Stop Counting Calories!

When it comes to counting calories, it’s not as straightforward as you might think. There are a number of variables. So stop counting calories! The simple fact that your activity level changes from day to day varies your actual need for energy, so the number of calories will change based on active days versus lazy days. Your body can also require altered amounts of calories depending on the efficiency of your immune system, changing stress levels, hormones and whether or not you’re healing from an injury.

There is no set, magic number of calories needed on a consistent basis. If you eat the same number of calories every day, you could be consuming more or less than you need. Some days you’ll be hungrier than others but when not hungry, it’s not unusual to eat anyway as our body adapts to expect a certain amount of food each day. Some days we eat more just because we’re hungry, which subconsciously attaches hunger to an emotional incentive. On those days, if we go over our “allowance”, we may gain a little more weight. So, it’s not particularly helpful to have some fixed number of daily calories dictating how much we can eat, regardless of these and other factors.

Trying to adhere to an arbitrary figure for caloric intake disconnects us from being in tune with the natural cues our bodies give us about how much to eat and when to eat it. A bewildering array of apps, spreadsheets and programs are out there and all of them are all essentially designed to tell us the same thing; when we have eaten enough. Unfortunately, all these apps and spreadsheets don’t take into account the fact that we are all different, each of us needing a more specific approach, designed for the individual. The best thing we can do is tune into ourselves and listen to the wisdom of our own bodies. This is a much more reliable way to decide what to eat than using an app or calculated method designed by an outside source.

Our bodies have basic minimum needs and they can only exist on a significantly reduced amount of food for a limited time before the feeling of deprivation will demand compensation. This can lead to binge eating. In 1944-45, a study was conducted, known as “The Minnesota Starvation Experiment”. It was designed to determine the physiological effects of severe and prolonged dietary restrictions. The study concluded that, among other things, prolonged food reduction could lead to increased emotional distress, depression, decline in concentration and a preoccupation with food as well as other things. But we can also feel deprived when we have less flavor and enjoyment while eating; not just from a reduction in calories. There are many psychological and biological reasons to get maximum enjoyment from the quality and experience of eating. The emotional factor is inextricable from how we eat and appreciate a good meal. To feel unsatisfied with our food intake can lead to binge eating and the end result sadly shows up as an unhealthy relationship with the whole concept of eating.

An obsession with calorie counting can undermine you in many ways. In social contexts, it can really ruin your evening. Whether visiting a friend who cooked a meal as the cornerstone of a social event, or dining out at a restaurant, insecurity about the amount and nature of the ingredients can be very unsettling. This can result in a calorie-counting individual avoiding situations where he or she would be invited to eat meals prepared by others out of fear of having “too much”. Truthfully though, even carefully monitoring exact amounts of ingredients in a home-cooked meal can be a waste of time because of the nature of food, so the estimated energy-value of the meal would be inaccurate. Each meal has an unreliable number of calories because, despite the best efforts of nutritionists and app designers, it’s very difficult to keep the numbers consistent from one portion of a specific food to another. Trying to manage this conundrum can result in eating less to be on the safe side and then feeling deprivation, and all the unhappy consequences that come with it.

Some people use a range of proposed caloric intakes as a guide and if their food for the day falls within that range, they are satisfied that they did well. However, straying over the upper limit of that range can result in guilt and shame, leading to the dieter giving up entirely or eating way too much food because they feel they have already blown it anyway and will have to start afresh so they might as well “go for it”.

It’s human nature to rebel when too many rules have been imposed on us. We know that many of the rules have no purpose, so they sometimes end up doing more harm than good. When we choose to follow calorie quantities over listening to the innate wisdom of our own bodies, we can get into trouble, especially since the amounts we choose to follow are not necessarily what our bodies need in the first place. Even when we create the rules for ourselves, they can be tough to follow, and we rebel against our own regimes. Blindly adhering to a blanket rule that intends to cover our behavior every day, regardless of what is truly needed can pull us further away from our own intuition and from being in touch with what our bodies truly need.

If you were taught that calorie counting was the only way to diet properly, check out this article on counting nutrients instead of calories.