Calories (cal-o-ries, noun):
Tiny creatures who live in one’s closet and sew one’s clothes a little bit tighter ever night.
Tiny creatures aside, the common use of the term “calorie” refers to a kilocalorie. Kilocalorie (we’ll just use the common terminology and call it calorie from now on) is a measure of the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree C.
This unit of heat measurement, originally developed in the early 19th century by a French engineer, was harnessed as a simple and universal method to measure the energy content of food. Eventually, processed foods began carrying a label with the total energy content, as well as the gram measurements of fats, carbohydrates and protein.
With the help of FDA caloric suggestions, consumers ran into an alarming dietary deception. The use and obsession of food calories presents a greater danger than small creatures making our jeans tight… it corrupts the whole concept of healthy eating. Here are 5 vital reasons why calories don’t count.
1. Calories Distort Focus to Quantity, not Quality
Common story: a shopper starts by scouring the snack isle, searching for a product to satiate their potato chip craving with the least amount of calories per ounce. After careful deliberation and calculation, he or she settles on a bag of air-popped popcorn laden with artificial butter flavor and toxic vegetable oils.
As the result of compelling media, marketing and labeling, many consumers focus more attention on quantity, not quality. Instead of shopping the nutritional label, shop the ingredient list. That deserves your time and attention.
2. Calories Falsely Simplify “Healthy Eating”
Healthy eating is complicated, no doubt about it. First you hear butter is bad, then it prevents cancer. First carbs kill you, then they make you lose weight. Even spinach is confusing… should one eat it raw or is that dangerous? Nutrition labels, however, deceptively simplify healthy eating. Few calories = good, high calories = bad. Simple. Yet dangerous.
That mindset leads to eating disorders, infertility, disease, and depression since it encourages the consumption of processed foods instead of nourishing foods.
After all, if a box of cereal claims, high protein, fat free, and only 80 calories per serving! doesn’t that sound healthier than a couple of eggs cooked in butter? Perhaps, but the slick marketing claims mask the fact that the processed cereal causes inflammation. And the fact that your body needs good, old-fashioned fats found in butter and egg yolks. And that the cereal offers little more nutrition than the box in which it is packaged.
I believe that healthy eating is simple, but not simple in terms of calories. Make healthy easy by finding calorie-free food (yes, I’m going to explain that in a second).
3. Calories Prevent a Genuine Relationship with Food
Calorie-consciousness shifts emphasis from how you eat to how much you eat. Counting calories ultimately prevents a harmonious relationship with food. Instead of welcoming food as life-giving nourishment, calorie counting produces apprehension of food.
Most importantly, calorie-consciousness drowns the body’s communication. I believe our bodies knows what, when and how to eat and–if we listen to that quiet voice–we can heal ourselves. It is hard to change habits and blindly trust our bodies, however. So if you need help, try visiting a naturopath or energy practitioner to get tested for food allergies and dis-ease in the digestive system.
In the same way, calorie-counting de-personalizes one’s relationship with food. A common practice is determine one’s ideal daily calories or even calories burned while exercising. Sadly, that creates a mechanical, stressful relationship with food.
It also doesn’t take into consideration one’s food sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies, inflammation, autoimmune/adrenal/hormonal/thyroid issues, or body type. And those things are *really* important to reaching one’s ideal weight.
Weight loss begins with whole, nourishing foods prepared at home. It means eating mindfully, chewing thoroughly, and releasing gratitude and joy for each bite you raise to your lips. Finally, when it comes to weight loss, forget the calories and remember this: we don’t lose weight to get healthy, we get healthy to lose weight.
4. Calories Promote Stress, Not Satiety
As I mentioned above, paying attention to calories establishes a stress-based relationship with food. Stressing out while eating is a bad idea because it interrupts the entire digestive process.
The sympathetic nervous system triggers the flight-or-flight response in the body. Arousing this reaction shuts down the digestive system so the body can focus on the dangerous situation at hand. Of course, considering calories doesn’t induce a flight-or-flight response, but even less severe stress works in a similar manner to slow digestion.
Additionally, an article from a 2010 volume of Psychosomatic Medicine (Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice. Stress, Food and Inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the Cutting Edge) explains how stress affects the vagus nerve, a key piece in the digestive process:
Because the vagus nerve innervates tissues involved in the digestion, absorption, and metabolism of nutrients, including the stomach, pancreas, and liver, vagal activation directly and profoundly influences metabolic responses to food… Both depression and stress have well-documented negative effects on vagal activation as indexed by heart rate variability.
