Calorie Counting – Is It Worth the Effort?

“Calories absolutely count, but we absolutely should not be counting them.”

I heard the above quote in a podcast (We Do Science! The Guru Performance Podcast). I stopped to think about that for a moment and realized how calorie-focused our society has become.  At any given moment, the next “enemy of the food state” could appear, suddenly drawing everyone’s attention.  We’ve gone from fat to carbs to gluten to grains to dairy and so on.  I’m not saying any of the aforementioned foods are innocent and should be eaten in excess, but I do believe that our society has the tendency to light a fire and force a large number of people on the bandwagon to escape said fire.  Honestly, sometimes it’s a marketing ploy, but that’s a “conspiracy theory” chat for another day.  Anyways, it’s a little ridiculous sounding really, but think about it for a moment.  Someone starts talking about how terrible fat is for us; everyone jumps on the bandwagon to escape the fat “fire.”  We’re all eating fat-free foods that taste kind of odd and we don’t enjoy as much because, let’s face it, part of the fat is the flavor.  Suddenly we realize, holy moly, our foods are so full of sugar!  Oh wait, that’s what happens when we take the fat out?  Manufacturers have to replace the fat with sugar?  Aw, crap.  New health concern.

Years later, we “find out” fat is actually good for you (in moderation, of course) and a necessary part of our diet.  We’re then on to the next “new thing” for weight loss and healthy living.  Now, I’m all about researching and exploring all of the new trends and ideas for healthy living.  Heck, that’s part of the purpose of this blog.  I want to have a resource for keeping all of my thoughts and discoveries as I go through my own healthy living journey.  I do think we need to take a cold hard look at what we’re doing and how it benefits (or not) our lives.

I know I got a little off topic (I tend to do that sometimes…so errr…sorry about that, in advance.  It’ll happen a lot), but back to this focus on calorie counting.  Even though many health trends and food “fires” come and go, our society does continue to have a heavy focus on counting calories.  As I discuss often with clients, our goal in learning more about nutrition and healthy living should be to live a calorie-conscious life, not a calorie-obsessive one.  It’s an ideal I’ve always held as a professional, and it’s one of the many reasons I joined Retrofit.  So often, companies aren’t concerned with how to live sustainably, how to live a healthy life.  More, it’s about how to lose this weight right here, right now.  Like, as in I want it lost yesterday.

Living a calorie-obsessive life may get you short-term progress towards your goal.  I think you’ll find a few struggles with this, though:

1.  It’s time-intensive.  It takes a long time to measure everything, input it into the calorie tracking log of your choice, log the exact food (maybe you’re even totaling your own calories), and repeat these steps for everything you put into your mouth.  Now yes, this is the best way to have an accurate representation…log every. single. thing. that goes into your mouth.  Ugh…I’m sick of it already.

2.  Even if you are willing/able to do this intensive tracking, the question becomes…for how long?  It is hard to keep up this behavior sustainably.  Truthfully, I can probably count the number of people I know who count calories this way long-term on one hand.  Like, they are counting their calories this way until the end of time…for-e-ver.  It is not likely a sustainable behavior long-term, so why use it as your short-term fix, rather than learning to be calorie-conscious from the get-go?  Then, you avoid the learning curve later in your tracking.

My previous question was rhetorical because I know you have plenty of reasons for calorie tracking in the beginning, but let me throw out issue #3 before you go too crazy on me.

3.  We, as humans, make mistakes.  Big surprise, I know.  With calorie counting, we are wrong more often than we are right.  What it boils down to, we are not generally, or even consistently, accurate enough when we are calorie-counting, so our totals are typically incorrect.  Let’s think about why this might happen.  Most people are using a calorie-counting app.  They are typically free, somewhat easy to use, and convenient (as convenient as you can get when calorie-counting, that is).  Let’s think about one of your popular calorie-counting apps.  When you type in “chili,” how many different options do you have?  What are the calorie differences in the types?  It’s pretty staggering.  Now, I know you’re thinking…uh Jade, come on, that was an easy one to pick on.  So yes, you’re right.  It is.  Think about your other options of general foods we eat each day.  A banana, for example.  Bananas vary in calories based on size.  Your calorie differences could be up to 50 calories, depending on how you estimate and mark your banana.  Does 50 calories make or break your day?  No, of course not.  If we’re making a 50 calorie mistake at each meal or snack…then yes, it definitely adds up.  Here’s the other scary thing, even for foods with labels, it is estimated that nutrition information can vary by up to 25%, due to issues with food quality, laboratory measurement errors, incorrect labeling, etc (Precision Nutrition).

Let’s face it; it’s hard.  Buttttt, we need to step away from our calorie counting ways and aim to be more calorie conscious.  Yes, we need to pay attention to the calories in our food.  Even if they aren’t exactly correct, they keep us in the ballpark for what we’re looking at.  I know calories matter, and I’m not saying they don’t.  What I am saying though…let’s not let calories be the ruler. Don’t let all decisions begin and end with calories.  Use them as a tool, as a guide, but not as your ultimate estimate of a food’s worth.  Are 50 calories of croutons better for you than 150 calories worth of avocado on a salad?  It may be personal opinion, but I’m going to say no.  I am pretty in love with avocados, like hardcore, so I may be biased. All that aside, croutons are empty calories and offer little to nothing, in terms of nutrition.  Avocados offer omega-3 fatty acids and provides “the good fats” to help you feel more satisfied.

Don’t let calories rule your world.  Use them as a tool, but remember that you should ultimately be in control.  I’m not saying I don’t check nutrition labels and calories.  I do, quite frequently, but don’t let that be the only dictator for your decisions.  It may take time and practice to break the habit, but after all, this is a fit life in progress.  End rant.

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