When it comes to losing weight and dieting, there’s a lot of confusing and conflicting information about counting calories and burning calories. You may have heard that “a calorie is a calorie,” but not all calories are equal.
All calories are not equal because they do not have the same effects on your weight or health. Different foods are metabolized differently by your body and are burned for fuel or are shuttled to your fat storage.
To stop the trend of widespread obesity, we don’t need to keep a running total of our calories. We need to start eating the right kind of calories. The source of calories is what’s important, not counting them.
What is a Calorie?
The term “calorie” was derived from a kilocalorie, a measure of the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree C.
Today’s calorie tables were created well over 100 years ago by a French agricultural chemist named Wilbur Olin Atwater. What concerns nutrition experts today is that Atwater’s figures are estimates based on averages that don’t account for variations in food make-up, preparation and processing. And most of his measurements were based on raw foods, which we are eating less and less of in modern times.
Why You Shouldn’t Count Calories
Here are 10 reasons why counting calories doesn’t always work:
- Counting calories over-simplifies healthy eating. Eating a healthy diet is complicated and nutrition labels over-simplify it. We are led to believe that low calorie foods are good and high calorie foods are bad. But it is a lot more complicated than that. This way of thinking can lead to eating disorders, infertility, illness, and depression because it encourages the consumption of processed foods instead of nourishing foods.
- Counting calories prevents a positive, healthy relationship with food. Always being calorie-conscious changes your focus from how you eat to how much you eat. This can prevent you from having a positive relationship with food. Instead of thinking of food as life-giving nourishment, counting calories can make you feel apprehensive toward food, or even make you think of food as being bad for you as if it is the enemy.
- Counting calories creates a stressful relationship with food that can interfere with digestion. Feeling stressed while eating is bad for you because it can interfere with digestion. The sympathetic nervous system triggers responses in the body that can shut down the digestive system so the body can deal with the stressful situation.
- Counting calories can also increase your feelings of depression. You may feel depressed when you feel you’ve eaten too many calories because you ate that burger and chocolate shake you feel you shouldn’t have. The constant pressure from tracking calories and feeling like you’ve let yourself down when you go over your daily caloric intake can increase feelings of depression.
- Counting calories is extremely inaccurate. Not only is it wrong to think calories from different foods are the same, but you shouldn’t always believe the numbers of calories printed on labels because they are often wrong. The calorie tables we use today are outdated. Dietitian Rick Miller says, “We’ve known for some time that the calculations for certain foods such as vegetables and high-fiber foods are inaccurate. The calorie figures you see on a food label aren’t always the amount you will ingest.”
- Quality of calories is more important than quantity. If you count calories, you may become obsessed with calorie counting. You may buy low-fat this and fat-free that, but these foods lack much needed vitamins and nutritional value. Can you lose fat by eating low-fat and fat-free foods? Yes, but it’s far from eating healthy because you are not getting all the nutrients your body needs. Plus, these foods often replace the fat with sugar, which then gets stored as fat in your body. Your calories should mainly come from whole, natural foods that don’t have labels—the foods that are made by Mother Nature. And, you should avoid eating processed and packaged foods as much as possible, including those that are labeled as low-fat and fat-free. In many cases, these foods are worse for you than the full-fat products.
- Calorie counting adds more work to your already busy life. It’s work to constantly tabulate calories for every meal, or record everything you eat in a food diary or journal. You probably don’t need to add more work to your already busy life, so forget calorie counting and focus your efforts elsewhere like exercising or cooking healthier meals for your family.
- Counting calories encourages calorie-restriction, which slows metabolism and makes it difficult to lose weight. The biggest problem with using linear calorie equations for fat loss is that the fewer calories you consume, the fewer calories your body burns. When you start a calorie-restricted diet, you will probably find that you lose a pound or so in the first week but less in subsequent weeks. This phenomenon is believed to be a metabolic adaptation to prevent starvation and keep your body balanced. But a slower metabolism means slower weight loss, and counting calories encourages this.
- Counting calories is not a way to guide your nutritional health. Counting calories should be used as just one tool for weight loss and should not be used as a long-term solution. It should be used as a learning tool to become more aware of how many calories are in junk foods and sodas, for instance, but it’s not a tool for guiding your nutritional health.
- Calorie counting interferes with “intuitive eating.” Humans are, by design, intuitive eaters. This means that if you knew nothing about calories, carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins or minerals contained in foods, you would naturally eat the foods your body needs to stay healthy. Sometimes your body may crave carbs while other times it may crave fats, and there are reasons for this. Your body intuitively knows what it needs to stay healthy and balanced, and counting calories interferes with this intuitive ability to eat healthfully.
Burning Calories through Exercise is Still Important
The bottom line is that counting calories doesn’t always work. Your focus should be on eating a healthy diet that includes the right kinds of foods, like whole, natural foods and not refined or processed junk foods, and reducing stress in your life.
Of course, burning calories by exercising is still important for your health, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. You’ll definitely need to ramp up your exercise program so you’ll be burning calories faster and to accelerate your weight loss results.