I used to be the queen of calorie counting. On my phone I had MyFitnessPal downloaded and every day I would track every single bite of food I consumed. I considered it “fun” and looking back it was kind of an addiction. I had a misguided goal of about 1300 calories which I would usually strive to be well under, even when I factored in working out (which I compulsively tracked as well).
This was a successful weight loss strategy for a while, but then I started to notice that I wasn’t losing weight anymore and my weight started to creep back up again. Even though I was eating the same amount of calories and working out consistently, I wasn’t losing weight anymore. What happened?
Well, our bodies are really smart. When we first start a new diet or a new exercise plan, it is a change and a shock to our body. Even though your brain might be preparing for a diet, your body has no idea. So say you decide to go really low calorie, you will lose weight initially because your body will experience a shock and a change. But, after a few weeks of doing this, your body wants to get back into homeostasis because it doesn’t want to be in a constant state of stress. So, it starts to down regulate. This means that processes (such as digestion) won’t work as well because they take energy, and if you aren’t giving your body enough energy (aka calories) your body will start to slow down these processes. Also, your body will start to store the calories you are consuming because it is worried it is going into starvation mode.
Our bodies are still very much adapted to the hunter/ gatherer lifestyle of primitive man. There were states of feast and famine, and our bodies inherently know what to do during these times. They also know how to keep you alive and in a state of homeostasis. This is why it is really difficult to lose weight, especially if you don’t have that much weight to lose- our bodies want to be in a controlled state.
So this brings us to the calorie question. Should we be constantly tracking everything we put into our mouths so we don’t over consume? Personally, I don’t think so and there are a few reasons why:
- You take away intuitive eating
- When we are eating intuitively, we think about what we are hungry for and then we eat it. We don’t eat depending on a clock or time of day, we just eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full. Yes, I know it’s not quite that simple, but when you are eating based on an App you are not paying attention to what your body really wants. Some days, you might be hungrier. Our hormones are our main control center and they govern everything (like our metabolism!). Even having a stressful day means that you burned more calories and therefore might need more fuel. Or, maybe a different day you just aren’t as hungry- you shouldn’t be looking at an App and trying to get to a certain calorie goal just because MyFitnessPal says so.
- You can get obsessed
- I see a lot of people constantly putting every little thing into a calculator or App and it makes me really sad because I used to be one of these people. It used to give me a little thrill to hit a particular goal each day. It didn’t matter if I was hungry, I gauged my food intake based on what an app told me rather than listening to my body. Constantly battling between what your mind says versus what your body wants can lead to disordered eating habits. When your mind takes over and you just decide you are only going to eat “x” number of calories, it is very easy to become obsessive about this because you are going against your entire nature.
- It is difficult to eat real food
- It used to be really easy to track all of my food intake when I ate a low fat, highly processed diet. Everything I ate had a label and I was easily able to measure out my food. Once I started eating a real food diet, it was a lot more difficult to figure out exactly what I was eating and how it all fit in.
- A calorie isn’t a calorie
- A calorie of processed food is not the same as a calorie of real food. What I mean by this is that when you eat an Oreo, for example, your body is going to have an insulin spike causing you to store fat due to the high sugar content and chemical ingredients. You are also going to deplete important minerals in your body that are important for all sorts of enzyme processes (like your metabolism!) trying to get rid of said cookie. When you eat an avocado, you are putting new minerals and vitamins into your body and helping all of these processes run more efficiently and effectively. By doing so, your body doesn’t need to store fat and it can use the supplied avocado as fuel. So eating 1300 calories of a processed diet will produce completely results than even 2000 calories of a real food diet!
I don’t believe calorie counting is an effective long term strategy for either weight loss or health. If instead you put your focus on building a plate that contains all of the appropriate macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs), you can let your body tell you whether or not that plate was correct. If you are hungry an hour later, you probably skimped on the fat. If you are still incredibly full hours after your meal, you will want to make your next meal a bit lighter. This is more an art than a science, and that makes sense since each of our bodies are unique and have different nutritional needs. Also, if you have been only focusing on calorie counting for years, it will take some time to rewire your brain to see food as “fuel” and not as “calories”. Each meal will not be perfect and you will have to relinquish some control in order to pay attention to your body. But I can guarantee you that you will feel so much happier and fulfilled when you start to trust your body to tell you how much fuel it needs, not something on your smartphone.