We’ve all heard it before. Whenever we want to lose weight, the first thing someone will tell you to do is to eat less or hit the gym. Or both.
But does eating lesser calories really stand true? What about counting every single bit of calorie we put into our mouth?
While I was losing weight, I stuck to a crazy 1200 calorie diet. It lasted for a while. I swore upon it and I was one of those who would tell you to eat less if you were to tell me you want to lose weight. The thing is, after months of trying real hard to stay on a 1200 calorie diet every day, my energy levels started to drop. I felt exhausted despite weighing less. I feel like exercising was a little bit of a chore and I didn’t look forward to it as days go by. Worse, I felt ridiculously bad to eat more because I was so paranoid I would put on the weight I lost.
Trust me, it wasn’t fun at all.
I’m sure many of you have gone through this similar process — feeling irritable, frustrated, low in energy and just plain tired all the time. Guess what, we’re going to stop this, because today I’m going to tell you why you should really ditch the calorie counting in the bin and what you can do instead.
How the hell do scientists even determine the amount of calorie in that banana?!
Good question, with a perfectly intellectual answer — by a raw and expensive method of food combustion using a bomb calorimeter. As much as it sounds definitively high tech, the bomb calorimeter is really just a rigid vessel for measuring heat of combustion. Food is placed in the device and electrical energy is used to ignite the food. The burning food will then heat up the surrounding air in the vessel which then escapes through a tube that leads the air out of the calorimeter. As it escapes, the air heats up the water outside the tube and the temperature of the water allow scientists to calculate the calorie content of the fuel. Boom.
Hell yeah it is confusing! And with over 85,000 foods available today (I honestly just made that number up… but you get it, there’s a whole lot of food out there), food manufacturers would generally save on costs by calculating calories based on recipe, that is, by adding up the amount of calories which is already known individually and putting it all together.
My take about this is simple. The more ingredients your favourite junk have, the higher the chances the label is inaccurate. Which leads us to the second point…
1. Counting calories is grossly inaccurate – food-wise and exercise-wise
While the energy and nutrient levels in any food is merely an approximation, here are the things that can really put off the amount of true calories in a food:
– Outdated data. Data can be outdated which can definitely throw the energy and nutrient calculations off the wall.
– Variety of product. Different food vary in their exact content. Using a single test at this point in time will not work using a different product in the future.
– Growing conditions — especially with fruits and veggies. Produce grown in nutrient-rich soil is different to produce grown in nutrient-depleted soil.
– Where the food came from. The nutrients found in animal derived food such as milk and eggs will depend on the diet of the animal itself.
– Preparation method and cooking time. Just because a 3.5oz of chicken breast is about 100 calories does not mean you’ll be eating just 100 calories — how you prepare it matters too. Ok, so you decided to grill it and you’ve read somewhere that a grilled 3.5oz chicken breast is 120 calories. I don’t mean to scare you but how long you grill it for matters too.
In fact, and this might even pass as a surprise to some of you, the law allows food manufacturers up to about 20% error margin for the stated value versus actual value of nutrients. Some research even show that frozen foods can contain 8% more calories than what the package says and restaurant meals can have up to 18% more calories than what they indicate. Yikes.
And then we get to the physical aspect of things…
Our digestion and excretion rate affects the amount of potential energy that is available once the food is eaten. In other words, we wouldn’t really know how much calorie we need to digest that 100-calorie muesli bar we just had mid afternoon. If we’re exercising, which you probably are if you’re really trying to lose weight, the amount of calories taken in can even be more inaccurate.
I’d say for all the time consumed to count calories, this can be frustrating. When you buy a size 10 dress, you’d expect a size 10. But obviously it isn’t the same for the food we eat.
2. It does not work long term
When someone asks me what I feel about this particular diet, pill or new fitness invention, the first thing I ask them is — Do you think you can do this for the rest of your life? If the answer is no, I’d say don’t even start it.
There is a different between learning, and appreciating, a new product or way of life versus adopting it only for short term results. If you’re looking to lose weight fast for a wedding, by all means go consume that shake or go on a very low calorie diet. You will lose weight, no doubt about it. But if you’re looking to adopt healthier, long lasting changes you can still feel and see when you have kids and when your kids have kids, then don’t do it.
Counting calories like I said is time consuming. You have to sit there every night with perhaps several websites and resources to see if the calories you’ve taken in is correct. I don’t find it a great way to manage weight because there is no way I can do that in years to come.
3. We burn fewer calories when we eat lesser calories
I lost the most calories when I first started out in my weight loss journey, which is typical for anyone who’ve done a low calorie diet previously. After a while, my weight loss stalled and I don’t lose any more weight. Being a true blue curious cat, I decided to study it. Turned out that the reason why I didn’t lose any more weight is because, in simple term, my body don’t have the energy to even burn calories.
Our body is one intelligent machine, I tell you. Don’t try to fool it. Low calorie diet has the power to negatively alter a body’s metabolism and seriously affect our energy levels. Not only that, you’ll feel much tired, more irritable and have zero energy for your 8pm Spin class.
