Calories Count, But Don’t Count Calories
You’re probably wondering how a dietetics major just very confidently typed that sentence.
You’re probably thinking that it’s about time to click “unfollow” because how can someone have the audacity to say something so preposterous on a supposed nutrition blog? (Please don’t unfollow, I’d miss you. And don’t worry, I promise a reasonable explanation is coming soon 🙂 ).
How can a dietetics major discount the concept of counting calories? Calories are the basis of nutrition, right? Isn’t that what every diet promotes, what every fitness app tracks? Companies and restaurants parade “low calorie” products to raise sales. Sometimes it seems as though calories alone provide the framework for the entire dietetics industry, and in a sense, they do. I’ve already spent a decent amount of time studying the different nutrient groups and the respective calories they each contribute, and I’m not even officially a sophomore yet (I won’t be rushing anything while I relish these last few weeks of summer break 🙂 ).
However, though important, I don’t think calories deserve the reputation they’ve raked up for themselves.
Before I get into why, I’d like to disclose that this post is not an attempt to argue with science. Despite the fact that I’ve spent the first half of this summer in a lab coat and goggles (living it up organic chemistry style…), I am certainly not on a level to compete with firmly established, long-held scientific truths. Plus, as far of my current studies, I don’t see any reason to doubt what’s accepted as fact, which is as follows:
The science of calories is a simple one: Calories in – calories out = net calories consumed.
For those of you who don’t speak in math (and who does, anyways?), this equation essentially means that the net amount of calories you consume daily (ie. the calories that actually “matter”) can be found by subtracting the calories you burn from the number of calories you eat.
It’s important to note that exercise is not the only way to burn calories, though, of course, it is an efficient way to do so. Calories are units that measure energy, and we burn calories by doing anything, whether it’s running a 5k, walking, shopping, studying (shocking, right?) and even through the act of eating itself (perhaps even more shocking). Calories “in” refers to the sum of calories you consume from foods and drinks during the day.
For example, let’s say I consume 2,000 calories today, which is the recommended amount for a 20-year-old female, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Say I also go for a 15 mile bike ride (hey, it’s easy to make myself active on paper 😉 ) and burn 400 calories as a result. My net amount of calories consumed would be 1,600, since 2,000 – 400 = 1,600.
Also (last side note, I promise!) note that 3,500 calories is equal to one pound. This means that if you work up a caloric deficit of 3,500 calories (ie. the “net calorie” section is equal to -3,500) you’ll lose one pound, and if you consume 3,500 calories in excess (ie. the “net calorie” section is equal to +3,500), you’ll gain a pound.
And with that, I’d like to conclude my mini science lesson. I could continue, but then I’d actually be concerned about losing my followers 😉 .
So now, circling back to the original question: Why the heck doesn’t this dietetics major like the concept of counting calories?
I have many answers to this question, but I’m going to highlight my main feelings below. Please keep in mind that, as I said, these are just my opinions, and you’re free to agree/disagree as you wish (feel free to comment any thoughts!). These are just some realizations and conclusions I’ve come to as a health-conscious dietetics student through my experiences tracking calories. Though I hope these insights can help you create a permanent peace with your inner calorie-calculator, I do acknowledge that for some, counting calories is a necessary and worthwhile approach, and if a dietitian or medical professional gives you instructions to do so, please comply with their advice. These suggestions are intended for healthy college-aged students who do not have any pre-existing health conditions.
Reason #1: By tracking calories, food is degraded and nutrition is misunderstood
Whenever we quantify something, it automatically becomes degraded, limited to its numerical worth. By numerically tracking calories, we are degrading food and misunderstanding the very concept of what a calorie constitutes. As mentioned, it is important to note the definition of a calorie, which is a unit of energy. “Healthy” brands tote their products as “low calorie,” as if the calorie itself is inherently evil, but it’s important to realize that we wouldn’t survive without calories! The wealth of benefits nutritious food can do for our bodies cannot be encapsulated numerically, which is why a calorie-counter shouldn’t pretend to do so. The same goes true for the opposite – the damage that continued consumption of unhealthy foods (despite being low calorie) can do to us is not reflected numerically. We need calories, just like our bodies need us to eat a variety of whole, unprocessed foods: desperately.
For example, though higher in calories, I’d much sooner tell someone to have a 170-calorie serving of raw almonds than a 90-calorie “health bar” filled with ingredients that may as well be written in another language (plus likely loads of added sugar, too).
To summarize, the ingredients that make up a food are far more important than the calories it contains. Many low-calorie packaged snacks are “empty calories” that offer little nutritional benefits, and conversely, many higher-calorie foods can do nutritional wonders for our bodies. Calories alone do not tell us nearly all we need to know.
