Note: since writing this blog post, my knowledge in the area of intuitive eating has increased so the answer to this question is a big NO to counting calories. If you want more information on why this is, you can check out a post here about why I have made this shift. I highly encourage you to read that one instead.
It’s September, which is a time of year lots of people look for a fresh start when it comes to their health and eating. Often, this means people are interested in managing their weight. So if you’re trying to manage your weight, should you be counting your calories?
When I went to post my first recipe as part of this blog, I had to stop for a minute to decide if I wanted to include the calories or not. Is that the kind of tone I want to set? Do I want to encourage my clients to focus so much on calories? This is a question I've been grappling with lately so I'm going to walk you through my thinking on the subject.
Before we get started, what exactly is a calorie? It is a form of measurement used to
determine how much energy we get from food. When I use the word energy, I don’t mean energy like that boost you get from caffeine in a cup of coffee. I’m talking about thermal energy as in heat since our body essentially “burns” food to fuel our body. If our body has more energy or calories than it can use, it gets stored, generally in the form of fat.
What does the evidence say?
A systematic review and meta-analysis of 37 randomized-control trials, which essentially is the strongest form of study that we can get in nutritional science, showed that calorie counting was associated with an increased weight loss to those who did not. This was a modest effect of about 3.3kg or 7.3lbs over the course of a year. Seeing a dietitian and behaviour change techniques were also associated with an increased weight loss over those who did not.
So when it comes to weight, calorie counting definitely has a small but significant benefit. I do, however; have some reservations about calorie counting. I find that many clients end up becoming so focused on cutting calories that they choose many processed foods that are low in calories but are also very low in nutrients. By this, I mean instead of eating a snack such as a piece of fruit, they may end up choosing a 100 calorie snack pack of crackers, which don't give much in the way of nutrients but has a label so it makes calorie counting easy.
To illustrate the differences foods can have while having the same calories, let’s look at an example. A balanced meal such as this Breakfast Quesadilla on my blog has about the same calories per serving at 450 calories as a frosted cinnamon roll from Tim Hortons. If you were comparing just calories for breakfast, you would figure either one was about the same. When you break down the nutrition information though, you'll see that the Breakfast Quesadilla has 31g protein versus the cinnamon bun's 4g and the Quesadilla has 3.7g sugar versus the cinnamon bun's 22g (that's 5.5 teaspoons of sugar, which would almost bring you to the recommended 6 to 9 teaspoons per day limit!) It doesn’t take a dietitian to figure out which one is going to leave you feeling fuller, longer.
Should I count calories?
So do I encourage calorie counting with clients? The answer would be sometimes but never with a focus on just calories. I much prefer to teach people to fill half their plates with non-starchy vegetables, take smaller plates, and pay attention to their hunger and satiety cues when it comes to meals. I find that at least by teaching people about this first along with discussing which foods lead you to feeling fuller, longer, it stops people from just focusing on calories. So if the question is do you have to count calories to manage your weight, the answer is no.
In my experience, however; lots of the time people really don’t know how much they should be eating. In an ideal world, people would just eat a variety of whole foods, eat when they’re hungry, and stop when they’re full. Instead what often happens is we eat what is on our plates (or takeout container) and stop when the food is gone. If this is what you’re used to, the idea of figuring out fullness cues can be really difficult. This is especially true if you’re eating foods that are processed and provide a lot of calories without much actual nutrition to help you feel full. In these cases can be helpful to first have an external cue of what an approximate appropriate amount of food for your body is then start paying attention to how that feels so you can start eating the right amount of food without needing to count calories.
If you choose to count calories, how do you do it?
If I’m not encouraging you to eat a bunch of processed food with a label or eat out all the time where you can get nutrition information, how are you supposed to figure out the number of calories and other nutrients? There are lots of different tools you can use including food journal apps such as MyFitnessPal or MyNetDiary. You can use the Canadian Nutrient File or you can use a tool from Dietitians of Canada called Eatracker. This one is great for calculating recipes but generally doesn’t have the same number of brands as other trackers. The big key whatever tool you choose is to make sure that you’re using an accurate measure for your food. What you think is a cup of cooked rice may actually be a cup and a half if you’ve never measured it. I’m not encouraging you to measure food every time you eat but if you give yourself a measurement for comparison, you’ll likely become a lot better at eye-balling portion sizes.
One comment I hear frequently is that even if you get your portion right, different apps and labels give you different information and that is very frustrating for many individuals. Why is that? Well it is important to understand that all calorie amounts are estimates. They’re all an estimation based on what are called the Atwater factors. These are the numbers from testing done in the 19th century that figured out the amount of energy we get from fat, protein, and carbohydrates after accounting for digestion and absorption. They give us a really good overall idea of how much energy a food gives us but I wouldn’t get too worked up about variations of a few calories from label to label.
So here is my take-home message: calorie counting is a helpful tool when you are first looking at weight management to see where you're at in terms of the amount you’re eating. It will probably be a bit of a wake-up call in terms of your portion sizes and you may realize you’re having too many calorie-dense foods such as mashed potatoes and not enough less calorie dense foods such as vegetables. It’s probably a good idea to figure out that a meal from your favourite restaurant has more than half the calories for the day and that maybe eating the whole thing isn’t a good idea.
It should not be the only thing you consider when choosing what to eat; consider the other information about the nutrients and if the food is going to satisfy you or not. Generally, the end-goal is to realize what your body needs and get to a point where you don’t need to know the exact nutritional breakdown of everything you’re eating to know that you’re getting enough. You want to start getting in touch with your hunger and fullness cues and eating a variety of foods to help figure this out in terms of what works best for you without needing to know the calorie information of everything you eat.
If you want to figure out what a good intake of calories, protein, carbs, and fat looks like for you, talk to a Registered Dietitian.