The Problem with Counting Calories
“Take in less calories than you expend and you’ll lose weight.” That’s what you hear all the time from weight loss experts to doctors to nutritionists. Calories in must be less than calories out in order to lose weight.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Well, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.
Our bodies are a magnificent and highly complicated design. There’s a lot that happens when we pick up a piece of food, put it in our mouth and digest it. It’s a bunch of scientific and psychological mumbo-jumbo that happens when we eat food. I’m not going to get into the whole science and psychology behind it, but if you are a nerd like me and love the science part of it, here’s a great book for you to check out: Food and Western Disease: Health and nutrition from an evolutionary perspective by Dr. Staffan Lindenberg.
One of the major problems I have with counting calories is that it’s a short term solution. Yes, you will lose weight if you carefully count your calories and make sure you are taking in less than you are putting out. But studies have shown that the vast majority of people on calorie restrictive diets gain back even more weight than they lost. Sorry to burst your bubble, but don’t kill the messenger – that’s just what the research proves. I’ll tell you why that happens and show you what you can do instead.
If you take anything away from this post, please remember this: The key to maintaining optimal weight for a lifetime is not to count calories, but to give your body essential nutrients.
Let me explain what that means. When you eat real, whole foods and consume enough nutrients and calories for your body and energy levels, your hormones transmit a signal to your brain saying, “You can stop eating now. I’m well nourished. I got what I need to make you run well.” This process depends on the actual nutrition in the food you eat.
But the foods of today (processed foods) relay messages to the brain that are anything but good sources of nutrition. And this messes with your brain and body in a very major way. You see, the processed food of today contains little if any real nutrients. Food scientists sucked the nutrition right out of real, whole food and instead created processed food pumped with synthetic vitamins and then filled these foods with artificial ingredients and flavor enhancing, addictive chemicals that are meant to induce cravings that lead us to overeat.
Do you see the problem yet? This means you are eating way more calories with less real nutrition and it’s not your fault. Your brain has been messed with.
Let me give you an example: It’s really hard to consume more calories than your body requires when you eat a steak dinner. You have a nice piece of steak and some broccoli with real butter for dinner. This is a great balance of real food found in nature. The steak is filled with a hefty dose of filling protein and some naturally occurring fats, which make it very filling. The broccoli contains some carbohydrates and a wonderful source of vitamins and minerals. Plus the butter is a naturally occurring fat and is very satisfying. Proteins and naturally occurring fats pack the most most powerful nutrient rich punch. As you are eating this real food, your body recognizes the wonderful nutrition in the meal so when it gets enough nutrients to satisfy your energy levels, it sends a signal to your brain saying, “you can stop eating now – we have enough calories and nutrients for you.” So you stop eating and are full and satisfied. As you may have experienced, it’s pretty tough to overeat this type of meal.
But this hormonal signal plays out much differently when you eat something processed like a box of cookies (or insert any processed food here). Cookies have no real nutrients, contain highly processed ingredients and are filled with artificial, flavor enhancing flavors and addictive chemicals. When you eat these cookies, they provide no real nutrition so your brain wants more and more and you can easily eat almost a whole box. You see, your brain is trying to find adequate nutrition and when there is none or very little there, it doesn’t know when to stop. Not only that, but these flavor enhancing artificial flavors and chemicals are designed to release dopamine and stimulate your pleasure center in your brain. So you want more and more and then you begin to crave foods like this. It becomes an addiction.
As a result, you eat far more calories than your body needs and you get no real nutrition.
When you count calories, you restrict real nutrients. When you are forced to limit your food intake by a number on a package, you are limiting the necessary vitamins and minerals needed for your body to function at it’s best. Not only that, but limiting calories and getting no real nutrients cause your body to hold onto fat when it should be using it for fuel.
Now I don’t want it to seem that I am bashing counting calories. I do think it can be a helpful tool and a good starting place to see if you are eating too much or too little. Most of the time when people are counting calories, they are consuming far too few calories for their body to function well. I know it seems counter-intuitive to eat more when you want to lose weight, but if you don’t eat enough calories, your body will want to hold on to the fat as a protective measure.
I think you’re missing the point and bigger picture if you are restricting calories solely as a way to lose weight. Yes, counting calories can be a great tool to make sure you are providing your body with adequate nutrients to run at it’s prime.
But are you really going to count calories for the rest of your life? What happens when you stop counting calories? You guessed it, the weight comes back according to the research. When you restrict calories as the sole way of losing weight, you never really fixed the main problem.
And do you remember what that problem was? Let me remind you: processed, chemically altered foods, hormones sending your brain faulty signals that induce cravings and addictions. All of that leads to weight gain and why you over consumed calories and gained weight in the first place.
That’s the real problem. If you don’t fix the real problem, you’ll never be able to keep the weight off for good.
So what should you do to keep the weight off? Make sure your body and brain are getting the right, balanced hormonal signals when you eat. And how do you do that?
Consume a diet rich in whole, natural foods (meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts/seeds and natural fats like animal fats and olive and coconut oils) and avoid processed, flavor enhanced foods that send these faulty signals. You will be well nourished and will naturally consume enough calories and nutrients for your optimum weight.
*I need to add this in here, even though it deserves a post of it’s own (coming soon!), but wheat is highly addictive and a processed food. Yes, I’m even talking about whole wheat and whole grains. I know you probably think I’ve lost my mind right now, but hear me out. The wheat of today is not the same wheat as it once was. Modern day wheat has been genetically altered and has addictive properties, just like processed foods. I ditched the wheat a few years ago and never looked back. If you want to learn more about this, please read Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health by Dr. William Davis. You can also read why I ditched the wheat and what a difference it has made in my life here.