The Problem With Counting Calories

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Nearly years four ago I started a journey that has taken me from being a slightly overweight, very out of shape person who ate fast food regularly, drank sugary beverages all day, and didn’t put much thought into what effect that was having on my body to being 20 pounds lighter with a lot of muscle gained, very active, and in pursuit of Registered Dietician credentials to help others learn how their food choices affect their health.

I lost weight old-fashioned way by making wiser food choices, working out regularly, and counting calories. Counting calories was integral in my initial weight loss because it showed me how much I was really eating, and taught me what a serving size actually was. I now know what an actual serving of rice looks like compared to the two cups I wouldn’t think twice about eating before. Frequently now I will see someone eating a meal that is pushing 3,000 calories (usually of little to know nutritional value), knowing it’s just one of multiple large meals they will eat that day, and think with disbelief “that used to be me.”

I have to believe that most people have no idea how much they are really eating and would be shocked if they were shown. Studies show that people underestimate the calorie content of large meals by 23%.1 This is the inspiration for the British show Secret Eaters which features people who say they cannot lose weight despite eating very little. They film the people 24 hours a day for a week and tally up how much they really eat to show them how they are underestimating their intake. Each episode starts and ends the same with the subjects saying they eat very little yet keep gaining weight then being shocked at how much they really do eat and making changes that help them lose weight. In this type of situation, calorie counting can be very beneficial to retrain people to see portions properly and pay more attention to their food choices.

After losing weight though, the next challenge begins as you try to maintain your new weight. I’ve been in maintenance mode for about three years now and it’s been a roller coaster ride. I’ve gained and lost the same 10 pounds over and over again. As soon as I stop weighing and measuring my food, despite knowing how much I should be eating, I gain weight and I gain it quickly. Then I get back on whatever my program du jour is (I’ve done low carb, no carb, high protein, high fat, calorie cycling, macronutrient cycling, eat more/move more, very low calorie, you name it) and within a few weeks I get back to a weight at which I’m comfortable. If I am really “good” and stick with it long enough, I can even reach a new low weight (at which point I promptly celebrate with food and say goodbye to that new weight).

There are many theories about why it’s so hard to maintain weight loss. One of the most popular is that our bodies have a “set point”, a weight at which your body will strive to stay whether that is the healthiest weight for you or not.2 The idea is that your body desires homeostasis so after being at a certain weight for a long period, your metabolism will continue to keep you at that weight so you are neither losing nor gaining much, thereby achieving a stable condition. It’s been hypothesized you can reach a new set point by maintaining a lower (or higher) weight for an extended period of time, though no one can tell you how long you have to maintain that weight or how close you need to stay to that weight for your body to become comfortable there. I don’t know if we have a set point but I think there is a more likely explanation in most cases.

The Problem With Counting Calories

What calorie counting doesn’t teach us is why we eat. Why do we eat at certain times and why do we crave certain foods? We are rarely, if ever, truly hungry anymore. Most of us also have a very unhealthy relationship with food, thinking of it as something to abstain from or reward with, everything it isn’t, rather than as nourishment for our body and mind. This article says it wonderfully. Food has become an obsession for many, whether we admit it or even realize it and we’ve lost touch with what it really is and what it should be.

Counting calories or macros puts temporary restrictions in place, which may prevent us from eating during trigger times or from eating binge foods but that only lasts as long as we adhere to our self-imposed limits. When counting calories we also eat a certain amount regardless of hunger or lack thereof. If given a set number of calories to eat each day, we will most likely eat that much even if we are full after less. We will eat a snack between meals because it’s on the plan, even if we aren’t actually hungry. We will ignore what our bodies are telling us and will eat what we can instead of what we should. We may make healthy food choices and eat a healthy volume of food, but we are doing it because of external rules telling us when, what, and how much to eat rather than listening to our bodies.

If we don’t learn to stop and question if we are really hungry or if we are eating to avoid or experience a certain emotion, we will return to old habits soon after the temporary restriction of calorie or macro limits are removed. It may not happen immediately as we we’ll have developed new short-term habits but research shows it will happen. Soon I will reach for something to eat when I are bored and you will have the extra scoop of ice cream because your friend did, even though you only planned on having one. Over time those small steps back to our old eating habits add up and before you know it, you’ve gained back the weight you worked so hard to lose, and maybe more.

In order to maintain weight loss, we must reflect on why we eat as much as what we eat.

Why I Eat Chart

How Do We Change?

As with breaking any habit, you have to be very cognizant of your behavior. Each time you find yourself reaching for food and each time you do eat, stop and ask why you are eating. Are you actually hungry? If you aren’t, consider what you are feeling and what caused it. Ask if you can change that feeling by doing something productive. If you are angry, write your feelings rather than eating them. If you are bored, get up and do something even if you don’t feel like it right away. If you are tired, take a nap or just go to bed if it is nighttime. (We all know how important quality sleep is.) If you are like me and reach for a snack when work gets tedious, find ways to make it more fun. Can you challenge yourself to complete a task within a certain amount of time? Do you have a playlist of music that will lift your mood and push you through your slump? Can you get up and do jumping jacks or squats to get some endorphins flowing?

Don’t punish yourself for wanting to eat. Find an outlet that will make you feel better, not worse. Do whatever you need to do to put a more positive spin on your situation rather than eating something you’ll regret later, perpetuating the cycle of negative emotions.

Finally, sometimes we have negative emotions that may trigger us to eat and we just have to feel them. Be angry. Be grumpy. Be sad. Be whatever you are at the moment but be in the moment rather than pushing the feeling aside by eating something that makes you temporarily forget what you were feeling. It may be uncomfortable but you will be better for it in the end. We have emotions for a reason and ignoring them doesn’t improve our situation. If you allow yourself to feel what you are feeling you may grow from the experience and be able to avoid the same pain in the future which will perpetuate a cycle of positive emotions.

I’m almost two weeks into this process and I’ve lost 2 pounds by thinking more about why I’m eating than what I’m eating. Join me in focusing on why you eat and leave a comment below with your triggers and how you are dealing with them and the progress you make!

Sources:

1Gore, J. M. (2006). Calorie underestimation. Journal Watch.Cardiology, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1056/JC200609200000005

2Keesey, Richard E., Hirvonen, Matt D. Body Weight Set-Points: Determination and Adjustment. The Journal of Nutrition. September 1, 1997 vol. 127 no. 91875S-1883S

Categories: Nutrition