If you’re anything like me, you have, at one time or another, known the rough calorie content of any meal and every bite that went into your mouth. For me it became automatic, something that was just part of the eating experience (What?! Order a burger and fries at the bar, and a beer to go with it? I guess I’m not eating the rest of the day…). I was chained to the numbers. I didn’t even know what it meant anymore to eat a meal without my inner calculator buzzing, all the while distracting me from the actual pleasure of food.
Am I saying calorie counting is bad? No. Sometimes it can be useful, particularly if you have little knowledge about calories in food. But many people are so imprisoned by these little measurements of energy called calories that they can’t see that there is more to food and health and weight loss than calories.
If we just look at the calories, then a Twinkie at 150 calories is a better snack than an apple with a Tablespoon of all natural peanut butter at about 200 calories. Really? Let’s break this down. A Twinkie’s calories come from over 30 ingredients of added sugar, trans fat, and white flour, not to mention a dose of salt and artificial flavors, preservatives, and dyes. There’s zero fiber and virtually no vitamins or minerals. In fact, you could even say it has negative nutritional value, since your body will actually use more vitamins and minerals trying to process the junk, actually lowering your nutritional stores!
Now what about the apple with all natural nut butter? A lot of people shy away from nut butters because they are high in fat, and therefore calories. Some avoid apples and other fruit because they contain sugar. Both true. But let’s see what that sugar and fat comes along with and compare that to the lower calorie Twinkie. First, the entire snack includes only 3 ingredients – apple, peanuts and salt. No fillers, dyes, or preservatives here. The fat in the peanut butter comes mostly from unsaturated fats, which are healthy fats that help form hormones, absorb nutrients, and streamline brain signals. No trans fat here, which clogs arteries and lowers metabolism. The fiber and nutrients in the apple far outweigh the natural sugar there, including certain phytochemicals like quercitin, that enhance respiratory and cardiovascular health.
So it’s clear that the apple and all natural peanut butter snack is far more nutritious than the Twinkie. But what does that have to do with weight loss? There are a couple reasons why more nutrient dense foods contribute to weight loss compared to empty-calorie foods. One reason is simply that nutrients = satiety.
Our bodies know instinctively that they need nutrition to survive. It’s all the vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, healthy carbs, protein, and phytochemicals that drive our metabolism and all the functions that keep us alive. When we are lacking in these things, our body will drive us to find them by increasing our appetite. What it doesn’t realize, is that our modern food culture is full of foods that have plenty of calories, but very little actual nutrition.
Our bodies really can’t use the material in so many of our processed foods other than to store the empty calories as fat. Meanwhile, it’s still not getting the nutrients it needs, so it keeps our appetite high. Hence the term for so many Americans – overfed and undernourished.
It is easy to get into the cycle that seems will never fill us up. Hungry, eat food that is mainly deprived of nutrients, still hungry, eat more, fill up on empty calories, but still have an appetite, etc. How do you break the cycle? Eat more nutrient-dense foods! This means foods in their most natural state, like the apple and all-natural peanut butter. Look for foods with the fewest ingredients. These foods will naturally fill you up and gradually bring your appetite to its natural state.
For many calorie-counters, knowing just how much is going into the body gives a sense of control. Let’s face it, there’s a lot in life we simply can’t control. In order to feel safer, many people will attempt to control what they feel they can. It’s understandable, but I have to tell you that it’s a false sense of control. The truth is, we can’t accurately calculate the calories we consume, nor the calories we absorb.
First, the calorie content you read on a label is more of an estimate. The actual calories can vary up to 50%! Secondly, the calories your unique body absorbs from any food varies based on a variety of factors, including your gut bacteria, enzymes, fiber content of the meal you eat, and your efficiency of breaking down the particular food you’re eating. For instance, it has been shown that we absorb between 5-20% fewer calories from nuts than they actually contain. There is no way to even accurately measure the calories we are absorbing, so it’s actually insane to be placing so much value and rigidity on calculating what we eat.
So what does work? A large body of research shows that a whole foods diet (meaning food rich in natural nutrition, low in added sugar, added salt and added fat) is associated with healthy weight. Balancing your meals and snacks with protein, fiber and healthy fat can help with appetite and blood sugar regulation. This is called Macronutrient Balance, and it is a key strategy when it comes to weight loss without counting calories.
Imagine the freedom of eating all your meals everyday without your background calculator running constantly. You choose what you want based on your appetite and hunger, and what you really want. No thoughts of how you will make up for it later, either by restricting food or punishing exercise. You sit down to your meal with pleasure and satisfaction, feeding your hunger without guilt, and enjoying every bite.