Do I need to count to calories? That is the question.
As a nutritionist, working from a holistic background, I have always believed counting calories was totally unnecessary. Eat whole foods, sleep and exercise. Avoid complicated measures. That is what I taught my clients….until now.
Note: What is a calorie? Calories give your body energy. So you can look at a calorie as a deposit of energy into your body. You can burn some of them off naturally by breathing, digesting food and even sleeping or you can burn them actively, by living an active lifestyle along with exercising. But in the end, if you consume a large excess of calories without burning them off, they may lead to fat gain in your body or difficulty losing weight
In my first few years working with clients to help them achieve a lifestyle plan that they love and can easily follow I was totally against counting calories.
I saw calorie counting as a failing work-around that let people eat non-nutritious food while watching the numbers drop on the scale only to see their weight skyrocket within months (Do you remember seeing ads for diet companies that showed a skinny person eating cake? All they had to do was count the points!).
I wanted to believe that people could learn to eat only when they are hungry and stop when they are satisfied without calorie counting.
I hated the fact that for some people, calorie counting was an obsession and it only helped them to control how little they ate (which was usually nowhere near how much they really needed to be eating) and did not improve how healthy they were.
And I fully trusted that if I could show my clients what a reasonable portion looked like, they could just eyeball their meals and never look back to counting calories.
And I wasn’t totally wrong.
In any solid nutrition program, clients will learn what healthy food really is and how to eyeball a reasonable portion of food within weeks. And after a few months of eating healthfully, hormones should reset and you suddenly remember what hunger and fullness actually feel like.
By the end of your hard work, you are fully able to eat your healthy meals every day without ever opening your calorie counting app because you know what your body needs. This is actually possible!
So, in the long term, calorie counting is generally not necessary.
However, many of us have no idea how much protein, fat or carbohydrate we are eating in a day, let alone calories. And I know that I was kidding myself about what I was actually eating (for example, I learned that I was eating far less veggies than I thought). This was only revealed to me when I started tracking my food for a couple of weeks.
So I was wrong in my belief that counting calories and tracking food was absolutely evil because, as I have learned from my amazing clients as well as through some personal experimentation, in the short term it can actually be very helpful.
Here are the two reasons why:
When it comes to your favourite foods I am betting that you are not entirely clear on what a reasonable portion looks like. I sure wasn’t!
For example, if you are about to slather healthy almond butter onto celery, how much are you going to use? I would probably have spooned about three tablespoons into a bowl and dipped my celery into it. But if you look at the nutrition label, the suggested serving is two tablespoons, not three.
And when you add cooking oil to a pan, how much do you use? You only need enough to cover the bottom of the pan…maybe a tablespoon…are you using more?
And how about nuts?
They are so easy to snack on. If someone put out a bowl of mixed nuts out, it would be easy to enjoy a few handfuls or more. But the label suggests a serving to be about 40g, (which is about a handful). Until I experimented with counting calories, weighing and tracking food, I would easily consume at least four handfuls of cashews a day.
And here is one last example: Cheese. My favourite cheese suggests a 30g cube (or 3cm cube) per serving…which is about a third of what I would usually have in one sitting! (I always enjoyed four slices of cheese to go with my four handfuls of cashews). I just had no idea how much energy I was getting from cheese because I had never bothered to look at the labels.
Now, the suggested serving is just a suggestion. Some days you may eat a little more or less of what the label suggests. And you could argue that when you are eating healthy food, to some degree, there is no harm in eating until you are full (have you ever been told you are eating too much broccoli)?
But as you will see in the next section, if you have weight loss goals, you may struggle with losing weight if you are eating too much calorie dense food.
So here are two action steps for you when it comes to portions:
- Read the labels of your favourite foods (yes, even chocolate bars) to get a clear idea of what a suggested serving is.
- Get a digital scale so that you can accurately measure out your portions (this will also come in handy when you track your food).
2. Caloric Density
Caloric density is the amount of calories per serving of a food. And caloric density is one of the hitches in the theory that you can eat as much as you want as long it is healthy.
To continue with the example above, let’s take a look at the caloric density of cashews and cheese.
