So how much do calories matter when we want to lose weight?
Short answer: A lot. But the good news is you can still lose weight without counting a single calorie.
But first, what makes calories so important?
When the goal is weight loss, the only absolute requirement is a caloric deficit. That means we want to burn more calories than we’re taking in. This is the reason why calories are so important for weight loss. HOWEVER, calories do not have to be a main focus if we want to lose weight. In fact, we don’t even have to think about them AT ALL and we can still be successful.
Here’s my beef with counting calories:
1) Labels and apps can be pretty inaccurate which means that our calorie counting is inaccurate, too.
A food label is allowed a 20% margin of error and it will still be considered in compliance with the FDA guidelines. That means that a 100 calorie snack pack could be anywhere from 80-120 calories yet it can still be labeled as 100 calories. Same goes with the calorie counting apps. Those are just as inaccurate considering they get most of their info from labels. Also, how the heck do you know if a sweet potato is small, medium or large depending on the circumference?! I’m not about to get out my tape measure each time I want a potato! Those who have used apps like My Fitness Pal know what I’m talking about!
2) We can miss out on nutrients and decrease the satisfaction of what we’re eating all to keep our calories low.
Let’s look at dietary fat for example. Dietary fat has 9 calories per gram, more than double that of carbs and protein (both at 4 calories per gram). If you’re counting calories, it would make total sense to nix the peanut butter or avocado (two high fat foods) on your toast to save calories and opt for something lower cal like low-fat butter. Again, that makes sense, HOWEVER when we look at nutrients and overall health, doesn’t it sound like a healthier choice to eat a more natural food instead of a chemically laden, reduced fat butter? When looking at satiety, a scoop of PB or a half of an avocado is going to keep you fuller for longer and will help you feel less deprived in the long run not to mention all the nutrients you’ll be getting- definitely worth the higher cals IMO.
3) It sets us up for lots of unnecessary stress and failure.
Lemme set the scene: You’re strolling along, living off of your 1400 calorie diet that was set up for you by My Fitness Pal. The first few days are great but on Friday you have dinner plans. You look at the menu and realize that the dinner you typically order is about 1000 calories alone (again, according to MFP)! That means from the time you wake up to the time you eat dinner you’re only allowed 400 calories. By the time you get to dinner you’re absolutely ravenous and end up eating bread from the bread basket, ordering an app to share with your friends AND your dinner. Not only have you eaten more than you normally would, but you can kiss that 1400 calorie daily allowance good-bye.
This exact scenario happened to me SO MANY TIMES. Each time I’d beat myself up because I didn’t “stick to the plan.” I was more worried about hitting my calories than I was about enjoying the company and enjoying my food. This usually meant over-exercising and restricting food the next day but that’s another story for another time.
4) It’s just too much work and WAY too much math.
Like I always tell my coaching clients, are you really going to count calories for the rest of your life? Are you going to track every single bite of food you have forever? Of course not! And while I totally support general food tracking at the beginning of a weight loss journey, counting calories is simply a waste of time. It’s all-consuming- you have to log the food including what and how much, then you have to look up the calories or plug them into your app. What if your app doesn’t have the exact food you ate? What then? Again, we go back to the totally inaccuracy of calorie counting. It takes too much time, causes too much stress and all for something that’s not even all that accurate.
So what can you do instead?
1. Listen to your body.
This means tapping into our hunger and fullness cues, eating when you’re physically hungry and stopping when you’re satisfied. This is something that takes a lot of practice at first but overtime it gets much easier until it just becomes part of what you do. When we listen to our bodies natural cues, we don’t have to worry about hitting a certain number of calories or choosing the lowest fat food, we simply choose foods that satisfy us physically and mentally and know that we can always go back for more next time we’re hungry. When we eat this way, the pounds just kind of…melt away. We’re not feeling underfed, we’re not feeling deprived and our body is totally satisfied by what we choose to give it.
2. Eat foods that you actually want to eat.
This kind of goes back to the second reason why I don’t like calorie counting. Let’s say you planned a low-cal salad for lunch but you’re absolutely dreading it and could really go for a sandwich instead. Why not eat the sandwich and save the salad for later? Regardless of which choice is “better” according to your calorie counting app, you’ll feel a lot more satisfied by eating foods you actually want to eat. You could even eat half the sandwich and half the salad for lunch and save the rest for dinner. This is a great compromise because you’re still getting in your veggies AND you get to eat what you actually want.
Side note: also remember that it’s totally OK to eat food simply for the pleasure of eating them even if they’re not 100% “fat loss friendly.”
Lastly, although I do not believe in counting calories, this isn’t an invitation to EAT ALL THE THINGS! When we consume more energy than our body uses, regardless of if the source is “healthy” or not, it will eventually lead to weight gain. Remember that in order to achieve weight loss, we need to achieve a caloric deficit. The trick is finding that sweet spot where you can eat foods that are nourishing both physically and mentally AND foods that will support your weight loss goal.
If you struggle with listening to your body and knowing when you’re physically hungry vs emotionally hungry, don’t know how to incorporate foods you love into your diet without overdoing it and can’t seem to get a hold on your nutrition, I have THE program for you!
The Overeating Solution is a 4 week program beginning on April 17th. Click below to get on the waitlist so you can get first dibs on a spot in the program when the cart opens!