Trying to lose weight for good? Quit thinking of food in terms of points. Put down your measuring cups; throw away your food scales and quit obsessing over whether the apple you splurged on should be logged into your online food calculator as medium or large. I can assure you – not accurately accounting for the difference of 42 calories is not the reason you can’t lose weight.
Can one learn valuable tips from counting calories? Sure. But meticulously counting calories for anything more than a couple of days takes away valuable time – time that could be spent preparing nutritious meals; getting more sleep or even just doing an activity you enjoy. If your time is limited (and everyone seems to think it is) you’d be much better off spending that time actually exercising rather than engaging in an exercise in futility (aka: meticulously counting calories).
A pound of fat contains about 3,500 calories of stored energy. So, while you may think – if you eat 500 calories less per day, in a week you could be one pound lighter (500 x 7 =3500). Or if you burn another 500 calories through exercise you’ll be two pounds lighter. It’s appealing logic, but it’s also wrong.
The human body is a little more complex than that cut and dry math. Many people intuitively understand that 170 calories from a Mountain Dew are not the same as 170 calories of meat from grass-fed cattle, yet many still choose their nutrition based on how many points it is worth or how many calories are on the label. Fat loss depends on a few things: hormones, vitamins and mineral co-factors, sleep, recovery, genetic differences and toxic load – none of which are accounted for in strict calorie-counting theories.
The following are two examples – one nutritional and one exercise-based – that should put a nail into the calorie counting coffin.
Comparing food-based calories: A study compared an egg-based breakfast to a bagel-based breakfast. Researchers made sure to match the total amount of energy (calories) as well as energy density (calories/grams of food) for all groups. At the end of eight weeks, the group reducing calories and eating eggs for breakfast lost 65 percent more weight and reduced their waist circumference 34 percent more than the group eating the same amount of calories from bagels. Contrary to popular belief, the egg group did not show increased cholesterol or triglyceride levels.
Calories burned during exercise are not the “end all-be all:” A study compared 20 weeks of endurance aerobic training versus 15 weeks of high intensity interval training. Over the course of the study, it was estimated that the high intensity group burned only half the calories of the endurance group. When researchers accounted for the energy cost difference, they found the high intensity group burned nine times the amount of belly fat per calorie burned. Spend LESS time doing cardio, burn MORE fat: sounds like a sweet deal. However, high intensity intervals are well, high intensity, so you probably won’t be able workout and read the latest issue of People magazine at the same time.
That said, calorie counting can be a useful tool when used in a proper context. Count calories for a few days – even a week. Learn about relative portion sizes for certain foods. Learn which foods contain protein, carbohydrates and fat. More importantly, learn how those foods affect your hunger, energy, sleep, mood and mental function. If you tend to eat a low amount of calories and still do not lose weight, consider that it may be food or exercise choices, not calories. Once you’ve learned some of these lessons, ditch the online calculators, measuring cups and scales. Listen to your body’s hunger and satiety cues; make proper, nutrient-dense food choices and make time to take actions for your health. If you could spend a half hour a day logging the calories from a processed meal or making a homemade meal, chose the latter. The calories will fall in line to the extent the food choices do. Don’t let calories convince you that a 100-calorie bag of Oreos is a better diet food than a 120-calorie tablespoon of mitochondria-inducing, fat-burning, coconut oil. Calories act merely as tools that need to be applied in a proper setting.
Resources: Eggs for breakfast: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2755181/ and High-intensity intervals: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8028502