First off, as long as you tolerate dairy well (for starters, you do not get bloated, gassy or acne after consuming it) , organic, raw cheese is a very healthy addition to your diet as are cashews. Both are good sources of minerals that your body requires to be healthy.
So regardless of the caloric density, these are both great foods to include in your diet. But you have to be aware of how much of these nutritious foods you are eating because if the energy that they give your body (the calories) is a whole lot more than you are burning each day, and you repeat the cycle of eating a whole lot more than you burn, day after day, you will likely see the scale go up, not down, even though you are eating healthy food.
It certainly was a wake-up call when I learned how calorically dense my snacks were.
So let’s do the calorie math on my favourite snack…
I was having 495 calories with my four small handfuls of cashews and the four slices of cheese I was eating were weighing in at another 240 calories.
That means that if I need roughly 2000 calories a day and I enjoy my cashews and cheese every night, that is 735 calories consumed in three minutes. That is very little food and a whole lot of energy intake.
I want you to really think about this. The food you see in the picture above was just a little less than half my daily calorie and energy needs! Clearly I still planned to eat three more meals every day and maybe a glass of wine. And to be honest, the first day that I tracked my food, I had consumed 4000 calories because I clearly had no idea the caloric density of some of the foods I was snacking on (That was an excessive day by the way. Most days I fall between 1800-2400 calories).
I quickly learned that if I reduce the portions of some of the very calorically dense foods, I can include more of other very nutritious foods (salads for example) that are less calorically dense and move closer to my health goals.
And take note, I said reduce, not eliminate…I can still enjoy my very nutritious cheese and cashews, just in a smaller quantity.
This is where the slow weight gain comes from for many people. We tend to over-consume bit by bit, day by day, and sometimes even very healthy foods are the culprits and every year we see the scale go up just a little more.
Important to remember…
Nutrient density is the amount of nutrients in a given food. And nutrient density is a very important consideration. You should never avoid a food that is nutritionally dense just because it is calorically dense. But you should eat it in reasonable portions.
Consuming healthy fat is a requirement for a healthy body and studies show that doing so may result in lowered risk of heart disease, diabetes and more.
So make sure to include healthy, high calorie foods in your diet on a daily basis. Just do so with a moderate approach. When you are choosing your next meal or snack look at the label (bonus points if it is a whole food that doesn’t need a label) and ask yourself “Is this worth it?” If the food is full of nutrients, it’s worth it. Just eat a reasonable portion.
Lastly, foods high in sugar are also high in calories. I focused on high fat foods today because there are many nutrient dense, high fat foods. With the exception of enjoying some fruit, if a food is high in sugar, you may just want to avoid it.
Here is a short list of popular healthy, high calorie foods. There are many more, so make sure to check labels:
- dried fruit (raisins, dates, figs, dried cranberries)
- almond butter
- dark chocolate
- avocado, guacamole
- nuts and seeds, trail mix
- olive oil (and other cooking oils)
- coconut products
What should I do now?
Hopefully I have convinced you of the huge value of tracking your food and calories for a period of time. Here is how I recommend you do it:
- Determine your daily calorie needs HERE. Keep in mind, this is not an exact answer, just a guide.
- Download a tracking app. I like Myfitnesspal and LoseIt.
- Purchase a digital food scale.
- Weigh your food with your scale and track what you eat for 3 days or more.
- Adjust your portions and food choices based on your results (prioritize the nutrient dense foods).
- Then stop tracking and enjoy eating like a normal person again while implementing what you have learned. Every now and then (maybe every six months or once a year) track for a few days and see if you should make any adjustments.
If you are struggling with weight loss or gain, this is only one part of the equation, but for some people, tracking food and counting calories for a short period of time makes all the difference.
Obviously, losing weight and maintaining that progress can be overwhelming sometimes. Knowing how much you should be eating, how much exercise is enough (or too much) and figuring out what other factors are playing a role can feel frustrating. That is why I work closely with my nutrition consulting clients, to help you create a healthy lifestyle that you love and that you can sustain. Connect with me HERE.