Should I count calories? (and how to track your weight loss without going insane)
70 calories in an egg, 3 in a stalk of celery sound, 160 in a glass of wine.......sound familiar?
Of course it does, we've all been there and it's boring. Now calorie counting, once the foundation of popular diet programs and nutrition guidelines, has fallen also out of favour with many experts. So should we bother counting calories?
I'll let the nutritionists and dietitians thrash out the biological arguments among themselves but here's the Slim Thinking take on the pros and cons of calories counting and more importantly how use calorie tracking without driving yourself mad.
Why counting calories can be unhelpful
You aren’t a walking mathematical formula
No person is an exact science when it comes to working out the effect of a particular number of calories. Yes, there is something in the energy in/energy out argument but it's more complex than that.
It's a bit like fuel economy in cars, some of us are like a Rolls Royce, stylish, classy and annoyingly good at burning up any energy put in the tank (14 mpg in case you're interested). Others among us are more like a super fuel efficient Honda Civic (66.4mpg), burning off the same amount of fuel at a slower rate. Great if you're toughing out a post apocalyptic world with little food available, less helpful if you're never more than a 10 minute walk form a pub or a chocolate bar.
Becoming a bore
Let's be honest would you rather hang out with someone who enjoyed choosing something from the menu and who just has a good time or someone who counts the calories for every course? You'd want to hang out with the carefree person wouldn't you? Not only can you bore others with obsessive calorie counting you will also bore yourself which leads to cycle of self-hate and deprivation.
It can be easy to get fixated on the calorific values of everything you eat. For some people it gives them a feeling of control. They obsess with measuring the calories in every little thing they eat all the time feeling fearful that if they let go of that control their weight will balloon. This mindset gives the illusion of control but it's easy to become a slave to the calorie count and far form gaining control you end up relinquishing it to numbers on your tracker. Operating from a position of fear like this isn't fun and it isn't helpful.
Calories aren't everything
They are just a measure. They are data. They don't have much meaning except the meaning you attach to them. Calorie counting is often use to track what you leave out of your body but it rarely allows for thinking about what you put in or eating as an act of self care. It's as important to measure the quality of what goes in and not just the quantity. Not all calories are equal, different foods are metabolised differently, absorbed differently and converted into fat or energy differently. A more helpful mindset is to focus on what you put in your body and focus on nourishment and feeling good.
Calories only address the symptom
If you went to the doctor and said
"It hurts everytime I move my leg like this"
You'd be pretty disappointed if they said:
"well stop moving your like that then leg then".
You'd want a want to know why it was hurting in the first place. Counting calories might help you manage your weight down but it's not a way of life (or a good quality of life). You'll have to tackle the real issue eventually. You have an issue then you eat, not the other way round.
People starve themselves
I go wrong when I eat too little and I get into the wrong mentality. When I eat too little, especially when I am increasing my exercise, I find that
a) I am hungry making me want to eat more.
b) Despite my increasing my exercise I don't get any stronger, or lighter which makes me feel frustrated.
c) I slow down my metabolism. When you eat less than you need for basic biological function your body throws the brakes on your metabolism. It also begins to break down precious, calorie-burning muscle tissue
Food just becomes energy
Rather than something you also enjoy. Realistically food is isn't just nutrition it is also a social thing, a family thing and ultimately an emotional thing. When you obsess over calories it can be very hard to actually enjoy what you eat, once again sucking the joy out of food and of life generally.
There's one final reason why calorie counting is not the be all and end all.....
You suck at it (and so does everyone else)
We are terrible at counting calories. All of us. Some might be better than others but humans are just not good keeping tabs on their calorie intake. We tend to underestimate what goes in and overestimate what we burn off (see my why you can't out exercise a bad diet blog).
How calorie counting can be helpful
Can counting calorie counting be useful?
Yes, in the short term or yes as a means to an end. Here's how it can help your weight loss without driving you insane.
As a short term tool for weightloss
As a popular Star Trek Themed song once said "You cannae deny the laws of physics captain" If you consistently eat more calories than you burn, you’ll tend to gain weight. Some people may gain incredibly quickly, some incredibly slowly, but we live in a universe governed by unbreakable physical laws. If you want to make a point of losing weight there will need to be a calorie deficit of some sort and as we know we are not good at estimating this.
Uncover your BS
Calorie counting might not be perfect but food tracking is definitely a helpful exercise. It shows you how much you're eating and encourages you to face the reality of where you are now. Use food tracking as an eye opener, to hold a mirror up to your current situation. Use it as a tool to show you where the damage is being done and then my best advice here to explore not what you are eating or how much, but what is going on when you eat. How are you feeling? What is going on at those times? Where are you? Who are you with? What is it you really need?
Keeping a food diary has been shown to help people lose twice as much weight as those not tracking, and when you've got the hang of it (which might take a few weeks) it’ll take you less than five minutes a day to do one.
Build a repertoire
If you're going to go to trouble of losing weight make a point of educating yourself about the nutritional values of food and how to eat healthily. After a couple of weeks of looking at food packets you will have a good idea of how many calories are in common food items. You should also have built up a repertoire of healthy recipe ideas that you know off the top of your head. This means you will be be able to go shopping and get in healthy foods and be able to throw together a healthy lunch or meal quickly and without too much thought. Use food tracking to educate yourself and develop new habits...............
...........then, forget about it and enjoy your food
Once you know what is in your food and how to cook quick healthy meals forget about the calories and enjoy yourself. If you stick to healthy eating 95% of the time the odd meal out won't hurt. Sure, you'll want to look up the calories of new recipes or a meal out but for the most part focus on eating food that is doing good things for your body. When you eat healthy foods, you don’t have to count calories. As long as you feed your body what it needs, it’ll take care of the rest, including keeping you at a healthy weight.
Use what works
Like with most things it's not the tool it's how you make it work for you. Should you count calories?
Yes in so far as it is useful, but when you're done move on and trust what you've learnt.
I've created a Mood Food Diary to help people track their food intake and their food habits in a useful way. Email me for a copy).
Do you count calories?
Does it help?