Are We Focussing Too Much on Calories?

It goes without saying that in the health and fitness industry, the most common discussion points centre around the best ways to lose weight. As a female, it seems as though we all possess this perpetual and unwavering desire to shed those stubborn kilograms of fat, and we are equipped with the belief that if we lose the weight then we will finally be happy. Thankfully, the days of promoting quick fixes and hideously restrictive fad diets seem to be a phenomenon of the past, and it is far more common to see Instagram and Facebook accounts fostering positive relationships with food. Rather than demonising essential macronutrients like carbohydrates or encouraging juice diets that make your stomach grumble and groan, it’s far more common to see a balanced and reasonable approach to weight loss.

The Calorie-Deficit Approach

One of the more popular weight-loss methods we see plastered on Instagram is the calorie-deficit approach, whereby we are told that losing fat is simply a matter of consuming less calories than our body is utilising throughout the day. By focusing on the amount of calories contained in the food we are eating, we are given the freedom to eat whatever we desire so long as it falls within our calorie target for the day. This approach can be liberating for people like me who have spent years labelling certain foods as “bad” and avoiding these foods in an unsuccessful attempt to look like Kendall Jenner (i’ll need a bit more than a calorie deficit for that to occur, sweetie). Arguably by incorporating these foods back into our regular eating patterns, we relinquish the control these foods had over our lives, and it enables us to feel a little less obsessive about the whole weight-loss process. It can also help us realise that eating a chocolate bar or a piece of bread won’t cause the world end, and you can easily consume these foods whilst still reaching your weight-loss goals.

So, what’s the issue then?

The proponents of the calorie-deficit approach often focus solely on the number of calories consumed, and minimal significance is afforded to the quality and nutrient content of the food. This begs the question of whether we are focussing too much on the number of calories we are consuming, and overlooking the importance of our overall health. After-all, there are foods that provide essential vitamins and minerals that we need to include in our diet to feel our healthiest and ultimately to allow our body to function and survive. Calories don’t provide us with any insight as to the quality of the food we are eating. If we are merely focussing on calories, it can be easy to omit essential nutrients and suffer adversely as a result. Moreover, because this approach technically affords us the freedom to eat whatever we want, it fails to consider the impact that eating certain foods have on our body and our overall well-being. In this sense, it focusses too much on weight-loss and not enough on general physical and psychological health. For example, in a calorie-deficit approach, I am allowed to starve myself all day, slowly morphing into a grumpy witch with a rumbling tummy as the day progresses. I can then take myself to McDonalds and order something for, say, 1600 calories and stuff my face with cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets (with sweet and sour sauce, obviously). This will inevitably cause my stomach to feel bloated and sore, and I will most likely feel sluggish and regretful. For my overall health, I would’ve probably been better off eating 3000 calories spaced out during the day and including a vast array of food groups.

This approach can also over-simplify the weight-loss process, as it dismisses the complexities of body composition and overlooks the variables that cause a person to lose, maintain or gain weight. For example, if we are to plan a nutrition program for ourselves in an effort to shed a few kilograms, we would need to ascertain how many calories we burn in a day, or our total daily energy expenditure. This can be done by combining our basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories our body uses to survive) with the calories we burn through physical activity and incidental exercise (such as walking up a flight of stairs or cleaning the house). Whilst our smart watches attempt to provide us with figures that depict how many calories we burn in a day, these numbers have been shown to be incredibly inaccurate. Similarly, there are a plethora of online calculators that help you determine how many calories you burn in a day, and thus prescribe a certain number of calories to aid in your weight-loss goals. Unfortunately, these methods are notoriously inaccurate. Our basal metabolic rate and our metabolic adaptations to exercise are individualistic and dependent on a multitude of factors, such as previous dieting experience, muscle mass, gender, and current fitness levels. Thus, it can be incredibly difficult to accurately quantify how many calories you burn in a day.

This complexity is compounded by the fact that the calories recorded in food packaging are inaccurate, and thus counting your calories to the nearest figure is arguably a superfluous task anyway. We think when we exercise that our smart watches accurately reflect the amount of calories we have burnt in a session, and equally we rely far too heavily on food packaging as a source of objective truth when it comes to calorie information. The only real way to know that you’re in a calorie deficit is through trial and error, and estimating how much you are consuming and burning in a day off. If you see the scales go down after a period of time, then you are in a calorie deficit. This can be confusing, time-consuming and disheartening for those who would prefer a simplified and quantitative approach to weight loss.

