Let me just start by saying that I understand the whole counting your calories, tracking your macro-nutrients and logging your nutrition. I’ve worked with lots of clients and athletes in the past where this is a useful tool.
However, I like to keep things very simple in my life and although this can be a great tool to get started on a diet or weight loss journey, I do not believe it is the best.
The main reason is that counting calories totally negates the nutrient-density (or quality) of food. It’s an antiquated way to measure the amount of food you are eating and over simplifies our body’s complex nutrient requirements.
Remember that the purpose of eating is to FUEL our body to help meet the nutritional requirements of every single cell.
No Calorie was Created Equal
A calorie is a calorie is a calorie; is just simply not true. For example, 100 calories of broccoli vs 100 calories of candy will obviously have very different nutrients and effects on the body. And what about burning calories when we exercise - is burning 300 calories in an intense cardio exercise the same as burning 300 calories during a long walk or hike? The simple answer is “no.”
So what is a calorie? A calorie is unit of measurement that tells us how much energy it takes to raise 1kg of water by 1 degree Celsius at sea level. So therefore when we are looking at how many “calories” something has, we are really looking at how much energy it is giving us. Here is where the confusion lies in our oversimplification of the nutrient needs of our body. Our bodies need more then just energy to function optimally.
If my calorie intake is less then my calorie expenditure (how many calories I am burning) then I should lose weight. Right? Unfortunately it is not that simple and the truth really lies somewhere in the middle.
What happens when we actually eat carbs, proteins and fats?
Carbohydrates: These get broken down into what we call simple sugars and have one of 3 destinations: 1. bloodstream to be used immediately as fuel; 2. liver for use later; 3. stored as fat. Sugar causes the release of insulin which is responsible for the storage of sugar as fat and our amazing body’s don’t let any of this valuable energy go to waste.
Proteins: These mostly get broken down into amino acids which are used to make different proteins, hormones and other repair substrates in the body. They can be used as energy but our body prefers to use carbs and fats.
Fats: These get broken down in to fatty acids in the blood stream which can do many different things for our bodies: provide energy for cells, cell membrane maintenance, reduce inflammation, absorption of vitamins and minerals etc. Fatty acids will also get stored as fat, however they do not spike insulin so take longer to be stored as fat which is why fats are know as slow, steady source of energy for our body.
Let’s use an example of “healthy” fat-free greek yogurt that is 130 calories. It contains 19g of carbs and 15grams of that is sugar. It also contains 12 grams of protein. The carbs will quickly get converted into sugar in the blood stream using a spike in insulin. Whatever your body doesn’t use right away will get stored as fat. Insulin will also turn off your fat-burning enzymes (because a more readily available source of energy is there) and as the sugar in your blood gets used up, your “blood sugar” levels drop making you hungry again. Moral of the story is yogurt should be rich in fats and when they remove the fat from it, it is often replaced with loads of sugar making it unhealthy for your body.
Exercise. You need to keep your body moving. Not only does it crave movement but it is a requirement of life. Positive stress through exercise will help regulate hormones in your body which will influence how and when you feel hungry.
Remember that nutrition is to fuel your body. Quality of food will always trump the quantity. If you are eating foods that are nutrient dense and full of good fats and proteins then the amount of calories doesn’t matter. Counting and tracking calories allows us to make shitty food choices in a pseudo-controlled way that makes us feel good about our diet but ultimately ends up starving our body from what it actually needs.
Stop counting calories. Eat moderate portions with an emphasis on real, whole foods especially plant based. Avoid sugar. Minimize (do not eliminate) carbs like breads and pasta. Stay away from “fat-free.” Enjoy eating the food that will help your body thrive.
Dr. Alfredo is an health enthusiast who’s goal is to help people and families live healthier, happier lives. My philosophy on health is simple - our body’s have the amazing ability and potential to self-adapt, self-regulate and THRIVE in this world.