Note: I originally wrote this piece for mindbodygreen (click here to see article).
When clients see me for weight loss, one of the most common questions they ask is "how many calories should I be eating each day?" My response is always the same: "You're not going to count calories." I'm often met with a confused expression, which subsequently leads to the "why?" conversation. Well, for those of you who are curious why a dietitian - whose job is often to help people reach their goal weights - doesn't count calories, read on!
Let's begin by defining a calorie. A calorie is the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. Sounds complicated, right? What you should take away is that we use this measurement to determine the amount of energy that a given food provides.
Let me give you some context here. One serving of Twizzlers (4 pieces) is 160 calories. One serving of almonds (~23 almonds) is 163 calories. It's fair to say they are comparable in calories, meaning they provide the same amount of energy. So, if a serving of Twizzlers has the same amount of calories as a serving of almonds, why don't we all have diets filled with Twizzlers, gummy bears, and sour patch kids!?
The answer: NOT ALL CALORIES ARE CREATED EQUAL! Calorie discrimination? Totally... and I'm cool with it.
Technically we all could choose the candy and even lose weight doing so, after all, a calorie is a calorie, right? But 160 calories from Twizzlers is very different than 160 calories from almonds. Let's take a closer look at where these calories come from. A serving of almonds contains 6 grams of protein, about 1 gram of sugar, lot's of healthy fats, and 3.5 grams of fiber. Not to mention it's high in vitamin E and magnesium. A serving of Twizzlers contains only 1 gram of protein, 19 grams of sugar (yikes), and 0 grams of fiber. Oh, and can't forget those lovely food dyes and artificial ingredients. So, yes, while they both provide the same amount of calories, which do you think is the better choice?
I tell my clients to evaluate their meals by asking "what can this food do for my body?" After all, we only get one body and each meal is an opportunity for us to nourish it. There's no insurance policy on irreparable damage done to our insides (well, that's not entirely true these days, but who wants to deal with that!?). While the gummy candies may look, smell, and taste appealing, they don't provide the nutrition that our bodies need to properly function.
So what does all of this have to do with counting calories? Sometimes healthy foods, like nuts and seeds for instance, are high in calories and may deter a "dieter" from eating them, despite their incredible nutrient profiles. Here's the thing: it's OKAY to eat high calorie foods, even if you're watching your weight! One of the keys to successful and sustainable weight loss is eating the right combinations of nutrients that keep you satiated for a period of time. If you snack on a serving of Twizzlers versus almonds, I can guarantee that you'll be hungry again shortly after. This means you'll end up eating 160 calories of candy PLUS calories from another snack. If you snack on the almonds, the combination of protein, fiber, and fat will keep you fuller for longer while providing great nutrition. See what I mean?
Lastly, constantly counting calories can lead to unhealthy and obsessive habits. Despite the fact that math isn't my strong suit, meticulously counting and adding and subtracting at each meal sounds like a pain! When you attach a number to every morsel of food you put into your body, how can you possibly enjoy it!?
Rather than calorie counting, I support eating a diet filled with as many whole, real, and natural foods possible. We all have our diet downfalls or food weaknesses (hellloooo chocolate), and that's okay because we're human! As long as you maintain a diet that's highest in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats, your waistline will inherently reap the results.