Finally, this fixation on reaching a specific number of calories per day requires us to meticulously track our food on a daily basis. It can be exhausting trying to account for every bit of food and drink we eat in our day, and it can take up a lot of our time and brain space. Going out with friends or your partner for a breezy lunch can quite quickly invoke feelings of anxiety and stress about what to order and deciphering how many calories are in the food. When we become obsessive about tracking our calories, this can lead to worrying behaviours associated with the development of eating disorders, and having strict rules around food can be considered a warning sign or a symptom of such disorders.

Counting calories: it’s not all bad

After that absolute seething roast of calorie-counting, it’s now essential to discuss the positive attributes of this approach to weight-loss – because there are certainly many. As alluded to above, there has been, and continues to be, an abundance of weight-loss methods that focus on harmful and depressing food practices like avoiding food or drinking shakes in the place of food. These approaches can make us feel energy-drained and miserable on a daily basis to the point we are unpleasant monsters to be around or we crack and binge on the foods we love before our weight-loss goals have been achieved. This binge-restrict cycle fosters incredibly unhealthy relationships with food, and places “treat” foods such as chocolate and pizza on a pedestal, and the more we avoid it, the more enticing and delicious the foods become. When we include these treats as part of balanced diet (such as through a calorie-focussed approach), the foods lose their mystifying qualities and we realise that they are indeed, simply a source of fuel and not the answer to all of life’s issues. Arguably, through a calorie-deficit approach, people actually create better relationships with food and their bodies because we aren’t dangerously restricting certain types of foods that previously were considered no-go zones.

Moreover, most of the instagram accounts and fitness plans I have seen who promote the calorie-deficit approach always acknowledge the importance of consuming a wide variety of foods, especially vegetables and fruit. Rather than advocating for an open-slather diet where you can eat whatever the heck you want (think 700 mars bar pods), these accounts highlight the importance of focussing on health and the nutrients contained in food, whilst simultaneously allowing for the consumption of delicious foods that generally enhance our lives and make eating far more enjoyable. They are often equipped with essential knowledge about macronutrient targets, ensuring that any calorie-deficit is conducted on the basis that the client is consuming adequate amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrates. Furthermore, this approach can be a sensible way to lose small amounts of weight over a long period, promoting healthier and more sustainable weight-loss patterns. For example, if you have estimated how many calories you burn over the course of the week, it will only be necessary to reduce your calories by 300 – 500 calories per day to see results over the course of a few weeks. If you are coming from a place of mindless eating and over-indulgence, it’s probably likely that you can reduce your calories by this amount without feeling overly hungry or depleted with energy. In fact, the more you are attuned to your hunger signals and actually pay attention to the flavours, textures and aromas of your food, the more chance you have of developing a better relationship with food and the eating experience.

Conclusion

As with most polarising topics of discussion, arguably it’s best to to fall somewhere in the middle of both viewpoints. The calorie-deficit approach can be particularly useful for those who are not susceptible to obsessive and perfectionistic behaviours. Used in conjunction with mindfulness, it can be an excellent tool for allowing us to enjoy our foods whilst simultaneously achieving our weightless goals. On the other hand, the approach can provide the impetus for unreasonably obsessive behaviours around food, as any deviation from strict calorie-goals can invoke anxiety and a sense of failure in the individual. It’s important to approach any “diet” or weight-loss method in a sensible and reasonable manner, and if you begin to notice yourself thinking far too much about food and you aren’t a chef then perhaps this approach shouldn’t be adopted for the present time. Alternatively, it might be wise to invest in a nutrition coach who can provide you weekly guidance and provide meal plans for you, so you aren’t focussing too much on the energy content of food. Finally, most reasonable calorie-deficit approaches recommend only counting calories for a certain period of time (for example, when you reach your goals). Once you have calculated energy in foods for a while, it will become a lot easier to estimate how many calories are in foods, or what is an appropriate amount of food to eat for a meal, and you shouldn’t be counting calories for the rest of your life. As with anything, awareness of your thoughts, emotions and sensations about the tracking process as well as when you are eating food is incredibly important. At the end of the day, food is there to be enjoyed – so eat slowly and amongst friends and family, and eat the foods that bring you joy because life is there to be lived.

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