5. Calories Aren’t Created Equal
A number of calories does not reflect how effectively that energy will be used by the body. For example, 100 calories of coconut oil provides quick-burning energy that is easily used by the body and not stored as fat. The fatty acids in coconut oil boost metabolism and components like lauric acid fight candida overgrowth. It is also extremely satiating.
On the other hand, let’s examine 100 calories of a commercial soy protein shake. The processed, unfermented soy actually prevents adequate protein digestion. Not only can we not digest the nutrients in this food, it causes serious health problems. The phytoestrogens disrupt hormones, the goitrogens impair thyroid function, and all the anti-nutrient properties of soy actually slow the metabolism. (Source).
If calories don’t count, how do I lose weight?
The equation “weight loss = calories in – calories out” is rooted into our psyche. People make the mistake of applying the law of thermodynamics to weight loss, and claim that, to lose weight, an individual must consume less calories than he/she expends. That’s is correct in theory, but not in reality… because humans aren’t machines, and because all calories are not created equal!
In The Calorie Myth, author Jonathan Bailor discusses the overwhelming research that shows how the human body does not conform to the laws of thermodynamics when it comes to weight loss. He covers a range of human and animal studies that prove how the calorie math doesn’t add up. For example, he writes:
The Women’s Health Initiative […] tracked nearly 49,000 women for eight years. […] One group of women ate an average of 120 few calories per day than the other group. Remember, that adds up to 350,400 fewer calories. How much lighter was the average woman who ate 350,400 few calories?
The answer: .88 pound.
That’s because quality of food and weight set point plays a vastly more important role in weight management than calories!
As Jonathan explains in his book, in order to lose weight we must to change our weight set-point by raising our metabolism. We can eat the same amount of calories of metabolism-boosting coconut oil or thyroid-destroying soybean oil. One will help balance hormones, detox the body and lower the weight-set point. The other will signal the body to down-regulate the metabolism. Calories aren’t created equal!
Calories don’t count, but your mindset does!
Further, mindset plays a powerful role in weight loss, a role which is not part of the “calories consumed – calories expended” equation. Want to prove it to yourself? In the New York Times Bestselling book, E-Squared: 9 Do-It-Yourself Energy Experiemnets that Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality, author Pam Grout challenges readers to set a 72 hour deadline. During this time period, you are instructed to infuse each bite of your food – whether it be a kale salad or slice of cake – with positive thoughts, envisioning each bite bringing nourishment to your body. After the 72 hours, many people find they have lost 3 pounds!
FuIn her landmark “Milkshake Study,” researcher Amelia Crumb gave half the participants milkshakes labeled sensible, guilt-free, fat free and 104 calories. She gave the other group of participants milkshakes labeled indulgence, decadence and 620 calories. The catch? Each milkshake was exactly the same – both options had 300 calories.
Crumb’s results show the powerful effect of the brain over our feeling of fullness. Participants consuming the “light” shake had significantly higher levels of grehlin, a hunger hormone that signals the need for food. Those consuming the “indulgent” shake had significantly lower levels of grehlin, meaning that their milkshake had left them more satisfied on a physiological level.
As I write this post, I’m searching for the link to a study that I came across last year, but I can’t find it. In this study, participants were instructed to run regularly on a treadmill and had their body fat composition measured. Those who envisioned yellow fat dripping from their body while working out lost significantly more fat than participants who did not practice the visualization! Another study showed that relaxation primed the body for self-suggestibility, pointing to the theory that visualization is a powerful tool for weight loss. Additionally, one two-year study showed that women who focused on meditation and relaxation, rather than diet and exercise, lost more weight and kept it off.
So, if calories don’t count, what does healthy eating mean?
Healthy Eating Means Finding Calorie-Free Food
No, I’m certainly not suggesting one should subsist on toxic sugar substitutes or even bizarre zero-calorie noodles. Look for food that doesn’t come with a nutrition label. Real food – Mother Nature’s nourishing bounty – does not list calories.
Scouting calorie-free foods may mean shifting your grocery shopping trips from the supermarket to the farmer’s market, joining a CSA, finding a cow share program (for access to raw milk) and/or starting a garden. Pastured eggs, fresh vegetables, seasonal fruits rendered lard/tallow, wild caught seafood, local honey, grassfed beef… that is what I mean by calorie-free food!
Real, unprocessed food is nurturing, majestic, gratifying, and sublime. Forget the calories, have fun in the kitchen, and eat with joy!
Love 99% of what you said, and totally agree…..but I’m curious why you don’t like glucomannan noodles.