If you overfeed your body with the right foods, your body will burn calories more effectively. Underfeed or overfeed with the wrong foods and your body won’t even have the will to burn any more calories. Initially, perhaps, but over the long haul no. Let’s not mess with our metabolism shall we?
4. An 80-calorie mini Twix is not the same as an 80-calorie Granny Smith
This may be really really obvious but how many of us thinks otherwise? A lot, I assume. Just like time spent with our loved ones, the quality of food we eat matters more than the quantity we eat. The Twix, albeit yummy, does not in a million years have the same nutritional value as the Granny Smith juicy green apple. Yes both contain sugar. Yes both has the same energy value. But they both will make you feel different.
The green apple has far more fibre, vitamins and minerals that the body craves for. The right type of stuffs. When you’re eating the right food, you will be taking in the proper amount of calories and you don’t have to worry about counting it. When you’re eating the right food, your body physiology will function well just like how it’s supposed to. Make the right choices because I know you can.
5. We eat more calories because we’re gaining weight
Speaking of our body’s natural physiology, our body is one smart and precise machine. If we seem to be eating a lot and yet we are still hungry, it is highly likely we have hormonal imbalances in our body. Our body signals our fullness and hunger most notably through the release of three notable hormones:
– Cholecystokinin (CCK). This is a satiety hormone that indicates that you’re full and should stop eating.
– Peptide YY (PYY). This is also a satiety hormone, and thus indicates fullness.
– Ghrelin. Indicates hunger in times of fasting or low food intake.
Is it possible for our body to mess these hormones up? My answer is yes. In fact, studies has shown that even sleeping less can mess up our body’s release of ghrelin, increasing insulin resistance and risk of Type 2 diabetes. Which is one reason why we tend to put on weight if we’re not sleeping enough. Hormonal imbalances like these can massively disrupt our hunger and satiety levels, making us eat more calories than we should.
How is this linked to counting calories? The fact that we’re eating poor quality food can mess up this hormonal balances and over the long term create negative effect to our body and our food choices. The answer to this? It’s the quality of food that matters, not the quantity.
Help! I’ve been counting calories all my life!
You’re not alone, really. I was in your shoes before and I personally know people who finds it hard to stop this calorie counting habit. But like any other habit, it takes time to let it go. I won’t tell you to quit counting calories right out the box. In fact, you shouldn’t do that at all for any habit you’re trying to pick up in life.
Take it one step at a time. Here’s what I suggest:
– Instead of counting calories everyday, just pick one day of the week where you write down all the foods you’re consuming without writing the energy value down.
– Instead of counting calories for all meals, pick one meal a day where you forget about how much calorie it containes. Instead, just write down what you’re eating.
– Increase this number of days and meals when you feel comfortable and confident to. It might take you weeks or days depending on the severity of your calorie counting habit but you will get there.
So if I don’t count calories, what can I do?
Just eat proper, wholesome, nutritious food. I’m not telling you to ditch the salads and start making poor food choices. In fact, I have included a little action plan for you out here to start adopting healthy food habits. Follow them and you’re one step closer in making life-long changes.
– Stop thinking about how much calories the food have. We eat food, not calories. We eat an apple, not 80 calories of an apple. Change that mindset and think about what you eat instead of how much you eat.
– Instead of counting calories, get into the habit of recording down the food you eat instead of the calories you’re taking in. This serves as an avenue of awareness of what you’re consuming instead of how much you’re consuming and you can’t go wrong. Another reason to do this? We often underestimate what we’re eating until we actually write them down. If you don’t have a food diary yet, go get one.
Don’t want to sound like a broken record here but that food diary will be yours to record down what you eat. Not the amount of calories.
– Don’t avoid any major food groups in your diet. In other words, have a serving of carbs (starchy and non-starchy), a serving of protein, and a serving of fats at every meal. Here’s my nutrition philosophy at every meal and you can try to follow it.
Breakfast: 1 serve of starchy carbs + 1 serve of protein + 1 serve of fats
Lunch: 1 serve of starchy carbs + 1 serve of non-starchy carbs + 1 serve of protein + 1 serve of fats
Dinner: 1 serve of non-starchy carbs + 1 serve of protein + 1 serve of fats
Starchy carbs (1 serve = fist sized) – Brown rice, wholemeal pasta, sweet potatoes, fruits etc.
Non starchy carbs (1 serve = 2 cups) – Green leafy vegetables, vegetables etc.
Protein (1 serve = palm sized) – Chicken, beef, fish, salmon, tuna etc.
Fats (1 serve = thumb sized) – Avocado, almonds, olive oil, coconut oil etc.
As for me, it took me two good years to get used to not counting calories. It took me two good years to worry about what I’m eating instead of how much calorie I’m eating. And I don’t want that to happen to you. If I could turn back time I’d tell myself what I’m telling you today. Eat real foods, and you’ll be alright.
Keep the discussion going…
Tell me, have you ever counted calories? Did you attain success like I did or did it backfire on you? Are you currently counting calories? What are your thoughts about it? Share it with me by leaving a reply below and I will respond. :)
One last thing? It took you years to put on those weight, it’ll take you more than just several months to get rid of it. Believe in yourself and you will get there. I know you will.
Now go do some push ups and own the night like Lorde did with Royals.
Have a great week!