Reason #2: We are people, not nutrition robots
We eat food, not fuel.
Calories (aka our “fuel”) is present in the foods we eat, but food is so much more than the calories which comprise it. Food is edible art; it’s a way to express creativity. Many take pleasure in cooking and trying new foods while traveling. Food is what brings together family and friends. There’s a reason why “meeting for lunch” is so much more than just lunch, or why we choose to go to restaurants to celebrate milestones. Food has an important place in culture, especially in Jewish culture (think of all those holiday meals that left you feeling stuffed). As a college student, I look forward to meal times, as lunch is the perfect midday study break, and I see dinner as a great time to catch up with friends. When the focus is on adding up calories, however, the joy of eating is taken away. There’s no way not to be preoccupied with making sure your macros don’t exceed their caloric limits during a supposed “casual lunch” with a calorie-counting app in-pocket. There’s just no chill way to count calories. Tracking calories makes it hard to truly be in the moment and enjoy food for what it is: a way to foster togetherness and enjoy life.
Don’t be too focused on the numbers. I’m sure you can all agree that in college especially, if you’ve already put effort into selecting/cooking balanced meals, it’s nice to be able to just enjoy your food and chill, without creating a math problem in the process. After all, nothing in life ever adds up perfectly, so why is it fair to force your food to?
Reason #3: Counting calories can lead to disordered eating
I’m all for exhibiting self control and trying to eat healthy foods as much as possible, but there comes a point where you need to draw the line for yourself, especially while in college. It is perfectly fine to indulge every so often, and there is no need to give up an “unhealthy” favorite entirely (prime example: I consume chocolate regularly). You need to allow yourself this leeway, or else your idea of “healthy eating” won’t be sustainable. Everything has a place in a healthy diet.
Calorie-counting, on the other hand, encourages extreme restriction; calorie-trackers limit their food intakes to fit neatly within specified caloric brackets. Once calorie-counting starts, it’s very easy for anyone to get wrapped up in the numbers and for a toxic relationship with food to result. Though I can see this method being beneficial for extremely overweight individuals trying to lose weight (or in another serious medical condition), for the average college student, I don’t think calorie counting is necessary. Eating disorders are most commonly diagnosed in females in their teens and twenties, according to Mirror-Mirror, and when I hear about college students tracking calories, I get worried (#dietitian-to-beproblems). Of course I don’t think every teenage calorie-tracker is borderline anorexic (that would be an inaccurate oversimplification), but I think that for many, tracking calories can trigger anorexic-like behavior, so in most situations, it’s best it be avoided entirely.
Reason #4: You can still reach your weight goals without obsessively tracking calories
Whether you’re trying to lose, maintain, or gain weight, you can do so without counting calories. As stated, I’m not doubting that calories in – calories out = net calories consumed. That will always be true. However, while you very well can reach your weight goals by adding up every calorie, it tends to happen that if you focus on following the general guidelines for a healthy diet and consume whole, unprocessed foods, the calories work themselves out. If you don’t believe me, try this approach and add up calories at the end of each day. You’ll most likely see that I’m right (not to brag or anything, but… 🙂 ). If you’re consuming your carbs, vegetables and proteins meal after meal in the recommended amounts, you should have no problem at all staying within your recommended calorie-bracket. See the Myplate website for more information on how to build a healthy plate.
I come at this post from a personal perspective. I’ve gone through many phases with food. I’ve tracked calories, and I’ve also not; I’ve eliminated white sugar entirely, and since then reintegrated it back into my diet (that one didn’t last too long haha). I’m proud to say that I’ve reached a happy medium that’s been working for me.
The truth is, though, that I don’t know the best way to eat. As I’ve said in previous posts, I don’t think there is a universal “best” way to eat, as there is no one way (though, of course, it’s possible that further schooling will change my mind). Healthy eating varies by the individual, according to each person’s unique standards, resources and goals. Even within that niche, it varies further, based on where the individual is in life and how much time they can allot to preparing healthy meals during that particular period.
However, one thing I know for certain is that nutrition does not exist to take the joy out of eating. Once healthy eating becomes stressful, you know something isn’t right. Before I started studying nutrition, I really believed that calories held all the answers; however, I no longer think so.
When I eat a whole-wheat bagel, I’m enjoying a delicious piece of bread. The carbohydrates will break down into glucose and energize my body, giving me the strength to get through another day. And those 250 calories? Bring them on.
What’s your take on calorie-counting? Was it an experience that worked for you? I’d love to hear your perspective or any other thoughts in the comments section below!
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