Lauren G (Empowered Sustenance)
I don’t have a grudge against them, that’s just the first example of a “calorie-free” food that popped into my head 🙂
This came at the perfect time for me. I have decided only today that I am not going to follow the rubbish expectations of beauty that I have been forcing on myself forever, fuelled by popular culture. Today I am quitting weight watchers which had me so obsessed with the points value of EVERYTHING I put in my mouth, that I was actually eating more processed foods and crap, because they fit in with my daily allowance. I don’t blame weight watchers for this as I know it has worked for millions and promotes eating fresh. The problem was all ME. I was not NOURISHING myself. My focus is now health and well being, not points, calories or anything else.
Great input Tara! I started ‘eat clean’ habits 2 yrs ago. Excited n lost weight. But…. I have weird relationship w/ food now. Addicted to it and think about food all the time! I feel lost when I have no time putting what I eat/plan to eat in myfitnesspal app. Scared if the food n calories can’t be recorded.. and at the end just eat crazily that day ’cause I thought, o well, since I dont know how many calories I just ate, might as well blow up the whole day quota 🙁
I feel like I might end up having eating disorder if I keep eating this way. Healthy most days but binge the other days. I avoided sugars, lost weight but craved more sugar after a while. I’ll ditch calorie counting/food diary today! Thanks for the article Lauren!
I do love this article and it is what I already believe. It makes a huge difference to stop eating processed foods and to stop counting calories while also focusing on pasture raised meats and milk as well as organic produce.
I would love to share the article but there are quite a few typos which make me reluctant to do so. It could be seen as a way for people to discredit the information and I don’t want that.
Fantastic article! Although I need help in finding wholefood for kids lunch box. Hard to find ‘no-packaging’ snacks for kids. I put fresh fruits, nuts, eggs, cheese n yoghurt. Still no luck in putting veggies as snacks though 🙁 Anyone had quick n easy to make ideas for veggies as snack for kids?
I like this article, however, you can’t completely avoid the fact that a consistent calorie surplus will result in excess body fat.
I started counting calories when I was 235 lbs and 38% body fat….. after a few weeks, I had re-trained myself and implemented healthy eating habits into my lifestyle (including snacks and all the foods I wasn’t willing to give up)…. and although I no longer count calories…. I know what I need to eat to lose fat, and I know what I need to eat to maintain a healthy balance…..
I advocate tracking your macronutrient intake… as well as adopting a more active lifestyle and findthing healthy foods and activities you absolutely love.
Again, all of the points you mentioned are fair game and have their merits……… but you can’t beat the math….. if you burn 1800 calories a day and consistently take in a lot more than that… you will be heavier….. take in less… you will lose weight (fat or muscle depending upon what macronutrients you take in)
I do want to add however, that counting calories isn’t ideal, because as your metabolism raises and/or lifestyle changes and your body changes, your nutritional needs change…….
I admit, I am a male bodybuilder and not built to think like a woman, but I like this blog/website for the interesting points of view and unique recipies.
I follow calories and macronutrient intake, but my basic nutritional philosophy is this:
eat natural foods, mostly plants, and not too much.
Excellent article; it is so true and most people don’t get it. I have personally experienced much of this last year on a digestive journey I would have preferred not to have experienced. I always ate pretty healthy, organic, no white flour, little sugar… but I had a problem I had not paid attention to that grew and grew until I REALLY noticed and then it has taken radical measures of dietary restrictions, supplements, alternative care and nourishing foods to turn it around. As my digestive track settles and heals the weight I had gained when I quickly packed it on due to inflammation from diet is slowly coming back down as I heal and feel better. Thanks for spreading the real information about the relationship between calories and weight.
I love this! And its something I really had to do a lot of soul searching to learn! In fact, for me, I found that I had to count my calories at first when I began eating for health because I kind of subconsciously was still trying to restrict myself and falling into those same habits. Once I finally got comfortable with eating more, I’ve been able to live calorie free, I haven’t gained any weight (in fact I’ve lost some) and my hormonal balance seems to be improving every month. The best advice I ever received was to just eat my fill of healthy foods! I’ll never go back. 🙂
This is excellent! You so eloquently put into words what people assume healthy eating to be. Healthy eating is so much more than food and just how much of it we eat, it also encompasses our relationship with food and how we view food. When we calorie count, we view certain foods as either negative or positive, when we shouldn’t. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy foods without feeling bad for it! Thanks for busting the myths on calorie counting and encouraging it to stop! I particularly loved this “Real, unprocessed food is nurturing, majestic, gratifying, and sublime. Forget the calories, have fun in the kitchen, and eat with joy!” It’s great to see that you’re spreading positivity associated with eating and food. Thanks for sharing 🙂
Casey | That Sugar Fix