You’ve heard it a million times. In order to lose weight, all you need to remember is that calories in should be less than calories out. It's another way of saying "Eat less, move more."
There’s a whole industry built around this belief. While some programs are finally breaking free from this paradigm, there are still plenty of books, apps, and websites dedicated to calorie-counting. Just the thought of having to keep a running tally of them is depressing.
Do you really believe your body is a simple account ledger with income on one side and expenses on the other? You–and your body–are more sophisticated than that. Read on.
Why counting calories in isn’t helpful
The calorie count numbers don’t mean much
While you can look up the calorie counts of most foods you eat, once you eat them, those numbers mean very little. Things like how the food was cooked, the makeup of its macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrate), its fiber content, and how well it was digested, greatly affect how many calories you actually consumed.
Your body wants energy, not calories
Your body doesn’t care about how many calories your kale salad has–or your plate of french fries. What your body cares about is energy. Different types of energy (referring to macronutrients again) drive different hormonal responses. And it’s those hormonal responses that are going to make the difference between your body using your food as fuel to feel vibrant and energetic–or storing it as fat. Which leads us to the next one…
Your body works to break down your food into energy that it can use or store for later. This is helped by your hormones, such as insulin. Beyond that, the food you eat actually changes the expression of your DNA. This is the study of epigenetics. So while there’s the same amount of calories in a a plate of butter-basted salmon with roasted broccoli and a half-cup of Ben & Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup ice cream, the first boosts your vitality immediately and in the long run. The latter just tastes good for the moment.
What to do instead of counting calories
Think “quality over quantity”
An occasional ice cream sundae isn’t going to kill you. But when you’re thinking about what to eat, know that the quality of the food itself–its nutrient-richness, whether its free of toxins or not, how much processing its gone through–is a big factor in determining how much energy you’ll derive from it.
If you want tortilla chips, skip the Doritos and find a brand that uses organic corn masa, a quality frying oil (avocado or even lard), and salt. Make your own guacamole and not only will you enjoy something absolutely delicious, the healthy fats will help you be satisfied with less, and over time, can lead to greater metabolic flexibility, making your body shape stabilize with little effort.
Keep eating that way, and your body won’t be starving for nutrients any more. You’ll be building dynamic health, creating greater metabolic flexibility (meaning you can burn fat as well as sugar for energy), and allowing your body to settle into its optimal shape with very little effort or thought on your part.
What isn’t quality
In a word, sugar. When it comes down to it, there is no quality sugar. You can make a case that honey and molasses have some nutrients in them—but compared to vegetables…well, there’s no comparison.
It’s not just sugar that isn’t a quality food. Anything that easily breaks down into sugar can be problematic for your health (think: flours, processed grains, etc.). Once your body is able to burn both sugar and fat for fuel, an occasional sweet treat is no big deal. But if you’re stuck in sugar-burning mode, eating that way just keeps you stuck on the cravings and energy roller coaster. It isn’t a fun ride.