Don’t Count On Calories Alone
Instead of calorie math, try appetite awareness.
Should you count calories?
In other words, should you precisely weigh, measure, and track the calories you consume?
First: Understanding energy balance.
Energy balance is the relationship between energy in and energy out.
We bring in energy (i.e. calories) from food.
We expend energy through metabolism and movement.
- When we eat less energy than we burn, we lose weight.
- When we eat the same energy as we burn, we maintain our weight.
- When we eat more energy than we burn, we gain weight.
No matter what we eat, when we eat it, or how we eat it, nothing changes that basic relationship.
Depending on your goals, you may need to be conscious of energy balance.
You may need to eat more, or less, or the same, and be aware of how much that is for you.
However, for most people, conscious doesn’t necessarily mean precise calorie counting.
Here’s why most people don’t need meticulous calorie counting, most of the time.
We can measure our energy intake in simpler ways.
For instance, we can use our hands to judge portion sizes.
Even advanced clients who need more precise measurements can use hand portion sizing effectively, if they’re consistent.
You may also be able to measure your intake using methods like dish size, or standard sizing (e.g. small, medium, etc.) at a restaurant you go to often.
If you don’t need a more complex method, consider a simpler one.
Often, counting calories can make many people feel deprived and restricted.
Most people tend to focus on what they think they can’t do or have in terms of the numbers, rather than on nourishment, adding value, and improving food quality.
As soon as the lizard brain thinks it’s getting deprived, it’ll want to do exactly the opposite—”rebel”, “be bad”, and “break the rules”.
Counting calories doesn’t tell you about food quality.
You can get 2,000 calories from healthy, nutrient-rich meals spread over a day.
Or you can get it from a large Frappuccino and a couple of pastries. (Which one do you think is a better choice?)
Counting calories is inaccurate.
Calories are a measure of energy that doesn’t account for the way our bodies digest, absorb, and use this energy.
For instance, 500 calories from a block of wood isn’t the same to our bodies as 500 calories from a stick of butter. (Which is better, wood or butter? Self-experiment?)
Calorie counts on food package labels are often wrong.
Because of this, researchers estimate that even meticulous calorie counting can be up to 25% off.
That means if you try to eat 2,000 calories, even if you do it “perfectly” you could be eating anywhere between 1,500 and 2,500 calories based on inaccuracies in labeling. (And, who counts calories “perfectly” anyway? That’s not taking into account the beautiful imperfection of human eaters.)
Counting calories doesn’t necessarily help us build skills or consistent daily practices.
Of course, we can certainly get into the practice of watching our portion sizes or making wise food choices.
But it’s much more important to focus on building strong, solid systems and strategies for execution.
A fit, healthy body and lifestyle come from showing up and doing what matters, over and over.
Most people benefit more from working on ways to do important actions consistently, rather than the specific number of calories in an apple.
Awareness beats calorie counting.
You’re learning to be aware of what food you’re eating. Why you’re eating it. When you’re eating. How you’re eating it. How that food fuels your performance.
You’re learning to be aware of what you’re thinking, doing, and feeling.
Aware of your patterns, habits, and triggers. Aware of what’s around you. And aware of what you’re doing well.
If you’re aware, you’re in control.
You can carry your awareness with you wherever you go, whoever you’re with, always.
And then, sometimes, calorie-counting can be “calibration”.
There is one way that calorie-counting can sometimes be useful: for calibration of your awareness.
For instance, let’s say you record your calorie intake for the day. And then you test that intake against your own perceptions.
- If you ate too much for your goals and what your body needs… were you aware of it?
- If you ate too little for your goals and what your body needs… were you aware of it?
- If you nailed “just right”, how did that feel? What physical cues told you that you got it?
Notice what changes you could make based on the data, and what body cues you might need to tune into.
- What does a “too-big” meal look like? Feel like?
- What does a “too-little” meal look like? Feel like?
- What does a “just-right” meal look like? Feel like?
Then a few days later, try calibrating your awareness against objective measurement again, and see what you discover.