This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. This is a topic that is important to me because it’s really shaped my belief system as a dietitian and it’s also something that makes me quite a bit different from many in my field. The topic is calories. And the idea is that they’re stupid.
Raise your hand if your life has ever been controlled by calories.
[I’m raising my hand.] When I was studying to be a dietitian in college, I was taught that calories are king and calculating calories for patients or clients is the first thing one must do to solve just about any weight or nutritional problem. We would even do projects that involved calculating our own calorie requirements and we’d keep food diaries to figure out if we were falling in line with a simple math equation that involved our age, height, weight, and activity level. A simple math equation that explained how every individual’s extraordinarily complicated metabolism was working.
I would go to the grocery store and read every label, looking only at calories, and would fill my cart with 100 calorie packs, sugar-free everything, nonfat dairy and chicken breasts. God forbid I ate real bacon. I would kill myself at the gym 6 days a week for at least an hour a day [calories in, calories out!]. I was 10 pounds heavier when I was working out 7-10 hours/week and eating low-calorie everything, than I am today, spending 30-40 minutes at the gym 4-5 times a week and pouring (lots of) heavy cream in my morning coffee.
God forbid I ate real bacon.
“But Megan, you drank copious amounts of alcohol in college.”
Fine, then fast forward a few years when I wasn’t in college. Same story, less alcohol. Ten more pounds.
And then I stopped following what the world and the media was telling me about calories and started thinking for myself. I did the research, I read a lot and I started questioning some of the things I had been taught. I quit looking at calories and starting looking at ingredients. And I started eating real food: responsibly raised meats, full-fat dairy, fresh fruits and veggies at every meal, healthy fats like avocados, nut butter, real butter, potatoes and other starchy vegetables and even certain types of rice and pasta.
So, why are calories so stupid?
1. A calorie is not a calorie – The “a calorie is a calorie” theory seems to make so much sense on a basic level, but if you dig deeper, it doesn’t. Our bodies process fat, protein, and carbohydrates completely differently. Take it a step further – hydrogenated oils, saturated and unsaturated fat, fiber, sugar and resistant starch are all metabolized in different ways. Our bodies aren’t math equations, guys. They’re biology projects. Read on.
2. Biology trumps math. When you drink a bunch of water, you pee out the fluids that you don’t need. Your body’s pH stays relatively stable at 7.4 despite all the acid-forming and alkaline-forming foods we pump into it. You regulate your body temperature at a fairly constant 98.6 degrees by making or releasing heat. Just take a moment and check out the number of ways our bodies maintain homeostasis [balance] here. So, why do we think we can control our body fat using math to count calories? We can’t. We have to eat foods that our body wants (real foods) so that we can support our metabolism and give it the fuel it needs to burn fat and give us energy. When we do that, our body takes care of the rest by feeding our cells and tissues and burning fat. We don’t have to restrict and count to get there.
3. Cutting calories gives false hope. Everyone reading this is either someone or at least knows someone who dropped weight at some point by restricting calories. Did you or the person you know keep it off? Probably not. Several studies have shown that eating less and exercising more doesn’t work long term, and one study in particular showed that a whopping 95% of people trying to lose weight by eating less and exercising more were not successful over a 3 year period. By restricting calories, we tell our bodies that we are in a situation where food is not available so our metabolism slows down. Way down. This is why yo-yo dieting exists and is so incredibly frustrating for millions of people. Why do we continue to do this to ourselves?!
4. It’s all about hormones. Yup, I said hormones. Not calories, not fat grams, not exercise. Just hormones. From now on when you hear the word “metabolism” think “hormones” because it’s hormones that regulate our hunger and satiety. Every time we eat an excess of refined carbohydrates [white bread, pasta, processed foods, sugar, sweets], a rush of sugar enters our blood. Our bodies don’t favor a lot of extra sugar floating around, so it releases the fat-storing hormone insulin to store that extra sugar as fat. Hm. That sounds pretty terrible. That sounds exactly like that we DON’T want to happen. How do we prevent this? Quit eating so many refined carbohydrates and fake food. (But Megan, you just said you still eat pasta. Read on.)
5. Think about protein, healthy fat and fiber-rich carbs. Stop thinking about calories, and start thinking about what matters – fat, fiber-rich carbs and protein. Fat and fiber both slow down that rush of sugar that comes from eating carbs, thus lessening the insulin response and causing less sugar to be stored as fat. Protein keeps us full, and it also supports lean muscle tissue, which in turn revs up our fat burners. Healthy fat is also a key player in maintaining a healthy metabolism and does not trigger an insulin response. AKA – fat doesn’t make us fat. So, when I say I still eat foods like certain types of rice and pasta, I’m always eating these foods with lots of protein, healthy fat and other fiber-rich carbs (aka vegetables) along with it to ease the release of sugar into my blood. And, I’m eating these types of foods in very moderate amounts.
6. Quality over quantity. This is my final and most important reason why calories are stupid. Quality food trumps number of calories every. single. time. Look guys, this post isn’t titled “calories don’t count” or “calories aren’t real.” They are real and they do count. But they don’t count nearly as much as eating quality food. If you consistently stuff yourself until you nearly throw up eating chicken breasts, you’re probably going to gain weight. But why the f*ck would you do that? No one does that. That’s something you do with Doritos because Doritos are made of refined carbohydrates and the more we eat them, the more we crave them. Plus, I’m fairly certain Doritos are sprinkled with crack.
So, how has counting calories become the mainstream way to lose weight?
Two words: Food Industry.
As long as we believe “everything in moderation!” and “as long as it fits in your daily calorie goal”, the food industry wins. Of course they want us to think that those 100 calorie snack packs are good for us because they’re low calorie. Of course Coca-Cola wants us to think that sugar water can be a part of a balanced diet. These companies have far more money than the scientists that disprove their messages every day, so we don’t hear them. But now you know. Quit counting and knit a sweater or something.
And if you need more help, let’s hang out.
I want you to LIVE. Counting calories and spending all your time in the kitchen sucks, and it’s really the entire reason I created this blog. So, when I work with clients, I evaluate how much protein, healthy fat and fiber-rich carbs (PHFF) they should be getting each day based on a thorough diet, activity and lifestyle assessment. Then, we work together putting a diet/lifestyle plan that meets your goals, and I teach you how to reach these goals without counting anything. And let me tell you, it is FREEING. And it WORKS. And as much as it’s a catch-phrase these days, it really is a lifestyle. Because it allows an incredible amount of flexibility in your diet and your life. If you’re a calorie counter and you want to learn more about stopping for good, head over here. Also, definitely check out PHFF! Healthy Eating is Stupid Easy and The Blood Sugar Diet for more goodies on this topic.