I guess what I have to constantly highlight is that nutrition and healthy living is not about doing a ‘challenge’ or a ‘diet’ or even about cutting out x and y. These are all short term solutions and usually involve giving a lot up in the vain of trying to find a quick fix to a problem.
What have you actually gained by cutting X and doing Diet Y ? – sure you may lose weight, you may lose bodyfat or you may fit into your favourite dress but for how long? Are you going to continue to deprive yourself for the rest of your life to stay this way?
Or are you going to slowly slip back into your same routine, regain the weight and then have to drop it again in a few months time when your summer holiday starts looming. Diets offer a short term fix. In the long run, they are unsustainable, unhealthy and often can even result in more damage than good. In fact, most people regain the weight and then some AND then also have to make double the effort later on when they try to diet again.
Instead, how about you make permanent change, that is realistic, measurable, achievable and most important individual to you (since you are the one who decides what your goal and habits are). The only problem? it all takes time and effort. The reward? You will reach your goal and stay there (the most important bit).
Ok let’s talk calories.
What exactly is a calorie? A calorie is a unit of energy, which has become famous in the dieting and health world as a unit to measure how much food you should and shouldn’t eat. Google the definition and you get the following:
Not much in there about food? or weight? or humans? The link is that a calorie is a unit of energy. Energy is required for everything in the body. The source of all energy is the Sun and we get our energy from the plants and animals we eat (plants take energy from the sunshine and synthesize it into something we can actually use – remember studying photosynthesis in school? Oh and then animals eat the plants and we eat the animals). I ll stop there for now.
We know and associate calories as key players in that ‘simple’ equation: weight loss = calories IN – calories OUT. So for e.g. if you want to lose weight you should eat 500 calories less and exercise 500 calories more. One pound of weight is equal to 3500 calories so if you get the correct deficit you can lose X amount per week….or something along those lines anyway.
In theory this does not work. Well let me rephrase that – sure it is possible to control your weight with this technique but the result is short lived and the consequences are not worth it. Our body is too clever. In fact, have you ever considered that we were a lot healthier and slimmer before anyone even knew what a calorie was, let alone tried to count them!?
This ‘weight loss solution’ continues to flood the mainstream health magazines and yet we are fatter and sicker than ever before. Yes, we are clearly doing something wrong here but the problem is that we are also trying to fix it by a combination of starving (calorie cutting) & stress (lots of cardio and/or chronic stress relating to work/lifestyle) and then adding medication to combat the consequences……looks very wrong when phrased like that right?
What’s even funnier: I read in this book (link about) recently that there was a discovery made in 2011 that the number of calories consumed per person per day on average has increased by 570 calories between 1977 and 2006. This might seem like the perfect thing to blame our increasing waistlines on but wait – 570 calories extra per day would also mean our waistlines should have increased quite a bit. In fact it would mean that if we continued at this rate, we should have gained 476 pounds between 2006 and today.
Why hasn’t this happened? And if the latter has NOT happened, would that not beg you to think that the reverse idea (i.e. cutting calories) is also dumb? (It does make you think though, when you people do gain weight, they don’t they keep going and going until they weigh 4000lbs? Nor do they drop weight all the way down until they disappear).
We have not gained 476 pounds of weight despite eating more than people in 1977 because out body does not work like a calculator. Simples. Our body is just too smart. It is a complex interaction of 10 different systems (nervous, cardiovascular, endocrine, muscular, immune, lymphatic, reproductive, respiratory, skeletal, excretory). All of these systems work meticulously 24 hours a day and in sync to keep your body in balance (or the actual term is keeping your body in homeostasis). Just as your body manages to immediately regulate your blood sugar levels so too your body will regulate weight and fat unless you abuse it and it breaks down. Of course if you really overdo it on the sugar, a breakdown will occur and you are liable to get type 2 diabetes. In the same way, abuse your body enough and it will eventually fail to regulate your weight correctly and you will gain weight.
So what actually happens?
