Let’s get one thing straight – YES – first of all calories matter. We can’t escape energy balance. And if you’re a scientist studying the effects of nutrition then you have to use scientific units.
It’s also important to understand calories. If somebody is completely ignorant to nutrition then there’s definitely some value in counting calories for a short while as an educational exercise – to understand which foods are calorie dense etc.
HOWEVER, the process of counting calories every meal, every day, all year long as a way to try to control your behaviour is a recipe for disaster. It’s highly likely to develop into a disordered relationship with food… fear and anxiety around food, obsessive thoughts around food, uncontrollable cravings and binge eating.
It also now appears to now be the “socially acceptable way” to mask disordered eating and control food intake as a METHOD or WAY OF LIVING, rather than a tool to learn from in the short term.
Contrary to popular fitness industry belief that we are all robots, the human being is a complex organism and a highly intelligent, emotional creature.
Just one of the problems that contributes to this is that tracking calories accidentally teaches you to distrust your body. “Don’t trust your body, you must force it to do what you know is right!”
For example, perhaps you’ve noticed that cardio and HIIT training hugely increase your appetite. For me if I add in regular cardio to my routine I’ll end up needing the equivalent of an entire extra meal to satisfy my hunger.
Now that’s not a problem if I’m in tune with my body’s signals. My body is telling me it needs more energy and nutrients to repair and recover. If I provide what it’s asking for with smart food choices, then it’s still going to have a favourable effect on my body composition, my health and fitness.
But if you’re the typical calorie counter you’re going to panic at the thought of adding an extra meal. In fact not just an extra meal, going 1kcal over your prescribed number. “OMG I’m gonna get fat!!!” So you ignore your body’s signals, and sure enough a few hours later, or perhaps the next day, your body is depleted and crying out for food!
Your physical hunger and cravings go through the roof. But you misinterpret the signals as emotional hunger. Or you don’t care if it’s emotional or physical hunger, it’s irrelevant because the numbers rule all! Do not deviate!
So you resist, resist, resist until you can’t take it anymore. You try to take the edge off with a “healthy snack”. Probably something involving protein powder and greek yogurt! But that still doesn’t hit the spot, so you have more.
But now you’re over your calorie count! You’ve ruined your diet! So what’s the point?! If you’re going to overeat you might as well enjoy it. Time to break out the ice-cream and chocolate. If you’re going to give in to this craving, you might as well satisfy all future cravings you could possibly have. “This is the last time!” you promise yourself.
Any approach to nutrition that ignores your body’s signals and forces you to suffer with excessive hunger and physical cravings is doomed to fail.
Now, the obsessed calorie counters out there will say “well you’ve got to cater for increased energy demands and adjust your calories depending on if it’s a workout day or not… blah, blah, blah.”
If you’ve ever tried this you’ll know that the more precise, specific control you believe you need, the more fear of losing control you develop! You become MORE perfectionist, MORE fearful, MORE obsessed. Leading to even bigger blow outs in the future!
Besides, your metabolism is going to fluctuate up and down in all manner of ways, including:
– brain activity – e.g. if you’re a student revising for exams your energy demands increase significantly.
– menstrual cycle – your body wants and needs more food around your period.
– some days you’re more sedentary than others
– quality and duration of sleep
– sickness and immune system activity
– some days your workouts are harder than others
Are you going to have a more and more complicated algorithm for all of these?! Might as well live in an oxygen tent for the rest of your life so that you have a precise measurement of energy expenditure!
Or… you could stop being so “perfect” and controlling and learn to read and respond to your body’s signals.
Our clients are busy professional women, some also have children. They don’t have time to be counting grains of rice into tupperware and over-analysing everything that they’ve been eating.
Let’s be frank and brutally honest here. Nutrition is pretty simple. The reason why most people struggle to lose weight has very little to do with food and requires behavioural change and emotional management, not just using a short term tool as a long term management strategy.