What everybody ought to know about counting calories (hint: it’s not helping you lose weight)
What if I told you that calories don’t matter?
Well, I won’t do that because they do.
If you want a lean body, you need to be aware of the calories you’re consuming.
But here’s the deal:
They don’t matter as much as we’re led to believe.
Let me explain.
Big Food profits when you count calories
You see the signs everywhere:
- Only 15 calories!
- Half the calories!
- Zero calories!
But who is telling you this information?
Doctors? Nutritionists? Fitness professionals?
Nope, nope, nope.
People marketing calorie counts are just that: Marketers.
And as a marketer, they have one job: Get you to buy their product.
Even if it’s detrimental.
- Detrimental to your health.
- Detrimental to society’s health.
- Detrimental to the environment’s health.
But as long as you keep buying, marketers using calories-counting to manipulate you won’t stop.
It works. It gets you to buy the products they’re marketing.
So, who employs these calorie marketers, anyway?
You guessed right.
Kraft (Mondelez), Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and the like have all profited by marketing this way.
Here’s the worst part:
Counting calories is a zero-sum game.
When you count your calories, Big Food wins and you lose.
Fortunately, the opposite is true, too.
You just have to understand calories.
Defining and understanding calories
Calories are a unit of measure.
They’re like horsepower.
One calorie is the amount of energy needed to increase a gram of water 1 degree Celsius. In other words, a calorie is a measurement for energy required to create heat.
In less scientific words, calories are like fuel.
Your body needs several just to stay alive.
What do you think powers your lungs, heart and central nervous system?
You guessed it. The body’s fuel.
But here’s the deal…
Not all calories are created equal
Let’s compare a few sets side-by-side.
Which is better?
A: 100 calories from white bread.
B: 100 calories from wheat bread.
Many will argue that wheat bread is just as bad as white.
Wheat bread is pretty bad. But, you’re better off having 100 calories of what bread than 100 calories of white bread. Your body must work harder (longer) to metabolize it.
Which is better?
A: 100 calories from a Snickers bar.
B: 100 calories from a banana.
Obviously “B” is better. The calories from the Snickers have little or no positive nutritional value.
Which is better?
A: 100 calories of Subway sandwich.
B: 100 calories of homemade protein smoothie.
Once again, “B” is better. While Subway may seem like good calories, those sandwiches are full of processed bread, meat and dairy.
Bottom line is this:
There was an old riddle. It said, “Which weighs more: A ton of feathers or a ton of bricks?” In that case, they’re equal. They’re talking about weight (or mass).
With calories, 100 from “thing A” does not always equal 100 from “thing B.”
And here’s the golden rule:
Calories from whole, unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables are almost always better for you than an equal amount of bad calories.
One more way to think of it: Calories from processed foods can be counted as triple when comparing to whole foods. So 100 whole food calories = 300 processed food calories.
Oh, wait, I have more…
How counting calories can actually stymie weight loss
Let’s face it, counting calories is a pain in the butt.
You have to find the calorie count, adjust for actual consumption, and add it up throughout the day. And that’s all assuming you can find the number!
Yes, you can become proficient at counting calories.
But the act of counting them can actually prevent you from losing weight.
There are several reasons.
1. A tired brain is an undisciplined brain.
Ever have a long day at work and can’t wait to do nothing but sit on the couch and order Chinese food? All those meetings and number crunching and organizing is exhausting.
The same goes for counting calories.
The more energized your brain is, presumably from not having to count calories, the more likely it has enough energy to make something healthy.
2. Calorie counts are easiest to find on the worst foods.
By law, Big Food must display nutrition facts on their products. But have you ever seen nutrition facts on a banana? Or on an apple? Or on celery?
So being obsessed with calorie counting might steer you AWAY from some of the best foods just because a calorie count isn’t easy to find.
3. Your body has no say.
Focusing on counting calories ignores your body’s signals. Sometimes it needs (good) carbs or (good) fats. Sometimes it wants protein. Sometimes it just needs water.
If your body says it needs a banana, should you deny it because of the 105 calories?
Listen to your body. It knows the better approach.
But if you insist on counting calories, understand this…
The basic formula for weight loss (and the problem with it)
You consume calories as fuel and burn them as needed.
That means two things:
- Consume more calories than burned? You store them as fat.
- Burn more calories than consumed? You use the calories that you stored as fat.
So, in theory, consume fewer calories than you burn, and you’ll lose weight.
Not so much.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, actually), our bodies are smarter than that.
Constantly depriving your body of the energy it needs triggers a red flag in your brain.
Your brain literally goes into survival mode. Your metabolism slows. You ration your resources. Your body decreases energy output.
If you were alone on an island, you’d probably consume fewer calories than burned. So, what would your body do? Your body would adjust to stay alive. Your metabolism slows, and it burns calories slower.
How do you prevent your body from going into starvation-mode when you’re decreasing net caloric intake?
One day per week, you gotta scarf. Feast. Eat a lot.
Tim Ferris calls it a cheat day.
But you’re cheating yourself if you think it’s actually cheating.
It’s more of a day of rest. A sabbath, if you will.
Let’s call it a Feast Day.
Here’s how it works:
Feast Day math (not a cheat day!)
One day per week, you should feast. Eat a lot. Eat more calories than you burn.
A Feast Day.
But doesn’t that defeat the purpose of netting negative calories during the week?
In fact, a Feast Day is what your brain needs to think it’s not starving.
And this is important.
Your brain needs a day to relax. To be undisciplined. A day of rest.
And the following day?
Your brain is recharged.
Want an example with math?
Let’s say you consume 2000 calories and burn 2200 Sunday – Friday. That’s -1,200 calories ( ( 2,200 – 2000 ) * 6 days ). And on Saturday, you consume 2,500 calories and burn 2,200. That’s +300 calories.
Total for the week is = -900 calories.
And that’s with one day of eating as much as you want!
Negative nine hundred calories!
To recap, with a Feast Day, you get:
- Net negative calories for the week.
- A fast running metabolism
- A rested and disciplined brain.
- A day to let your guard down and relax.
Not such a bad plan, right?
Fortunately, there’s one more instance where it’s okay to count calories.
The “Is it worth it test” for emergencies
Sometimes you’re stuck with very few choices.
But you’re hungry.
So your choices are:
- Eat what’s available.
- Go hungry.
For example, you’re leaving work and are hungry. You’re going straight to a networking event. All you can find in the office is a Clif Bar. But, it has 250 calories. What do you do?
“Is it worth it?”
You gotta weigh your options. You could risk being lethargic at the event until they serve food. Or, just eat the damn Clif Bar.
If you were NOT going to a networking event, waiting until you get home might be a better option.
But shouldn’t this be considered when counting calories?
Hard to say.
But here’s the bottom line on counting calories to lose weight:
It only works if you take a day of rest. A feast day, a cheat day (if you must use that term). And, this is assuming the calories are from good sources.
The better way to look at calories: Good vs Evil
Good calories come from fruits, vegetables and nuts. This stuff is plant-based and resides on the outside of the grocery aisle.
Evil calories come from processed foods, generally sold by Big Food companies. If they come in a box, bag or can, they are usually evil calories.
In both cases, the calorie count shouldn’t matter. Enjoy the good calories carefree and avoid the evil calories altogether.
Calories from meat, dairy and bread fall somewhere in between good and evil, depending on your food philosophy. If you ask me, they fall A LOT closer to the evil side.
This was a lot of info. Thanks for getting to the bottom. Tell everyone what you’re thinking by posting a comment. 🙂