Counting calories – is there any need for it?
It sounds so easy: If you want to lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories than your body burns and the fat will melt away. Calorie counting can be a helpful tool – or it can drive you crazy! That’s why, today, we will look at the pros and cons of calorie counting, as well as some good alternatives.
What are calories?
Calories are a measure of how much energy food and drink contains. The number of calories, or the caloric value, of food is actually measured by burning a food sample completely to ash. Luckily, that is not what happens in our bodies, although, generally, we use the same expression, e.g. exercise “burns” calories.
Pros – how can counting calories help?
At the very beginning of my weight-loss journey, I counted calories myself. At the time, I found it really helpful, because I had lost any sense of what a normal portion size was. For example, I had never noticed that I was serving myself the same size portion as my husband, even though he was quite a bit taller and heavier. Also, I was shocked by how many calories healthy foods such as oats, rice, nuts, and my beloved peanut butter, contain! I didn’t stop eating them, but I reduced my portions. Which takes us to another big plus of calorie counting: There are no “forbidden” foods. If you like pizza, you just have to save calories somewhere else. Maybe have a light snack for lunch, if you are planning to have pizza for dinner.
Counting calories is often demonised, but it has its positives. It teaches you a lot about food, which is never a bad thing, and there is no blacklist of forbidden foods. To know that I wasn’t eating too much or too little gave me confidence.
If things go wrong – the downsides of calorie counting
Unfortunately, counting calories has not become a long-term strategy for me, for the simple reason that it was difficult to integrate into my everyday life. If you want to count calories, you have to weigh every meal – even an expert couldn’t guess the calorie value of a meal with any degree of accuracy. Weighing your meals can become very tedious, especially as I like to cook from scratch. And here lies the danger, because it’s tempting to turn to less healthy ready meals, which already give you the information you need right there on the packaging. Also, when you are eating out or you are invited to dinner with friends, it is pure guesswork.
What about nutritional value?
Calories may tell you everything about the energy value of your food, but they tell you absolutely nothing about vitamins, proteins, or fibre. So while you are trying to cut your calorie intake, you may end up with an unbalanced diet, because counting calories doesn’t automatically make you a nutrition expert.
Calories helped me get a better grip on my portions, but for a friend of mine, it achieved the opposite. She only ate what her calorie app told her to and forgot to listen to her body, to know whether she was hungry or not. When, after years, she stopped counting calories, it left her in a state of panic for weeks! She was so used to following orders, that she no longer trusted her own instincts. It took a long time for her to regain that trust and listen to her body.
Calorie information – a false sense of certainty
When I was counting calories, I thought I knew exactly how much I was taking in every day. But if you think about it, nothing could be further from the truth. As mentioned earlier, in order to determine the caloric value of certain foods, they are burned to ash in a laboratory. But that is not how our body works. It processes food differently and individually, depending on how well we chew, what the composition of the meal is, etc. Even our gut bacteria play an important role. All these factors vary from person to person and so it is only possible to make rough estimates.
On top of that, the information on food packaging isn’t always 100 percent accurate. Because of the natural variations in the food, the manufacturers can only provide average values, meaning that calorie information and the certainty it seems to provide can be deceptive.
Exercise and calories – a perfect trap
“If you exercise more, you can eat more.“ True to this motto, many people hoping to shed the pounds, start exercising and rely on the information provided by their app or the manufacturer of the exercise machines, which tells you how many calories are burnt during exercise. However, those numbers are often wildly exaggerated and so there is a danger that you defeat your goals by treating yourself to a big meal after exercise.
So, what do I do now? Alternative strategies that work.
Some people are happy to count calories for months or even years, but I think it is safe to say, they are the exception rather than the norm. But what alternative strategies are there that actually work?
- Intuitive Eating
“Intuitive Eating” is a method that has become increasingly popular in recent years. The key here is mindfulness. Am I hungry? Am I full? Do I have a craving? Listen to your body, it will tell you what you need. Done properly, this is a good strategy. There are lots of pitfalls and external factors influencing our intuition, for instance, advertising, stress, even boredom can lead to you feeling hungry. You have to learn to understand your body’s signals and that takes time.
- Work with portion size
This can feel like a bit of a throwback to our schooldays, with the “five a day” rule and the somewhat dated “healthy eating pyramid”.
You can use plates, bowls, even your own hands to measure suitable portions. This can be a useful guide if your gut feeling is letting you down and you need some rough guidance.
Conclusion – counting calories is not for everyone
Like most things in life, the method of calorie counting has upsides and downsides. At the end of the day, it depends on your own preferences.
For a few weeks, I found it pretty helpful, but it also was a relief when I stopped. Today, eating a balanced diet, watching portion size, and mindfulness, help me maintain a healthy weight. But an occasional look at the dietary information on food packaging can provide some interesting insights!