education,  nutrition

Calorie counting: is it a good idea?

Whether trying to gain, lose or maintain your weight, calorie counting seems to be the method of choice for many people. If you are considering counting calories, here are some things you need to know.

All calories are not created equal. I didn’t make this phrase up so you’ve likely heard it before. That’s because it couldn’t be truer.

A calorie is, really, just a unit of measurement for the energy in food. There are so many factors which determine not only how food is treated in our bodies but also how much extra energy we are eating.

High Quality Calories

Foods that are natural & minimally processed provide high quality calories. These foods include fruit, veggies, meats, legumes, nuts, seeds & whole grain & cereal products. These foods provide lots of fibre, protein & unsaturated fats.

Calorie Counting: what you need to know.

Calories from these foods are accompanied by lots of other micronutrients that impact how our body works. These foods not only provide energy but they also tell the body what to do with it.

After eating these foods the body responds by releasing hormones, some of which tell your body to burn fat. The fibre contained in fruits, veggies & whole grains & cereal products requires a lot of energy to digest.

These foods are filling & full of nutrients that support a healthy balance in the body.

Low Quality Calories

You may eat the same caloric value in two different foods but the nutrient value can be vastly different so it’s important to pay attention to the quality of the calories you are consuming. Low quality calories can be found in foods that are more often than not full of fat & sugars such as confectionary, chips & takeaway foods. They are also found in white versions (more processed) of grain & cereal products.

These foods not only release the hormones that lead to fat storage, but they aren’t very filling so are much easier to over-consume. Thiscan even be the case in products that have a reputation for being healthy like juices. Juice has all the fibre removed but retains all the sugar. You can drink a lot more apples than you’d eat, thus consuming a lot more sugar.

So how do I know whether counting calories will work for me?

To answer this question you need to know why you are counting calories. Counting calories is only successful in an estimated 4.5% of cases & this is because people either fail to lose weight, or they regain it almost immediately so you need to know why you are doing this.

Are you a comfort eater, are you controlling your intake to the extreme? Ask yourself if it’s just because you can’t control your appetite, or you are obsessed with controlling your appetite. Is it because of something much deeper than just food?

Calorie counting: are you comfort eating?

If you think there are psychological reasons for your inability to maintain a healthy weight than you need to take steps to address these issues. If there’s more going on then calorie counting isn’t the answer, it’s just a temporary fix. These issues will keep arising & continue to play havoc on your body. Talk to your healthcare provider & make a plan to treat the cause & get rid of the problem for good! Don’t worry though, I’ll provide some tips for eating well without calorie counting & some useful links in the final section of this post.

How many calories should I aim for?

If counting calories is what you want to do then make sure you are doing it healthily. Don’t get obsessed with it – you don’t need to weigh everything out to the gram/ounce. Near enough really is good enough.

Whether you are aiming to lose or gain weight it’s important to make sure you are eating enough. A lot of people believe that 1200 calories is the magic number. This is unfortunately due to marketing & celebrity diets. Just like most things there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Your requirement will depend on your age, height, current weight & level of physical activity. It may also be affected by any conditions you have. Take the time to figure out a healthy level for you, there are many calculators available online but make sure they are asking for the information above.

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Essentially, you want to work out your requirement for maintenance, then minus about 500 calories. Make sure you don’t go under your basal metabolic rate (BMR) though. Your BMR is the energy your body needs to function while at rest (again lots of online calculators). If you eat below this number on a daily basis you’ll slow your metabolism down. I’ve had clients who came to me because they’ve gained weight by consistently eating under their BMR. It’s important too to regularly re-check this as it will change as your weight does.

How can I do this in a healthy, sustainable way?

It’s also very important is to make sure you are eating the right foods. Remember, all calories aren’t created equal. Fill your diet with healthy, whole natural foods.

Studies have shown that there’s no significant difference between most diets regarding weight loss so pick a diet as close as possible to the one you want to keep in the future.

Be it low-fat or The Mediterranean diet, just make sure you are making up the majority of your energy intake with foods as close to their natural state as possible. Go back & read my posts on carbohydrates, protein, & fats to find out how to make healthy choices. When you give your body these types of foods you will eventually stop craving heavily processed foods & crave these ones instead. I’ll dive into cravings in more detail in a future post but, generally speaking, your body craves what it regularly consumes.

Until your body gets used to your new diet, try to give your body what it’s looking for but a healthier version. If you crave something sweet, have a banana instead of a mars bar. If you crave something savoury have a whole grain cracker (check the nutrition panel!) with a slice of low-fat cheese or some air-popped popcorn with a light sprinkle of salt. These are great snacks that aren’t ‘diet food’ but foods you can continue to enjoy once you’ve reached your goal weight.

The best thing about eating healthy minimally or unprocessed foods is that often you can eat more & still lose weight. If you made a homemade burger with lean meat, low-fat cheese & some salad on a wholemeal bun, even if it had the same caloric value as a quarter pounder, you’d find that the homemade version would be much bigger, keep you fuller for longer and help you stay healthy as well!

Don’t forget, you can have your cake & eat it too as long as it’s not a regular occurence. An all or nothing mindset isn’t helpful here. If you have a specific food or drink that sends you not only off the wagon, but setting the wagon on fire & running for the hills screaming hysterically, then don’t eat/drink it. You can however find something that you can enjoy occasionally without throwing away all your hard work. You don’t have to become a hermit, just eat smart & you’ll be fine.

What should I do if I can’t calorie count?

Eat mindfully instead. Your body wants to be a certain weight & will work hard to maintain that weight if you let it. Listen to your body, eat slowly & stop when you’re full. If you over-do it one day don’t keep going the next but don’t refuse to eat either. Your body will naturally compensate so if you pay attention it will tell you how much energy you need to eat.

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Again (& I know I’m repeating myself but it’s important) just make sure you are eating mostly minimally or unprocessed foods so you’re getting the nutrients you need with none of the extra calories from saturated fats & sugars & not only will you be healthy, but you’ll feel better too.

If you’d like more information on eating healthy without calorie counting, or just want more information on calories in general check out the following websites

Harvard Health Publishing CDC

National Health Service: understanding calories

I really hope you have found this post helpful & if you have any comments, questions or need clarification please leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Would personalised one-on-one consultations with me help you master your diet &/or weight? If the answer is yes then send me an email using the contact form below & we’ll arrange a call or Skype.

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Do you have any questions or anything else to add?

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I’d also love to know what you’d like to see in future posts. If you’d like me to write about something in particular, please let me know.

Thankyou so much for joining me for this post.

Happy reading!

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I’m Kath, qualified nutritionist & personal trainer. I believe a personalised, flexibile approach to gaining physical & mental well-being is necessary for achieving sustainable lifestyle changes that support both these aspects of health. In the near future I will be offering a range of nutrition & lifestyle education services designed to gain the life my clients want in a way that works for them.

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