For a long time, calorie counting seemed to be the gold standard for determining the nutritional value of a food. You’ve probably heard that our diet can be summed up in one simple equation: calories in equals calories out. This equation has been reinforced time and time again, especially in grocery stores and fast food chains. You often see our favorite snack food available in lower calorie varieties, with exciting claims such as “now with 20% fewer calories!” printed on the front of the package. Also, it’s probably not difficult to cite calorie counts of our favorite fast food menu items. Since calorie labeling isn’t going away anytime soon, I’d like to make sure you’re armed with some sound “calorie” education, that can hopefully help you feel more confident when making food choices. Here are 7 things you need to know:
1. The nutritional quality of a food has nothing to do with the amount of calories in it.
Somewhere along the line, we learned that if a food is lower in calories, it must be “better” for us. But as humans, we need calories for energy. Calories are your main fuel source. They not only help fuel your muscles for physical activities, but also your brain for intellectual and creative activities. Without calories, you cannot operate at your full potential.
2. Nutrition facts labels don’t always contain hard facts.
The law allows for a pretty significant (up to a 20%) margin of error on nutrition labels. Meaning, calorie counts are not always as accurate as we might think; another reason we should not put too much weight on the caloric content of a food.
3. The amount of calories our body needs is ever changing.
As a dietitian, I’ve learned about many formulas and expensive testings that determine how many calories a person needs to eat in a day. I’ll let you in on a secret: these formulas are not 100% accurate. In fact, the amount of calories you need changes almost daily, depending on your activity level, your sleep patterns, stress levels, and hormonal changes.
4. Calorie counting may lead to poor overall nutrient intake.
When we try to limit our calorie intake, our mind starts to interpret that less calories are best, similar to our mentality when we are sticking to a budget (less expensive is more desirable). However, your body does not work like your bank account. Your body needs calories because calories contain nutrients (like protein, fat, and carbohydrates) that your body needs to thrive. Often, when you start trying to limit your calorie intake, you don’t ingest enough nutrients, potentially leading to nutrient deficiencies overtime.
5. Low calorie consumption can lead to overeating or bingeing.
Long-term calorie deficiencies can lead to nutritional imbalances, overeating, and bingeing. Again, your body needs calories for energy, and when you don’t get what you need, you’re most certainly going to experience feelings of primal hunger: the body’s signal that it needs fuel, and it’s not going to stop eating until it gets enough. This can happen over a short period of time, for example, having a small breakfast and lunch can lead to overeating at dinner and dessert, or over a long period of time, like dieting for weeks or months and then overdoing it the second a high-calorie food hits your lips. This is not your lack of willpower or self control, this is your body’s natural way of telling you that you need more food.
6. Instead of counting calories, use calorie counts as a way to become more in touch with your internal cues.
No matter how many equations you calculate, the best way to ensure that your body is getting the fuel it needs is to tap into your internal hunger and fullness cues. Using your feelings of hunger and fullness as a guide for how much to eat is your body’s natural process for controlling the amount of food you need. So, loosen the reigns and let your body do it’s job! Use calorie counts as a source of extra information. You might notice that you feel really hungry an hour after you eat breakfast, this might signal that you actually need to eat more calories in the morning. On the flip side, you might notice that a particular meal makes you feel uncomfortably full, this might mean you can actually be satisfied eating a little bit less.
6. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.
Don’t get wrapped up with calorie counting. All that math takes a serious toll on your mental health and emotional wellbeing. Like we said, calorie labeling isn’t going away anytime soon, so work to use the information to help you get more in touch with your internal cues, rather than trying to manage your calorie intake through obsessive counting.
Is this information helpful when it comes to calorie counts? Let us know what you think in the comments below!