It still remains the holy grail of the fitness world and the first advice spewed from the lips of every dietician out there: count your calories to lose weight. There is so much wrong here I am at a loss where to begin.
Let’s start with a bold statement: I believe counting your calories is stupid, futile, and a complete waste of your time. Additionally, I believe counting your calories is impractical and creates unhealthy associations with food in addition to creating permissions to eat unhealthy food.
For anyone who has read my blog for a while you might currently be scratching your head. “But Coach, you wrote that blog called ‘The 500 Calorie Myth and 4 Reasons You Should Track Your Calories.’” This is true. In 2015 I did write that blog.
For truly dedicated readers, however, you might remember an even more ancient scripture I published entitled, ‘Healthy Food Has No Nutrition Labels,’ posted in March of 2008 talking about how useless nutrition labels are and how eating healthy doesn’t require counting anything.
WTF is going on Coach? Your message seems a wee bit contradictory. Now what am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to believe?
I am sorry to cause you this amount of duress! I understand! There are contradictory messages here. I can explain!
I went through a phase. I had an idea, which I attempted to implement and then recognized it was an abysmal failure. I admit that. It was a bad idea. The intention was good but the process was not just unrealistic but wholly unnecessary.
To be healthy and fit it is 100% unnecessary to count your calories, weigh your food, or measure anything. Not only is that true but it also leads to other issues that I now recognize as common among fitness and non-fitness people alike.
Issues With Calorie Counting
1) Your numbers are wrong.
Those calorie counting apps and that old calorie count book in your cupboard are not accurate. The calories they list are based on a testing method in a lab and then averaged out to provide label information (Click HERE for an explanation).
Additional to the fact that the calorie content is determined in a totally different manner than how your body works it completely ignores that foods aren’t created equal. Two heads of broccoli that weigh the same could actually have different total calories based on a plethora of factors such as where they were grown, how long since they were harvested, what variety they are, weather conditions during growth, and water content. Things get even more complicated when you attempt to measure calories in foods with multiple ingredients!
The honest truth is that you cannot ever know how many calories you are eating with great accuracy. All you can ever have is a rough estimate or guideline based on laboratory testing.
2) People are different.
If three difference people were to somehow eat the exact same item of food (which is kind of impossible and as we saw above three different portions of the same type of food can be different) they would each make use of different amounts of calories.
Different gut bacteria, varied digestive tract lengths, varied physiology, illness, genetics and yet ANOTHER large list of variable factors come into play here. How many calories are digested and the used by the body from food fluctuates and is actually fully, 100%, completely impossible to measure. If you eat 300 approximated calories from a food it is literally impossible to know if your body converted 100 of them or 300 of them into useable energy in the body. Impossible to know.
3) Food Combinations
It is pretty rare to eat just one food at a time. We add sauces to things, create recipes, have full meals consisting of a multitude of food items, and often have wine or beer with food. Each of these factors plays a role in total calories as well as how much of that food energy is digested and used by the body.
Many alcoholics are malnourished even those who eat seemingly good food. Why? Their body spends so much time processing alcohol that it never gets the chance to properly process the food that is eaten. While your glass of wine with dinner isn’t going to make the whole meal a nutrition wasteland it will have an effect on how much energy and which nutrients you are going to be able to process and absorb.
Combining foods changes how they are digested and processed, this in turn will affect how the calories are absorb and how available the calories will be. This is the same in foods that consist of multiple ingredients. Eating raw zucchini is different than eating a zucchini chocolate cake.
4) Cooking and Processing
When you cook food it changes the bioavailability of macro and micronutrients of food. Typically the more a food is cooked the more available the calories are from that food (up to appoint, the blackened charred steak your mom used to serve you was probably devoid of any actual useable calories…). Eating broccoli raw vs. eating steamed broccoli will give different amounts of calories and change how much food energy your body can obtain from it.
Processing food into simpler forms or creating quick cooking versions of foods, again, will change how much useable energy your body can get from that food. Think of those rice dishes you buy in the plastic package that get thrown into the microwave for just 2 quick minutes to provide you a meal, those overly processed ingredients will be very different in your body than the same portion of sow cooked rice from raw grains.
Add to these factors the knowledge that each person eating the food also will utilize different amounts of food in different ways at different times and Pandora’s Box is bust wide open.
5) Disordered Eating
I am not talking about full on eating disorders here but more about the completely weird relationship our modern culture has with food. It is a complete disaster. We are constantly thinking about food, deciding what is good for us or what is bad for us, how much we should eat, when we should ‘treat’ ourselves, and about a million other variables. This is what I consider disordered eating.
Eating shouldn’t be complicated. You shouldn’t have to think so much about it. It should be enjoyable, delicious, wholesome, and a positive part of your day. Something you look forward to.
But our fixation on calories and portions and our association between these things and our bodies has created something of a monster inside of our heads. When was the last time you ate with no feelings of guilt or concern over the health benefits (or lack thereof) contained on that plate in front of you?
We are so fixated on an arbitrary number that is wholly unknowable that food has become about as enjoyable as the math test is has become. The idea that we must know the calorie content of what we eat has so permeated our culture that we have completely forgotten how to eat.
This brings us to the crux of the issue and why counting calories is a completely worthless endeavour.
Some of you might be throwing your hands in the air in exasperation at this point. How are you supposed to eat healthy? How are you supposed to know how much to eat? What should you be eating?
Somehow the human race survived for tens of thousands of years without counting calories, nay, without even knowing the concept of a calorie. Today millions of people do the same as well as every single animal and other organism on the entire damn planet. How? How is this possible?
The answer is actually so very easy, so very simple, that it just might astound you.
Here we go.
Eat. Real. Food.
As I wrote in 2008, the solution is to eat unprocessed food. Fruits, Vegetables, meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, rice, and whole grains.
Make it all yourself. That’s right, you are going to have to cook. To chop, slice, dice, roast, fry, bake, sauté, steam, boil, and grate. Basic human skills that are less common now than ten more minutes surfing Instagram.
On a recent podcast I talked about the fact that there are bad foods and good food but then recommended an alternative way of thinking about things that I believe is the answer to so many health issues today. Real food vs. not real food.
The modern processed food industry is beyond scary. Protein powders instead of meat and dairy, products filled with so much corn in guises you don’t even recognize that they could hardly be called food, additives, preservatives, colouring agents, and emulsifiers. It is this garbage that truly has deleterious effects on our health.
There is no one who is over fat and unhealthy who eats a real food diet free from processed modern pseudo-food. No one. None. They don’t exist. There is no culture with an obesity epidemic that foregoes processed foods in favour of traditional cooking practices. In fact, the rise of obesity in developing cultures is always link to the introduction of western processed and massed produced food.
The answer is so simple. I didn’t say easy, just simple.
When you are eating real food there is no need to count calories or measure and weigh anything. No one is over fat because they eat too many raw veggies, farm fresh eggs, and roasted chicken. NO ONE.
Just like the thousands of years before the idea of the calorie was conceived and there was no obesity epidemic nor disordered eating all you have to do is cook and eat real food.
Somehow humanity survived.