How Calories Became King
“How many calories should I eat to lose weight?” Have you ever heard the old adage -- “It’s all about quality, not quantity?”
It’s sound advice.
Think about any aspect of your life. Quality generally overrides quantity.
Time spent with family is more meaningful when it’s focused and intimate no matter how long or short. More hours on the clock at work don’t always equate to getting the job done well. And I’ve seen clients get better results in 3 hours’ worth of exercise in a week than others who spend 10+ because the quality of their exercise program matters way more than the amount of time spent at the gym.
So when did we as a population get it so backwards when it comes to food and weight loss?In the spirit of a true Jedi Master, let me answer your quantity question with a quality question:
“Which is better for your weight loss, 100 calories of spinach or 100 calories of a candy bar?”
Even a child knows spinach is better for you.
The phytonutrients, fiber, and protein in spinach has a very positive, fat-burning effect on your metabolic process, and the sugar, processed garbage, and God-knows-what-else that’s in your candy bar does the opposite.
In other words, even a child knows that quality inherently trumps quantity when it comes to food---so should you.
Your optimal lifestyle, comprehensive nutrition plan, and subsequent peak health and fitness will only come as a result of careful attention to the QUALITY of the fuel that you consume, not an anxious tally of the QUANTITY.
If this isn’t what you're doing right now, don't worry. I won’t rag on you. It’s not your fault.
We’ve all been misinformed and it’s time to snap out of it.
Why is Counting Calories a Mostly Useless Practice?
What is a Calorie?
Interestingly, calories are not a biological measure at all. It’s an energy unit measured in the field of physics.
A “food calorie” as represented on a food label in the most pure sense is 1,000 “physics calories” (kcal). It’s a unit defined as “the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius.”[i]
It’s actually a very useful measure for food journals if you care about how hot your bath tub would be if you burned all the food you ate today. Otherwise it’s largely unhelpful in the foodscape that those of us with weight loss goals live in.
Wait, what? You heard me.
Counting calories is among the lowest priority things you can do to lose weight.
For example, the number of calories you ate today doesn’t tell you how your food affected your insulin, which ultimately regulates whether you burn fat or store it. The number of calories you ate today doesn’t tell you whether you’ve conditioned your brain to crave more carbs than your body needs. The number of calories you ate today doesn’t tell you whether you gave your body the building blocks it needs to restore damaged tissues, create hormones, or detoxify itself. The number of calories you ate today doesn’t tell you whether you improved or hindered your digestive health.
I can go on, but there’s no need to.
For the majority of us who have weight loss goals, insulin sensitivity and fat regulation is paramount, cravings are real and important, nutrients are non-negotiable, and digestive health is the link between the food we eat and the muscles we exercise.
So I’m telling you that counting calories doesn’t address the top 4 things that lead to true, sustainable weight loss.
So what’s the big deal? Why does everyone count calories?
How the Calorie became King
This could be a book in and of itself.
In fact, it has already been written in full. It’s called “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes.[ii] But for the sake of making my point, I will summarize the story of the Calorie’s meteoric rise to prominence here.
I will also keep all conspiracy jargon to a minimum. Essentially, it hinges on three forces.
Common sense says that we get fat because we eat too much and don’t move enough. In fact this “common sense” is echoed by many physicians to their patients (who, by the way, only needed to take and pass one nutrition class to get their MD). When things are simple, people tend to remember them.
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. By looking at the astronomical obesity rates in impoverished populations it’s easy to see that this premise doesn’t hold. How do people who eat less than 1,000 calories/day end up obese?
Not to mention the unbelievable number of people who seek help for weight loss because they’ve “tried everything” including “counting every calorie” with the Myfitnesspal logs to prove it.[iii]
Our solution is even more simple but accounts for these Calorie counting anomalies.
Everyone knows someone who’s lost weight through Weight Watchers, right? Weight Watchers is essentially Calorie counting celebricized and simplified further into a point system.
If Calorie counting doesn’t work for weight loss, why are there success stories?
Well, Calorie counting generally does work for weight loss goals…ONCE. After you starve your body, it gets smart and lowers your metabolic rate to meet your consumption--shutting down optimal systems along the way. Just like those Biggest Loser contestants.[iv] All but one of them gained ALL of their weight back, by the way.
Just so we don’t confuse important definitions, we’re going to define weight loss “success” as weight that is lost and stays lost, energy levels that are higher than before the weight was lost, and a lowered anxiety about food than before the start of the journey.[v]
“Success” found in counting Calories just doesn’t deliver these things and these things are what's worth spending your time achieving.
Food is a business. Just like any other commodity. Only unlike a car, a television, or a cell phone, it is a commodity that’s necessary for survival. Which means that as a business, the business of food is among the most important, and the money shows it.
In an article titled “The World’s Biggest Industry”, Forbes estimates the value of the world’s food industry value to be higher than $5,000,000,000,000 in 2007.[vi] It’s difficult to estimate because so many numbers have to be added up, but to give you a point of comparison, the US automotive industry was estimated at 49 billion in 2007.[vii] Less than 1% of the total value of the food industry.
That’s a ridiculous amount of money.
Do you know how a business grows? Turning a profit. How does it turn a profit? By encouraging people to buy more of its product.
And therein lies the most important truth about the food you buy and the information you are confused by to encourage you to buy it.
The food industry is not concerned with your optimal health or sustainable weight loss. They want you to buy their product. They spend millions every year figuring out how to make it more appealing in taste, texture, packaging, and less expensive to produce and store.
That is, they don’t generally spend money making food that sustains energy, curbs cravings, repairs muscle tissue, and encourages optimal hormone production.
Yeah, that’s not the agenda.
Quantity of calories is cheap to produce and easy to get people to buy. Quality calories don’t turn much of a profit and they certainly don’t encourage people to buy more than they really need.
I mean, how many commercials do you see touting the healing power of an avocado? But, dang, that Trix rabbit gets a lot of air time, huh?
So understand that much of the “health” information out there about food is truly just loud noise that really doesn’t mean much except as a marketing tool to buy a product. And what’s even worse on the money front is that QUALITY food costs more money.
Until an organic bell pepper costs less than a bag of Doritos, eating in a sustainably healthy way is going to be a difficult economic proposition.
The nice thing is, because we live in a capitalist society, we cast a vote every time we buy something. Our dollars are a vote to keep the product around. Each healthy grocery store trip is a step in the right direction to teach the food industry what WE are willing to eat.
Don't Lose Hope
So how do we eat better? If Calories are over-anxious and over-simplified, don’t produce true weight loss success, and are inaccurately represented due to big money interest -- how do we eat better?
There are alot of things you can do to be more healthy that are simple, effective, and make much more sense.
Calories don't have to be the king in your life.
Will you rule your health today?
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This information is meant to be actionable information to promote health and well-being and not to be used to diagnose or treat medical symptoms or conditions.