My post several weeks ago about calories on restaurant menus got me thinking about calorie counting in general. I know there are folks who swear by it, and I’m not attempting to dissuade them. I’m all for people finding what works for them. But I wanted to talk more about the subject for those who aren’t so sure, or know definitely that counting calories doesn’t work for them.
The Theory Behind Calorie Counting
It’s the familiar ‘calories in vs. calories out’ equation. Two mathematical challenges with it.
We have to know how many calories we burn.
Easier said than done. The formulas that most folks use to ‘know’ this are just estimates. They don’t take into account individual bodies, e.g, levels of fat vs. muscle, different amounts of hormones, and, of course, now that it’s back in the news, how much brown fat we have. Who knows what else may be relevant.
We have to know how many calories we eat.
Three points here: 1) We frequently misremember how much we eat, 2) calorie charts are estimates, and 3) recipes, whose calorie counts depend on estimates of calories of the ingredients, are rarely made the same way twice (food manufacturers may do a better job but even that’s been known to go awry).
Try The Calorie Counting Experiment
All the mathematical stuff really isn’t my point, though. The real challenge is that we’re trying to impose control on a basic human drive, one that really isn’t set up for being controlled. Try this experiment, courtesy of Kathy Kater at BodyImageHealth.org. Close your lips around narrow drinking straw, pinch your nose closed, then breathe entirely through the straw. Go about your usual activities.
What gets the most of your attention, trying to breathe or what else you’re doing? Try running or walking fast. How does that feel? When you feel like you can’t take it anymore, what are your first breaths without the straw like? Big gulps of air? Anyone recognize how similar this is to eating when we go off a calorie-controlled diet?
I don’t know about you, but I enjoy breathing…And eating.
So how can I enjoy eating like I breathe, that is, naturally take in the right amount of food to run my body well? With intuitive eating (also called mindful eating). Tuning in and trusting our bodies to guide us. That advice brings out the skeptics, with these kinds of questions.
4 Typical Questions About Alternatives To Calorie Counting
Q: You’re a dietitian with extensive knowledge about food content/calories/nutrition. Doesn’t that, even at a subconscious level, play into the foods you choose during the day?
A: I’ll bet most dieters know more than I do about the calories in foods. I choose foods with nutrition in mind most of the time (and always good taste), but calories don’t really play into my decisions.
Q: Is the typical consumer as aware of what they’re putting in their mouths as you think? Doesn’t advertising/marketing and a dash of delusion temper good judgment?
A: It very well may, but does knowing the calories in something really make a difference in that regard? Or does it just make most of us feel guilty when we decide to have something that’s got a lot of them?
Q: Weight-struggling folks may have absolutely no skill set around intuitive eating and therefore struggle with tuning in to what their body is saying. How can you move from depending on external cues (portion control/calorie control) to listening to your body?
A: We encourage using the Plate Model for Healthy Eating. That does imply initial portion control, but we think of it as a place to start that builds in a stopping point where we can assess whether we’re satisfied. The Hunger Scale helps us do that assessment.
Q: How do you separate ‘human drive’ from other types of hunger, e.g., emotional eating/compulsive eating/bingeing? Especially if we see all types of hunger as out of our control?
A: Intuitive eating can help us get rid of emotional eating that arises from feelings of failure about our ability to successfully diet/count calories. But it takes more than intuitive eating to overcome emotional eating that isn’t about what or how we eat. It’s a good support tool, though, as we work through emotional eating struggles.
Nutrition Information May Be Helpful If Used Sensibly
I agree nutrition information, maybe including calorie estimates, may be helpful if we use it sensibly. The real problem is that so many of us are caught up in the diet mentality that we only use calorie information in one way, and it’s a way that generally doesn’t help us if we’re struggling with achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
Do you have questions about intuitive eating/mindful eating? If you’ve tried it, share with us your experience — was it a challenge, did it feel natural to you, are you convinced it’s the way to go…or not?