A Case for Calories
Alright, folks. I am going to try to tackle a bit of a sticky subject today with this one. CALORIES. Recently, I’ve been getting asked a lot about how to really make drastic changes in body composition recently.
There are really two major camps in the diet world right now:
- The calorie is king and controls everything from weight loss to the weather.
- If we eat healthily, the calorie is less important.
But what if I told you that they were both right? Confused yet? Read on, and I’ll explain my OPINION on diets.
Calorie Science-y Stuff
To start us off, I want to get a little bit technical. We need to have a short discussion on the topic of calories. What are they and where they come from? I used to think that calories were little monsters that lived somewhere in my food and ran around in my body, hiding in my cells making me appear thicker than I really was. The reality is far less scary. A calorie is a measure of the potential energy contained in the chemical bonds holding the molecules of our food together. Holy science batman, what does that mean for me? It means that food has calories in it and that they are not inherently bad. The problem arises from eating too much food and therefore bringing in more energy than the body needs. Your body is pretty smart, and it doesn’t like to waste things.
It hangs on to this extra energy in one of two forms to use later:
- Muscle glycogen (good)
- Body fat (bad).
This is where the basic idea of calorie counting comes in. Counting calories is a way to try to match energy intake with energy expenditure.
Why You Should Count
Counting calories has its uses. There are certain instances where I think it can be hugely beneficial. One such occasion is in the context of an athlete who has to make weight for a competition. When Cam and I compete, we have to be under a certain weight if we want to stay in our weight classes. As competition season approaches, paying very close to the calories we are consuming and the effect it is having on our bodyweight is very important. We need to make sure we are eating enough food to recover from our training, but not so much food that we are putting on weight, and therefore threatening our ability to stay in our class.
Another instance where I think calorie counting can be beneficial is to teach us about portion sizes. To get an accurate-ish count of the calories we are consuming, we need to measure our food to ensure we know what’s going in. Unfortunately, many of us just are not very good at estimating portion sizes, myself included. Do yourself a favor, go measure two tablespoons of peanut butter. Spoiler alert, it’s not much. A lot of us are doing the right things, eating healthy foods, drinking our water, but we can’t seem to budge the scale. Unfortunately, there can be too much of a good thing.
Why You Shouldn’t
The first and most glaringly obvious reason not to count and measure our food is that it is not sustainable. Of all the other factors, compliance is the number one reason a diet succeeds or fails. If you can’t stick with it long term, it doesn’t matter how good the plan is.
The second reason is that calorie counting often leads to eating the same foods every meal of every day. It’s easier to measure and count, and counting is a pain in the butt. The problem with eating the same thing day in and day out is that it leaves a lot of things to be desired in terms of micronutrients. If our number one goal when planning our nutrition is to eradicate deficiencies, eating the same thing every day is counterproductive. It limits the variety of foods that you eat. Limiting this variety means you miss out on vital nutrients that your body needs. Granted, some people can and do make this work long term. The vast majority of us will fall into one of these two camps.
We also know that food labels can be inaccurate by up to about 15%-20%. Cooking and storage methods can have a tremendous effect on the calories that your food contains, and that your body can uptake and utilize. This fact makes calorie counting flawed because you don’t ever actually know what you are getting. Check out this infographic from Precision Nutrition to see what I am talking about.
The Take Home Message
What I propose is a hybrid approach. One of which we are aware of the amount of food going in and what effect it has on our goals, but we also don’t limit ourselves to easy to quantify food sources. If you would like to see what this looks like for you, talk to one of the trainers, we can help you come up with a strategy that works for you and your goals.
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