How many calories do you eat? I get asked this at least once a week. Honestly, I have no idea how many calories I eat in a day. I’m certainly aware of calorie information, but I’ve never taken the time to count calories. Due to my lack of first hand experience, I was open to the idea of counting calories for those with whom I work. I figured that just because something didn’t work or interest me, didn’t mean that it couldn’t help others. However, as I’ve grown and gained experience as a dietitian, calorie counting has become something that I would not recommend.
Counting calories is extremely time consuming, especially if you do it accurately. Estimating how much you ate or are going to eat can be extremely inaccurate. To count calories with accuracy, you would have to weigh all the food that you eat with precision (no extra bites allowed). Once you know the exact amount of food, then you need the calorie information. This can be found on food labels, but many foods (especially healthy foods) don’t have food labels. This is where software like myfitness pal can be used, but remember, for it to be accurate, you can’t just add a “banana” or “potato” you would need to know the exact weight of that food as an estimate of small/medium/large isn’t accurate. How about if you eat something homemade like a cookie or lasagna? You’d have to break down every single ingredient. You could choose a close approximate on myfitness pal, but again this wouldn’t be accurate.
The calorie information that is provided for food is also not 100% accurate. People differ in their ability to absorb calories from the same food. Your unique gut microbiome will influence how you digest and consequently, absorb calories. Calorie information also doesn’t take into consideration the calories required to digest that food. For instance, your body is able to get calories better from starches, such as sweet potatoes, the more cooked that they are. Every time you have a sweet potato, it is going to be cooked to a different degree and as a result, have a differing number of calories available.
Even if you were able to count calories with accuracy, you would still need to know how many calories you require in a day. There are certainly rough calculations available. However, these are really just an estimate and are usually not accurate. For instance, the more someone calorie restricts, the more their metabolism slows down and the less calories they require. This wouldn’t be reflected in those calculations. For athletes, calorie needs are going to differ greatly from day to day and you would need to know exactly how many calories you burned during exercise. Again, this is a really hard thing to estimate. Calorie requirement equations also don’t take into consideration how your physical activity changes from day to day based on daily living. Think of a day you’re busy cleaning the house or chasing after kids versus a day at the office or a lazy Sunday afternoon. Each day is unique.
While I’m not an advocate of calorie counting, I do think that it’s wise to be calorie aware. Maybe you have a rough estimate of how many calories you need in a day such as 2500 calories. If you’re at a restaurant, and the meal you selected contains 1000 calories, then you know that it’s a lot of calories compared to what you require. On the other hand, if you have a 200 calorie energy bar for breakfast, then this isn’t very much compared to how many calories you require. Calorie information can also be compared between different products to help with food decisions.
So what do I suggest instead of counting calories? Listening to your body. If your stomach is grumbling, then it doesn’t matter how many calories your fitness pal says you ate, your body needs some fuel. We can learn from our hunger and fullness throughout the day to help lead future food decisions. If you have a meal but are hungry a couple hours later, then that meal probably didn’t have enough calories or wasn’t balanced. Look back at it, did it contain protein? carbohydrates? vegetables? Learn from these experiences to lead future food decisions.
While being aware of calorie information can be helpful, counting calories is a tedious and inaccurate process. Don’t waste your valuable time calorie counting. Use this time for something more productive such as going for a walk, cooking a healthy meal or just being present with your family.
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