It’s time to address the elephant in the room. I know all you want to do is scroll to the bottom of this blog to answer the question, “do calories matter?” But bear with me… There’s a few things I want to clarify here first.
With so many zealots claiming “calories don’t matter as long as you eat ABC and not XYZ”, it’s no wonder we’re always so damn confused when it comes to weight loss. I shudder when I read headlines like “You don’t need to count calories, BUT here is my 28 day meal replacement challenge.” It’s so easy to get frustrated, discouraged, and fed up with the fitness industry. This blog is about changing your perspective - and removing the stigma attached to counting calories. And I promise, we’ll get to the truth very soon..
I have been through ALLLL of the diets - and I’m not shy about admitting it! Whilst they all worked, they were never long-term answers to my LIFESTYLE goals. But, I know what you’re focusing on right now, is that I just said they ALL worked. Cue the reader scratching their head! They work because they make you consume less. Often times, you will remove an entire food group, eat within a specific window of time, or replace actual food for liquids claiming something miraculous! Bottom line is, you are consuming less calories overall, resulting in weight loss. Calories in are less than calories out - simple but not easy.
The reality is calories do matter. Yes, they truly do. Let me explain why and perhaps show you a different perspective that maybe other fitness trainers haven’t shared with you.
I recently did a live experiment (watch the video here) where I ate 'fun foods' every day for 30 days, including anything from snickers and donuts to ice cream and cheeseburgers and lost 2.9kg within that time. I know what you're thinking, "you ate all of those foods and still lost weight?" Yes! I tracked my calories, ate in a deficit and like I said before, ultimately calories matter.
That being said… I’m NOT saying You NEED to Count Calories, you don’t need to do anything, but what I want you to see here is a different approach. It's to move away from seeing calories as something negative and simply seeing it as something backed by science, not the latest fad. As always I love to show both sides of the coin, and if you still feel it’s not for you, I’ll let you into a secret; you do have other options, but more on that later.
So, What is a calorie?
So what is a CALORIE (or kilojoule, as we use here in Australia!) A calorie is merely a unit of measurement, this is how we measure the energy in FOOD. We rely on the energy that we get from calories to LIVE! A calorie is a calorie as well - there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ calories, instead I prefer to see foods on a spectrum of more nutritious to less nutritious. You’ll often hear me refer to FUN FOODS, these definitely are on the less nutritious end of the scale, but by no means off bounds, it’s all about creating a flexible approach and making it fit into the budget.
To get a better understanding of what I mean in terms of budget, in order to lose weight we need to be in a “calorie deficit”, which means that your body is taking in less calories than it is expending.
Using the budget analogy, weight gain/maintenance/loss can be explained like so: If you have $50 and spent $60 daily on credit you’d be in the red over a long period of time (weight gain), if you had $50 and spent $50 daily you’d be square (maintenance) and if you had $50 and spend $40 daily you’re in the green (weight loss). What you spend with that money is entirely up to you, here is where we can be flexible with more and less nutritious foods making up the budget.
I’m sure you’re now asking, “so, how do I know how many calories I need?”
This is very individualised, but a good way to estimate how many calories you need in a day is to check out an online calorie counter tool - one that I know and have used can be found here.
Calculate your calories by inputting the requested fields of information and it should spit out a number of calories on your maintenance. However, this next step is critical! Most calculators will then suggest to give you a 500 calorie deficit because 3500 calories = 1lb, and the counters assume that you want to lose 1lb a week.
Personally, I disagree with a 500 calorie deficit approach because this can for some create an unsustainable amount, which will in turn leave you feeling deprived. What I prefer is a more sustainable method. Why do we always need to rush our weight loss, to just end up bouncing back! Instead use a range of 10-20% off your maintenance calculation. Yes it make be slower progress, but I guarantee you if you do it this way by giving yourself more flexibility with your nutrition within a smaller deficit , you will lose weight but you won’t find it.
You see, as you lose weight, you will most likely need to continue to recalculate your deficit, which is another reason why you should begin at a smaller deficit and change in small increments as you go along in your weight loss journey. If you create a huge deficit to begin with, it’s going to be very difficult for you to go even lower, and again unsustainable.
Tracking your calories as a form of education, it’s all about perspective
The way I see it? Counting calories can be a great EDUCATIONAL tool to better understand what amount of food we actually need to fuel us, vs what we THINK is good. When you are tracking calories, you are learning about all of the components that make up what you are eating and how many calories are REALLY in your food. Learning about what you are putting into your body will help you make informed decisions about what you put into your body and also how to exercise portion control and moderation. Having a more flexible approach will help you see foods as neither good, nor bad, and you will be able to fit them in to any weight loss journey.
I can already hear you thinking “Ugh, but how do I count calories? Does this last forever?”
From personal experience I tracked calories on and off throughout my entire health journey. This has given me the time to really learn and understand exactly what makes up my food in terms of calories. This most certainly has made me so in tune with what appropriate portions are for my body. Now I know that calories aren’t the only thing that matters in food, but learning the amount of calories allowed me to consider which foods were more calorie dense but not very filling and vice versa. This gave me guidance on better food choices, especially when on a weight loss journey. I don’t count my calories any more because I now know generally how many calories are in certain food groups and generally know what a full day of calories looks like for me. It’s like with anything it takes practice. When I feel like I have lost my way a little then I may just go back to counting for a little and then I stop. So to answer the question do I have to track forever? No way! I would recommend doing it until you feel educated enough and comfortable enough with knowing generally how many calories make up certain foods. It’s just like any other form of education, once you learn it, you don’t need to keep going back to it, but you can ‘touch up’ your knowledge at any point if you feel you need to. Now if I still haven’t convinced you with this whole calorie counting business there is another option..
So what’s the alternative?
Ok if you don’t like the idea of counting calories at the moment, there is another tool that you can use that may seem less intimidating. It’s a little less accurate but you can use the plate method and go by your eye using general guidelines of how you plate up your food. For example always ensure that half of your plate is filled with vegetables, use your palm as a way to measure out protein and incorporate this amount with each meal. In terms of packaged items, choose single serve items and going by serving size package instructions.
So do calories actually matter? Yes.
But is there a bigger picture? YES!
Before you think you can just make up your calories of pizza and burgers wait right there! Not all calories are created equal! Quality is another piece of the puzzle that we can’t overlook. What foods are you eating to nourish you? You will definitely feel more hungry if you eat 100 calories worth of candy versus 100 calories worth of beans or quinoa or strawberries. When you are filling up on protein, fibre and healthy fats you’ll also be a lot more satiated especially when your calories are reduced when on a weight loss journey. So quality when it comes to calories shouldn’t be overlooked and ensuring that you are making up 80% of your calories from nutritious foods with the remainder 20% from FUN foods will keep your goals on track, while still staying sane!
I have never been one to preach anything in particular hence why I am giving alternative options if you find you’re not comfortable with the idea of it. In saying that and from an evidence-based perspective, we can’t escape the fact that energy in vs energy out does matter. Whether it’s via portion sizes, reduction in calories or any other labels, the aim is always to reduce the amount of calories in to the amount of calories expended. This is just my preferred option as I believe it’s a flexible way of understanding and being mindful of how much food you need to consume without extremes like eliminating entire food groups.
I know that was a lot to take in but I hope from this, you’ve gained a new perspective on calories and why they can be useful. Calorie counting is not the be all, end all. It is simply another tool in your toolbox, to give you the knowledge to empower you to make informed decisions about what and how much you are eating day to day. So if you are on a weight loss journey this may just be the tool to get your started in the direction of a sustainable lifestyle.