When it comes to counting calories, it can be a very slippery slope.
Yes, it’s helpful to have an approximate idea of calories — generally veggies will be low and sweets will be high. However, there are many reasons to make your food choices based on more important factors — like whether the food you’re eating contains organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meat, etc.
Calorie counting often leads to building an unhealthy relationship toward food and distracts you from what really matters to maintain a happy and healthy diet.
Here’s why it’s a little more complicated than the old rule of “taking in less than you use” when it comes to achieving your health goals.
Everyone has a unique set of dietary needs.
The FDA has guidelines and recommendations for caloric intake for people based on age and physical activity. But there are so many other factors involved that determine what an individual requires in their diet including hormones, activity, and stress levels. It’s important to know yourself and your body. Assessing what you eat and customizing your diet to your unique needs will help your body feel its best. If you exercise often or with high intensity, it’s likely you’ll eat more than the average person. Keep a simple log of the types of you eat – not the calories – and how you feel as a result after just a few hours. Then, adjust your diet accordingly.
The definition of a calorie: “A unit of heat equal to the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1,000 grams of water by one degree Celsius.” (1)
You would need a laboratory to accurately calculate the calories of your food. You would need another laboratory to tell you how many calories you utilize in a day. Unless you have laboratory equipment and duplicates of everything you eat, there’s no way to measure caloric intake precisely.
The FDA allows up to a 20% margin of error on calorie counts on product packaging. (3)
Meaning, if you are counting calories, your final number isn’t going to be accurate. For example, you may think you’re consuming 2,200 calories, but your actual intake could be up to 2,640 or as low as 1,760. It’s strange to take the time to calculate data with unpredictable variability, only to end up with an incorrect measurement.
All calories are not created equal.
Some foods “high in calories” carry no nutrition and are considered “empty calories.” You could eat 1,500 calories of hot dogs, chips, and soda, or you could eat 1,500 calories of grass-fed beef, broccoli, and an apple. Empty calories can give you a quick boost of energy, but they do very little to encourage good health and bodily function. By sticking to a healthy diet filled with real, whole foods, you avoid foods that do very little to maintain your daily health.
How to know how much food you actually need?
If you’re eating the right foods, it is good practice to trust your body. Your appetite will tell you when to eat and when to stop eating when you feel satisfied. By concentrating on eating nourishing foods, your body will recognize the quality of the calories you’re taking in. You’ll find that if you’re eating real, whole foods, you won’t need to eat as much in quantity.
Tips to eating the right amount of food
Slow Down and Chew Your Food
Studies have shown that by eating slower and chewing more, people consume fewer calories and get more nutrients out of their food. It takes up to 20 minutes for your stomach to send signals to your brain when it’s satisfied.
Mechanical chewing is the first stage of digestion. Chomping your food into smaller bits helps your digestive system break down your food more effectively, making sure you get more nutrients out of your meals. The increased surface area allows enzymes throughout your digestive tract to do its job better and reduces the risk of gastrointestinal issues.
Eating slower can also make you happier! Experts say that savoring your meals with gratitude can lead to happier living. (2)
Practice Mindful Eating
Oftentimes, people will overeat if they are snacking as a secondary activity, e.g., while working at their desk or watching TV. Instead of scrolling through your phone while eating lunch, put your phone on silent and place it somewhere where it won’t distract you (like your purse or pocket). Take the time to appreciate the taste, texture and smell of your food, instead of scarfing it down quickly. Tip: This is a really good article on mindful eating if you want to find out more.
Eat Nutrient-Dense Foods
Consuming nutrient-dense foods like fruit, vegetables, healthy fats, and quality proteins will keep you satiated for longer. They’ll also provide your body with more energy and nutrition, preventing you from feeling fatigued during the day. Not to mention, the benefits of eating nourishing foods goes beyond weight loss. You’ll also be decreasing your risk of disease and naturally improving your overall health — think a happier gut, better skin, and a naturally happier mood.
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