Well, a well-oiled human machine will regulate itself – eat more, burn more and eat less, burn less. So when you cut calories, you’re body automatically reduces its energy output to make sure it doesn’t burn out AND vica versa. So that mad hunger you get after a heavy strength or crossfit session? Ye that is your body trying to get you to eat more to balance out for the massive energy expenditure you just went through. The weight at which everything works is your happy weight or your set point. So if your weight starts rising above your set point, a well-oiled body will listen to hormonal signals, increase your metabolic rate, reduce your appetite and burn body fat. All of this prevents excess fat sticking around for long. But when you eat poor quality food, the signals get messed up and basically your body has no idea what to do and you get clogged. Literally. So you gain weight, your body thinks this new amount of fat is normal and you end up in a bit of a pickle. BUT, attempting to eat less to solve the cause is not the answer. It is in fact counter-productive and results in yo-yo dieting. Hunger is not healthy.
And there lies the problem. You just can’t win against your own biology in the long run. It’s as simple as trying to keep yourself from sleeping – you get away with it in the short run but you would never be able to keep it up forever….your body would win. So what is the reality here?
The reality is that there are a lot of other variables to factor into the equation. In addition to your variables you have to ask what is your actual goal here: Do you want to lose weight or bodyfat? Do you want to gain weight or just muscle? – These are all different contexts and these are also then affected by the amount of food you eat and your own unique metabolism.
So a lot of factors go into this supposed equation, not just calories.
Some other reasons I don’t like calories:
- Predicting the true calorie content (let alone the nutrient content) of food is damn near impossible. It is an average guess at best – an animal eating an organic, natural diet would have a completely different store of nutrients to an animal eating a poor, factory processed diet…..after all a person being eating 1500 calories of nutrient rich food would look very different to someone eating the same amount of calories from takeaways, rubbish and junk food.
- Calorie counting promotes thinking about food in completely the wrong way. When you count calories, you want to get as much food as possible in for as little calories as possible. So with that, we tend to go for the low fat, zero fat, low calorie processed food which is not real food. In fact, most of this food is full of chemicals and additives so not only are you wasting your time cutting calories, you are also adding in a heap of toxins into your system. As a result you don’t focus on the nutrient value of food.
- To really beat the point in: calories technically “count,” but what your body does with those calories counts more. Food is not only what you eat, it is also what your body digests and actually absorbs. The same applies to calories. Just like any unit, the actual amount of calories you get from food depends on the amount you absorb, not how many you put in your mouth. And that is influenced by things like the rate of absorption (i.e. the health of your gut), and the accuracy of the food label. Likewise calories out also depends on the efficiency of your metabolism and what you are actually using your calories for.
Two Key Takeaways.
It all starts with the basic key statement: Just eat real food. By real I mean whole, unprocessed, natural food. The key factor is QUALITY not QUANTITY.
To start off just think about the item of food you are holding when next in the supermarket: Does it have less than 5 ingredients and do I understand what all the ingredients are? Do I know for a fact that this food has been processed?
Start adding an extra serving of vegetables to your meals – any colour and any type and the more variety the better. These two steps alone should be a massive help – don’t worry about going paleo, or buying only organic – you have to start somewhere. I don’t expect people to go to extremes here but if you manage to get 80% of your current meals from unprocessed, natural food you are well on your way. As for the other 20% – have your cake but make it yourself. If you are going to have a treat, the best advice I can give is to go and bake it yourself because a) most people will get a craving but be far too lazy to go to the effort and b) at least if you do decide to cook a chocolate cake, you actually know what goes into it! By taking these small steps, you will start to notice a better energy level, less, then no cravings, better sleep and better performance both mentally and physically. The key thing is to start thinking in term of nutrients instead of calories. Ask yourself, am I getting good nutritional value here for the money I am paying for this item. ?
Listen to your own body.
Seems so simple – and it should be! I LOVE when the answer is simple! There should be no need to go into counting calories, following specific macro splits, meal timing….at least not when you are only starting out (as opposed to top athletes or people with specific aesthetic goals). This goes hand in hand with why I ask people to keep a food journal for a week at least and to comment on their general mood around meal times. This task can be a real pain to do yes but people are always shocked by what they discover. Not only are they able to link possible connections between mood and the food they ate but they also pick up on bad habits or patterns which they are constantly falling victim to….e.g. not drinking enough water.
I hope this has been helpful. If you’re confused, don’t be scared to shoot me a message on Facebook or email email@example.com