In order to start seeing change happen, you have to make change happen. When it comes to weight loss, let’s break things down to help you get a better handle of what you can be doing (and maybe what you do not need to be doing) to reach your goals! One of the most popular tools for weight loss is a calorie counting app, let’s dive into a bit more on this:
Calories are just a measurement of energy to the body. Your body uses calories (energy) to do everything! Breathing, walking, exercising, digesting food, and even sleeping require calories from the body. In order to lose weight, you will have to take in less calories than you expend.* This is why exercise and nutrition go together so well! Counting your calories can be a great tool to help you become more mindful of the food you are taking in. Often, we feel like we are eating healthy, but there are countless handfuls of mindless snacks that seem to find their way into our stomachs. Using an app like MyFitnessPal is a great way to start to monitor the food you are eating, and to make sure you are eating the quality of food that you want to be eating. Tracking calories also proves to be a huge help when ordering out or traveling. Sometimes we think we are ordering well but we find out that our “healthy salad” could be up to 1500 calories! Looking up menu options beforehand can be a huge help to teach us what to look for in different menu options.
Different strategies work for different people, so maybe try out a few different approaches to weight loss. For those who prefer structure and a more regimented approach, this may be the way for you! On the other hand, if you are counting your calories each and every day and getting frustrated, or just feel like you want to spend your time more efficiently, read on!
Here is a sad but true disclaimer: Calories on food labels and fitness trackers are not very accurate measures of our intake!
There are many reasons why this is not the most reliable way to see what we are taking in each day:
PEOPLE ARE PHENOMENAL LIARS
Calorie counts are imprecise and calorie counters (people) are even more so. Labeling strategies are all averages, this means that logging a 6 oz portion of steak could be anywhere from 500-800 calories, logging a large sweet potato could be anywhere from 230-700 calories, but it will register in your app as about 350! This is because the labels on all packaged foods, the system for all unprocessed foods are all based off of averages. To throw another wrench in the puzzle, the available calories in a food change the amount of calories in the food drastically! For example, when you log a potato, but you really consumed a baked potato, the baking process increases the calories absorbed by around 75%! (That’s without the butter and sour cream!)
As far as the people who are trying to count their calories, they are usually very off on what they think they ate and what they actually took in! A more accurate way to use a calorie tracker is to weigh and measure your food. While this can be tedious and time consuming, it will ensure that you are actually consuming what you think you are.
For example, one overflowing tablespoon of peanut butter, six ounces of chicken that looked like four, and a serving of rice that seemed normal to you can account for up to 500 extra calories in a day--this can single handedly sabotage your weight loss goals!
CALORIES ARE NOT ALL DIGESTED THE SAME
Scientists can calculate how many calories are in the foods we are consuming, but they cannot tell you how many of those your body is actually absorbing! For example, we actually absorb less calories than available when we eat nuts, while we absorb more calories than estimated from fiber rich foods. It takes energy to extract nutrients from food, so the carbs from a cupcake are digested VERY differently than the carbs from a sweet potato! The sweet potato, filled with fiber, vitamin A, beta carotene, and many other nutrients will keep you fuller for much longer because it is a slow digesting carbohydrate that will be used to nourish your body rather than to be stored as fat. What all this means is that quality of your calories matters immensely! Quality of the food you eat makes up the health of the systems in your body, and a healthy body will have a stronger defense against disease! (Isn’t that more important than hitting a number on an app?)
SLOWED METABOLISM DUE TO CHRONIC DIETING
There are many factors that dictate how your body processes food and calories. For starters, every time you restrict your intake, your metabolic rate, or metabolism, adapts. This is why we caution clients to steer clear of severely restrictive diets or “lose weight quick” plans. Any diet that can cause a rapid amount of weight loss will cause the body to do what it does best--survive. Think about it, if you were in an environment where there wasn’t enough food, your body would have to respond accordingly to sustain the calories that you do have coming in. This is where the “slowed” metabolism comes into play!
BUT WHY DOES IT WORK AT ALL?
One of the main reasons for successful calorie counting is because it causes you to regulate and be mindful of your intake throughout the day. It will make you think twice before you eat that cookie because you know it won’t “fit” into your numbers for the day. Inevitably, it will cause you to eat less than you were before. Lots of the diets and “tricks” that people follow to lose weight aren’t tricks at all, they are just ways to get you eating a little better, and/or a little less.
Lots of the diets and “tricks” that people follow to lose weight aren’t tricks at all, they are just ways to get you eating a little better, and/or a little less.
So what do I do?!
If calorie counting has been working for you and you feel like it is something you can sustain long term, keep going!
The more specific your goal is, the more strategic your approach to that goal should be.
For some looking to lose some weight and become healthier in general, making some shifts in food quality can get you there! If you are trying to tailor your nutrition protocol to compete in an athletic event, to hit a fitness goal, or get to a specific body fat percentage, maybe try a more strategic approach!
Even if you are taking in a different calorie intake than you think, counting your calories helps to monitor your intake and makes you mindful of how much food you are eating each day. This is why calorie counting works--it makes you more intentional about how much and what you are eating, and it allows you to assess how certain foods make you feel. However, if you are finding yourself frustrated with a reliance on an app to regulate your food, or a negative relationship with food, maybe it’s time to take a step back from calorie counting. Don’t worry, your body has SIX hormones responsible for regulating your hunger and fullness cues. In our American culture of fast food and faster feeding times, these are usually overridden almost every meal. It takes about 20 minutes for the nerves in our stomach to signal to our brains that we are full. By that time most of us have already finished our meal and maybe even gone back for seconds!
For the next few meals, try eating for at least 20 minutes (maybe even set a timer!) and eating as slowly as possible. Start asking yourself, “am I hungry?” and the second that answer is no, STOP! You may be surprised at what your body really requires!
If you are finding yourself frustrated with a reliance on an app to regulate your food, or a negative relationship with food, maybe it’s time to take a step back from calorie counting.
Before picking up your phone to log each meal, snack, and M&M that enters your mouth, try and change the QUALITY of the foods that are going on your plate. This could mean trying to increase the amount of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts, and seeds, and limiting anything that is processed. A good rule of thumb to follow is to try and eat only the foods that the good Lord made! Inevitably, when we increase the quality of the foods we are eating, most people will consume fewer calories and see great strides towards their weight loss goals.
Think about what you are looking for in a weight loss plan, and I hope this helped for your decision whether or not to count calories.
*Unless there are hormonal or metabolic adaptations going on.