The Matter of Calories
It is an age old question: do calories count? Recently there has been a backlash to calorie counting that in large part is long overdue. The reasons however, may not be you think and the answer is not simply a yes or no, black or white option. As a health professional I often get told that people do not have the time, the patience or the attention span to read long articles. It is important to get to the point right away. The desire for instant gratification reduces complex concepts down to a meme, a headline or a sound byte or two. Details be damned. Sigh. Unfortunately, when it comes to human physiology, the body is way more complex than a few controversial words. The devil is in the details especially when it comes to optimizing your health and the issue around calories is no different.
I need to reiterate that simply counting calories will not get you the results you may be looking for, especially not in the long term. Certainly, if you are the type of person who pays zero attention to portion sizes and over consumes food to the point of excess, every single day there is a really good chance that you will see some degree of benefits by dialling back on the sheer size of your meals. If this is you, reducing your portion sizes is a great first step. Many eventually become really frustrated as counting calories does not always work and sometimes (more often than you might think) it even backfires!
Contrary to this approach, there are many who are following a ketogenic lifestyle who believe and preach just as loudly and voraciously that there is absolutely no need to pay any attention whatsoever to how many calories you eat as long as you eliminate carbohydrates. All you need to do is scoff down as much butter, cream cheese and bacon as you can fit into your belly and all your health concerns and weight problems will disappear. In all fairness, this approach may sometimes appear to work for some people but for so many others it simply leads to no respite in symptoms, heartburn and weight gain. My suspicion is, that for most, it will lead to a different set of health issues down the road.
As infuriating as it may feel, there are those who do not seem to need to count calories and get to have perfect health and body composition. Truthfully, for most, the ultimate goal should be to never need to count calories. In my experience most of these people who seem to not need to heed their calories are also, whether they realize it or not, doing a few other things:
They tend to eat a nutrient dense, whole food diet at least most of the time.
They are not suffering from metabolic imbalances like high blood pressure, dysregulated blood sugar, excess inflammation, excess belly fat and poor body composition. They are fairly healthy to begin with.
They eat only when they are hungry and stop eating when they are satisfied. This means they don't wait to feel full to stop eating. Those people who do tend to over eat.
· They rarely snack
· They hydrate
· They lead an active lifestyle and/or they are athletes.
· They manage their stress fairly well.
· They are reasonably good sleepers.
So what should everyone else do?
The cardinal law of writing this type of post is, of course, to do my best to not leave my audience, you, even more stressed and confused than when started reading. If you have followed my ramblings for a while you may have heard some of this before, and for more details feel free to look through some of my older stuff. For now, I will try and keep it simple and to the point:
· Ditch the hyperpalatable, processed foods that are designed to keep you eating and eating until it is all gone and you go looking for even more. This will only leave you undernourished and overfed.
· Eat mostly vegetables, moderate protein and healthy fats.
· On a scale of 1-10 (1 being ravenously hungry and 10 being so full you might feel ill) eat to an 8 knowing that within 15 minutes or so you will hit 10. Yes, it does that long for your stomach to let your brain know you have probably had enough.
· If you have a hard time knowing when you have had enough (this is a thing and you are NOT alone) - start logging your food using a food logging app like cro-no-meter or, myfitnesspal. Be honest when you input your data and activity levels. Use the caloric intake as a guideline. You may be over or under eating. Recognize that either can be a problem. This is a temporary strategy, a stop gap used as an investigative tool. Eventually you will be able to feel your way to the right amount of food.
· Eat when you are hungry and only when you are hungry. When you do eat, make sure you are eating enough.
· Stop snacking. At first this will seem incredibly hard. This is where eating enough when you are eating is important too. There is very little need to eat every 1, 2 or 3 hours if you are eating enough whole, real, nutrient dense foods. If you feel a little hungry, drink water. If carvings feel particularly overwhelming, try water with a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. It may not taste great but it does the trick.
· Get moving. You cannot out-exercise a bad diet but your body needs to move to be healthy. Start walking. You may want to consider changing up your workouts, especially if you've been doing the same thing for years and are not seeing the results you want. You know the cliché I keep repeating…
· Sleep more and sleep better. Get to bed at a reasonable hour. Lack of quality sleep will leave you hungrier and more inflamed with less control over your food choices.
· Manage your stress. Download the Headspace app and start meditating, even for a mere 10 minutes a day. It makes a huge difference. Seriously, try it.
I guess the question is still should YOU count your calories?
The answer is yes, and no. Count your calories, but only to a point. Ultimately if you consistently provide your body with more energy than it can use it will store the excess for another day. This is one of your body’s amazing processes that have allowed us to survive as a species through incredibly challenging times. This is where I need to emphasize that what you eat is just as important as how much you eat. Getting enough sleep, staying active and managing your stress are also part of the puzzle. There are no quick fixes I'm afraid but if you put in the work, just one small change at a time, I can almost guarantee you that you will feel better and start to experience the results you are after. If you cannot do it on your own, get some help. Enlist a willing and supportive friend to keep you accountable. A health coach or a nutritionist can provide a solid framework with ongoing recommendations and adjustments to keep you moving towards your goals.
Getting healthy is simple, but those first few steps are also not easy but can be done, especially with a little help from your friends.