Calorie counting is one of those things that you either believe in or avoid at all costs. And nothing divides the world of nutrition quite like it!
Let me start by saying I used to count calories, especially when I wanted to lose weight. My definition of health was “to be slim”. But being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease has taught me a lot about my body, nutrition and what I now view to be a much healthier definition of what being healthy means.
So, no, I don’t count calories anymore. Here is why.
A calorie is a calorie is a calorie… not
The idea behind counting calories is very simple: if you want to lose weight, simply eat less calories than you burn. You therefore create a deficit, and you will lose weight.
I too have done this many times! I have also done severely calorie restriction, where I worked with a medical doctor who were also trained as a dietician. I was about 15 kg over my target weight, which is not even severely obese! What was I thinking? With the severe calorie restriction, I started being very hungry, so my doctor prescribed a scheduled medicine to curb the hunger. As I am writing this, I cannot believe I actually did this! I reached a weight of 73 kg – keep in mind I am 1,82 m tall! I was slim and sexy, yet I don’t believe I was at any way healthy!
Here’s the thing: there is a huge difference between calories and nutrition. In theory, calorie counting works, but our bodies haven’t received that memo yet!
Food has a huge impact on not only our energy, but also our hormones, and calories don’t account for that! Take a piece of cake and compare it to a banana. For this example, let’s assume both have the same calories. The impact of the cake on your hormones will not be the same as the banana. And over the long term, it matters. These inflammatory foods like cake, meal replacement shakes, fat-free yogurts and the like, may lead to low-grade chronic inflammation in your body, which screws up your hormones and tanks your metabolism.
Don’t confuse calories with nutrition
If you are just looking at calories, you can eat 30 calories in a donut or 30 calories in an apple and your body will get the same energy from it. But here is the secret: our bodies are not calculators that just focus on calories. When you just look at calories, you are losing sight of the importance of nutrients. While a donut may be giving you the calories, it isn’t giving your body any nutrition in terms of micronutrients – the vitamins, minerals antioxidants, phytonutrients and enzymes we need to have healthy bodies and have the energy to live life!
I stopped counting calories when I did my first 30-day juice-only program in 2017. I was exhausted all the time, overweight and desperate for something to help me feel better. I decided to do 30 days of juicing. To give you context, I juiced a huge number of fruits and vegetables each day, including having a whole avocado each day (half was blended in with the morning juice and the other half was blended in with the evening juice). In terms of calories, I was drinking way more calories than the recommended daily allowance. Yet, I lost weight, my energy increased, I slept better, my brain fog disappeared, my bowels worked regularly, my thyroid antibodies (the autoimmune thyroid disease) decreased, skin glowed and I felt fantastic!
Now, I focus on nutrients, not calories. I aim for 10 portions of fruits and vegetables each day – raw, in a salad, in a juice, or cooked as part of dinner.
Focusing on calories often means restricting healthy food
Every dietician I have been to see for help to lose weight, has put me on a calorie-restriction diet and has given me a list of food that I can eat and food that I must avoid. When you are avoiding food, especially fruit and vegetables, you are missing out on the amazing nutrients that these produce offer!
Also, when you start restricting foods (I am talking about avoiding fruits and healthy fats), you are also cutting out the abundant micronutrients that these produce give your body! Wouldn’t it be amazing if we can move away from counting calories to counting nutritional value?
How well your gut works
And then we look at how well your gut is working. Your gut is key to how many nutrients are absorbed into your body. This was one aspect that the creator of the “calorie”, chemist Wilbur Olin Atwater, did not bring into consideration. Keep in mind that in the 19th century, the technology and knowledge we have today weren’t available then! He incinerated food. Incineration is not the same as digestion.
If you have been on antibiotics, your gut microbiome has changed. Most of the good bacteria have been killed, and you now have to recover your gut. While you can take pre- and probiotics, I believe that eating fresh fruit and veggies is one of the best, and easiest ways to support your digestive tract. By focusing on calories, you are missing out on the vital enzymes your gut needs to work. And if you eat the sugar-loaded, low-fat, low-calorie food, you might be hitting your calorie target, but you are not doing your gut any favours.
And if that hasn’t convinced you, there is also good evidence that the health of your gut plays a role in how many calories are absorbed from your food. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2011). If your gut is not healthy, you are not absorbing anything from the food, and you can therefore do even more harm if the food, which is supposed to fuel and feed you, just passes right through you. You are then even getting less energy and nutrients from your food, which may trigger the starvation hormones and bring your metabolism to a screeching halt.
Sucking the pleasure out of eating food
Counting calories has one huge problem for me: you start seeing food as a number. It takes over your life, and your friends may start to avoid you (unless they are counting calories as well!). Counting calories can also create a lot of unnecessary stress in your life, as every time you want to eat or drink something, you first have to take out your phone and work out the number of calories you are going to use from your daily allotment. It just sucks all the pleasure out of the social element of eating and enjoying food!
Keeping at it
When looking at our diets, we need to look at what we can do, not just for this month, but for this year, and the next year, and the next year. Your food should be a source of happiness (in a good way). Your food should nourish your body and uplift your spirit! We need to have a healthy relationship with food, which is more than just the calories that the food provides us. When you start looking at food as numbers and calories, you are losing the pleasure, joy and freedom that should come with eating wholesome, nourishing food!
You CAN eat healthy without having to count calories. You CAN lose weight without having to count calories. You CAN reach your fitness goals without having to count calories. Which means you can eat healthy today, tomorrow, next year and ten years from now without having to count calories.
When counting calories can be helpful
There are a few cases where I believe calorie counting can be useful, and if this is you, I recommend you work with a professional nutritionist.
- You are an elite athlete. Elite athletes place high demands on their bodies to reach and maintain performance goals, and it requires a great attention to detail when it comes to nutrition. Tracking calories can help to ensure you fuel your body correctly.
- You’ve hit a plateau in muscle building or weight loss. When you have specific fitness goals (note I said fitness goals, not weight goals), and you hit a plateau, it may be worthwhile to track your calories for a few weeks to make sure you are fueling your body correctly. Then, once you have figured out how to adjust your food intake, you can step away from counting calories.
I do not count calories anymore
I don’t fall into the category of an elite or professional athlete, and I am not a bodybuilder or have hit a plateau in terms of weight loss. I am building a healthier relationship to food, which I haven’t had for many years. Whenever I want to eat something, I think about if this is nourishment for my body, is it real food (as close to its natural state as possible) and is it delicious (I hate kale and brussels sprouts)!
Of course, I have to avoid gluten and a few other foods to reduce inflammation in my body due to my autoimmune disease. But I now work with it, and I don’t crave these “forbidden” foods anymore. Well, most of the time I don’t crave it anymore!
1. Energy-balance studies reveal associations between gut microbes, caloric load, and nutrient absorption in humans. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3127503/