There is a popular belief that weight loss is simply a matter of keeping track of our ratio of calories in to calories out. As long as we’re burning more calories than we’re consuming, we’ll lose weight. While cutting and counting calories does, in fact, often lead to weight loss, it is certainly not the only approach that can work – and it’s usually not the best approach, if we’re looking for sustainable and lasting change. Here is some important information to keep in mind when you feel inclined to begin counting calories.
Calorie counting first became popular in the 1960s, and has enjoyed a certain level of popularity ever since. However, rates of obesity in the United States have grown significantly in that time. One would think that if losing weight and keeping it off were really as simple as counting calories, obesity levels would not have grown so dramatically.
A few years ago, David Kirchoff, president of Weight Watchers, whose diet plan assigned each food a number of points based on calorie content, said the following:
“Calorie counting has become unhelpful.
When we have a 100-calorie apple in one hand and a
100-calorie pack of cookies in the other, and we view
them as being ‘the same’ because the calories are the same,
it says everything that needs to be said about the
limitations of just using calories in guiding food choices.”
Weight Watchers now encourages its customers to eat more natural, and less processed, foods, as opposed to merely counting points. This is a wise decision for a number of reasons.
We’re all unique
One reason why counting calories doesn’t always work is that each of us has a unique body, with a unique metabolism and individual needs. For some, slashing calories will cause the pounds to melt away, while others will see little difference at all – and still others will actually gain weight.
It’s not sustainable
Counting calories can sometimes help us lose weight initially. But these positive results usually taper off fairly quickly. Counting calories over long periods of time often leads to us feeling deprived and lacking important nutrients. As a result, after we’ve shed the weight and we return to our previous eating habits, we’ll likely put some or all of the weight back on. Many people actually find that they end up gaining back MORE weight than they originally lost!
If we spend our days feeling hungry and deprived because we’re limiting our caloric intake, we might be more likely to binge eat at night. Similarly, for many people, there is a strong temptation to go to the opposite extreme of self-indulgence after a long period of self-denial.
On both a daily and a long-term basis, balance is best. Instead of counting calories, what we need is a healthy lifestyle that will truly nourish us and help us maintain a healthy weight over the long run.
Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Eat more protein…especially at breakfast
Often, when we’re counting calories, we tend to shy away from certain protein-rich foods like meat and dairy, because they contain fat…which contains calories. But protein helps us build muscle and keeps us feeling full longer, meaning we’re less likely to overeat.
Starting off the day with protein can be especially beneficial, as studies have shown that eating eggs in the morning, as opposed to bagels, can help with weight loss.
Eat plenty of fresh produce
Many vegetables and some fruits have a low energy density, which is the number of calories per gram of food. We’ve all seen segments on morning news programs where a nutrition expert shows us a small piece of chocolate cake next to a large plate of vegetables and tells us they have the same number of calories. But, because the plate of vegetables contains so much more food by mass, it is likely to fill us up more than the cake.
What is important here is not keeping track of the number of calories in the vegetables or the cake. What is important is realizing that many nutrient-dense foods have a lower energy density and will be more satisfying than processed foods, which are largely empty calories and have a higher energy density.
Eat whole foods
Whether it’s vegetables or any other type of food, eating nutrient-dense, whole foods will help us feel more satisfied and will make us less likely to overeat. In addition, this is the foundation of a healthy lifestyle that we will be able to maintain over the long term.
Rushing through our meals can sabotage our weight loss efforts in a couple of ways. When we eat too fast, it can take our brains a while to catch up, meaning we may not realize we’re satisfied until we’re already overly full.
Also, it is important for our meals to nourish us emotionally as well as physically. When we don’t slow down enough to be present while we’re eating, we miss out on the pleasure food can provide, and we may try to make up with quantity what our eating experiences are lacking in quality. The best option would be to allow ourselves more time for meals, but if that is not possible, we can have a higher-quality experience with the time we do have by, for example, silencing our phones and looking away from our computers while we’re eating.
It’s easy to approach weight loss with an all-or-nothing mentality. We often feel like we need to stick to a diet plan “perfectly” or else we have a “lack of willpower.” This is just setting ourselves up for failure. Yes, eating whole, nutrient-dense foods is very important. But if you eat a candy bar every once in a while, it does not make you a failure. Allow yourself some flexibility, don’t make any food “taboo,” and give yourself a break if you stray from your diet plan occasionally.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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