Why calorie counting doesn't work, and the alternatives.
NEW YEAR, NEW YOU?
New year, new you? Great!
But, this year, why not try a new approach? Many people dive headlong into a new diet regime in January, punishing themselves for enjoying extra food and drink over the festive period. The trouble is, a huge number of these diets are not sustainable – or successful – in the long term. One of the reasons for this is the ongoing focus so many people place on calorie counting.
Calorie counting is at the root of many disordered relationships with food: it creates anxiety and stress, it demonises food and it is often the reason why diets fail. In this blog, nutritionist Jenny Logan explores what to do when calorie counting doesn’t work.
ARE CALORIES BAD?
Calories are not evil! To appreciate this, it is important that we understand what calories are: simply a measure of how much energy we will get from a food.
So, would you want to follow a diet which told you it was going to make you tired? No. In today’s busy world most of us need all the energy we can get!
NOT ALL CALORIES ARE CREATED EQUAL
The idea that 200 calories is 200 calories - no matter what food those calories come from - is utter nonsense. Where calories come from matters.
200 calories from chocolate does not have the same value to your body as 200 calories from nuts. Avocado contains more calories than a bag of sweets, but these have a different effect on and benefit to your body.
Our body needs certain nutrients, fats, and fibres. If our diet does not provide them, our brain will send out messages to eat more! Restricting calories will often lead to low levels of certain nutrients, which in turn will cause food cravings!
Realistically, we should be considering the nutritional value of a food – what is it going to give our body as well as energy?
CALORIES REMOVE THE JOY FROM FOOD AND CREATE GUILT
When we are focused on calories, we forget to enjoy our food. This means we are often left unsatisfied by what we have eaten. We can also find ourselves consumed by guilt: Guilt for cheating; guilt for having too many calories; guilt for not having enough calories; guilt for feeling hungry; guilt for feeling full…
This is soul destroying and will ultimately lead to failure (hence more guilt)!
CALORIE LABELS ARE NOT ACCURATE
1. Calorie statements are just a guess – an average. The actual calorie content of a food could vary by up to 20%!
2. We are all individuals, with different needs and different digestive systems. We do not actually know how many calories our own individual body will release from a food. It is easier for our body to release calories from cooked food, rather than from raw food. Our gut bacteria can also influence how many calories are released from food. How effectively our digestion is working will also have a role to play.
HOW DIET AFFECTS MOOD
Fats have been demonised for years. But we NEED them! Especially the essential fats found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and avocados – foods often avoided by dieters because they are ‘high calorie’.
Unfortunately, there is now a proven link between diets which are low in these fats and low mood. This could be one of the reasons why such diets make us feel so miserable (that, and the feelings of guilt and depravation!)
CALORIE COUNTING MEANS IGNORING YOUR BODY
Most of us are trained from a young age to ignore our hunger (“no, you can’t have a snack wait ‘til dinner”) and our feelings of fullness (“you can’t leave it, finish what’s on the plate and you can have desert”).
Furthermore, with calorie counting, we may start to starve ourselves to allow for a binge. We may eat simply to ‘get the calories right,’ or we may choose not to eat because we’ve already reached our ‘limit’.
All of this means we are not paying attention to our body. It also causes imbalances in our blood sugars, low mood, food cravings and potentially messes up our metabolism – all in all, a bad plan!
SO, WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE?
Calorie counting is all about what you can’t have, it feels negative and creates an unhealthy relationship with food. Food is good! It provides nutrition, energy, fuel and, hopefully, pleasure. We need it! We just need to change how we think about it and our behaviour around it. Here are some of the changes I have made, which also seem to serve my clients well:
1. EAT WHEN YOU ARE HUNGRY – STOP WHEN YOU ARE FULL
It sounds obvious, but we rarely do this. We will eat when it is meal time and finish when the plate is clear. Try putting only half the amount of food you would usually serve up, and then thinking about whether you need more and, if so, how much? Given the right opportunity, our body will regulate itself well.
2. EAT SLOWLY AND ENJOY EVERY MOUTHFUL
How many of us eat in front of the TV, or whilst looking through our phone - barely even registering how much or how quickly we have eaten? Studies have shown that we are more likely to over eat if we are not focused on our food. Try swapping the hand you hold your fork in. Chew slowly and register flavours. Make sure your food is richly flavoured and enjoyable. This will create real positivity, and a strong feeling of being satisfied by what you have eaten.
3. LOOK AT THE TRUE VALUE OF FOOD
Not the calorie content – the actual value of the food for your body. What will the food give you? If it is simply joy in eating it, make sure you appreciate every mouthful and when the joy stops, stop eating. Your focus though should be on fresh foods – plenty of fibre, lots of proteins, and loads of flavours, which will provide satisfaction and fullness for hours.
Written by Jenny Logan DN Med.(Jenny is a nutritional therapist who has worked with clients in health food stores and private clinics for over 20 years).