nutrient rich foods are used on a cellular level. Allowing our cells to function properly, which in turn sends out a ripple effect to the rest of our body – increasing our metabolism, fine tuning our hunger cues, reducing our sugar cravings, increasing energy and endurance, improving digestion, aiding in weight loss, etc…
Does all of this mean that YES, you should count calories…if only it were that easy. This is where it becomes individualized. It depends on what works for you. If you do better tracking everything you eat, and are more prone to make healthy choices by counting calories, then yes, counting calories might work for you…(but that doesn’t mean you can eat celery and diet coke all day, so you can “save” your calories for a large burger and fries later on that night). If counting calories works for you, it is still important that you eat real wholesome foods, allow yourself enough calories to properly fuel your body, and pay attention to your hunger cues and sugar cravings.
If counting calories sounds like torture or you tend to become obsessive (as I do), it isn’t necessary to lose weight. In fact some experts suggest that not counting calories is a healthier way to lose weight. If counting calories isn’t your thing, make sure you are conscious of the food choices you are making and your portion size. Think of how the food you are eating will fuel your body on a cellular level. Will your cells be able to absorb and utilize the nutrients from your food choices? Are your portions sizes reasonable, especially calorie dense foods (nuts, oils, nut butters, etc)? Also, once again, be aware of your hunger cues. Are you really hungry, or are you bored, tired, emotional, etc.
My experience: This is a lot of information (sorry about the long post), but here is my real life experience with eating intuitively vs. counting calories. Maybe it will help. When I first started to eat real food, I quit counting calories. I had been obsessed with counting every calorie I ate, and it was starting to control my life. I was eating all sorts of sugar free and fat free foods (because they were low in calories). All I cared about was the calorie content in food (I added vegetables to my dinner, because I knew it was important to eat those, but I only had one serving of vegetables a day). Once I made my diet changes, I gave up the calorie counting and focused on real food, and slowly the weight started to come off. I eventually got to a healthy weight, and had maintained it for a few months…I was grateful to be where I was, and finally feel like myself again, but after awhile I had the desire to lose the last bit of vanity weight. I knew it wasn’t necessary for my health, but I’m a woman and I can be vain :).
In order to lose those last few pounds, I had to start counting calories (sort of). I had to watch my portions closer, and started measuring out calorie dense foods (i.e. I would measure out 1 serving [2 Tbsp] of natural peanut butter) instead of just eye balling it, and I had to give up my daily dessert. I had been eating dark chocolate (about 3 ounces) every night after dinner, I changed that to a healthy indulgence enjoyed every once in awhile instead of every night (this also helped decrease my sugar cravings). I also increased my protein intake, because I wanted to build some muscle, and my protein intake had been lower when I was eating intuitively.
Ultimately, I did lose the vanity weight, and I still practice a mix of intuitive eating and calorie counting today. Note: my intuitive eating plan looked very similar to my current eating plan (as posted in Small Diet Changes; Big Results), with the exception of more meat (before I would eat more nuts, beans, and quinoa to get my protein intake) and no more nightly treat.
Once again, it comes down to finding out what works for you. The one constant in healthy, long-term weight loss, is the importance of real wholesome foods.
Do you count calories? What works for you?