Why I Don’t Recommend Counting Calories
For decades our societal norm has been calorie obsessed. Medical experts have glorified calories as being the factor that is responsible for weight loss because the barebones philosophy of calories-in versus calories-out says that if you expend more calories than you consume then you will lose weight. This is why a lot of patients are given the lazy medical advice to “eat less and move more”. And why weight loss companies have taught you that ‘a calorie is a calorie’. This advice has been so far from misleading, confusing and ineffective. As more people count calories than ever before, we also have the highest rates of obesity and metabolic disorders.
As a dietitian, my nutrition training involved teaching people how to count calories. But because of my own personal experience of using food as medicine as a teenager, the approach seemed entirely short-sided. Now to some extent calories do matter and a slight calorie deficit will help you lose weight but you can achieve that by simply balancing your blood sugar, eating enough protein at meals and listening to your hunger cues.
Here are the top reasons that I don’t recommend counting calories:
#1: Counting Calories Doesn’t Ensure High Quality Fuel
In functional medicine, the focus is on using food as medicine and information for your cells. 200 calories of broccoli provides very different sources of information than 200 calories of a donut. Different foods with the same calories create metabolic effects. You could be on a low calorie diet but if you have insulin resistance, it will feel nearly impossible to lose weight.
Counting calories can also lead to the justification of poor nutritional choices. For instance: You may choose to skip the salad at dinner to ‘save up’ for a 100 cal pack of highly processed chocolate chip cookies. This does not translate to healthy eating. It actually screams, continue staying addicted to processed foods and filling your body with highly processed foods that increase your blood sugar levels and hijack your health.
#2: It Trains You to View Food as a Number
The problem with viewing food as a number is that it takes away from all of the other incredible components of food like the taste, smell, color, freshness, and nutrients that any given food can provide. It gets worse when you translate the number of calories to a second number, the one that appears on the scale. When you think of food as either of these two numbers it creates a very linear experience that can ultimately make eating very stressful and disempowering. On the flip side, when you focus less on counting numbers and more on how to appreciate all of these amazing characteristics of food, where it comes from and how to nourish your body, it makes eating foods and cooking extremely enjoyable.
#3: Food is a Tool for Creating Health, Not Just Weight Loss
When it comes to treating or managing chronic disease food can be more powerful than some pharmaceutical drugs. About 70% of the patients that I’ve seen in functional medicine get better through changing their diet alone. Some of people’s most complex, debilitating symptoms can be controlled or mitigated by the food that’s on the end of their fork. When you witness the power that food can have on your overall functionality, levels of inflammation, sleep, mood, and wellbeing, you will never again be able to comprehend the concept of calorie counting.
This is a concept that I talk about when I teach weight loss classes. On the first week I tell people, you are not here to lose weight. At that point they get really confused and question whether they are in the right place. I follow it up with…I’m going to teach you how to eat in order to improve your overall health, manage your blood sugar levels, decrease joint pain, reduce anxiety, and live a more enjoyable life. If you think of food as providing an opportunity to improve your overall health, weight loss becomes a side effect of getting healthier. When you think of food as just being tied to weight loss, you miss out on all of the other beneficial properties of eating a whole food, nutrient-dense diet.
#4. Calories are Not the Only Determinant of Your Weight
I often ask my patients “do you think that 100 calories of sauerkraut is the same as 100 calories of oreos?” They immediately respond with, of course not. While these two foods may be equal in calories they are not equal in the number of anti-inflammatory messages that they send to your entire body. Sauerkraut is loaded with fiber, vitamins, and phytonutrients that send information that reduces oxidative stress, nourishes your cells, and makes you feel more full. Sauerkraut is also loaded with healthy strains of bacteria that help create a healthy gut microbiome.
Researchers are becoming more aware of the role that the gut microbiome has on a healthy weight. The gut microbiome largely impacts your metabolism, processing of calories and your glucose response. This accounts for approximately 2-8% of digestive waste that is processed by the gut. Researchers are finding that optimizing healthy strains of bacteria can increase your metabolism. This is exactly why eating fiber-rich plants and fermented foods that have the ability to feed a healthy gut are so much more important than counting calories. This in turn reduces risk of autoimmune disease, depression, weight gain, and so much more. At the end of the day your gut doesn’t care as much about the number of calories you are eating, it cares more about the quality of the calories.
Do yourself a favor and stop focusing on the number of calories in food. Instead, start feeding your body with more nutrient-dense foods and paying attention to where your food comes from. This will allow you to improve your blood sugar, create a healthy gut microbiome and observe a shift in your mental, emotional and physical health.