A dietitian’s take on calorie counting
“How many calories should I be eating?” It’s a popular question, especially in the world of weight loss. For Meredith Fuson-Hill, RDN, the answer is far from straightforward. She explained that it isn’t about picking a number or calorie counting, but in focusing on the quality of what you’re eating, not just the quantity.
“Calorie counting is an outdated and inaccurate way of going about weight management,” said Fuson-Hill. “It simply doesn’t focus on what’s most important – making sure that what you’re eating has high nutritional value, not just the ‘right’ number of calories.”
Sometimes the ‘right’ number of calories is still wrong
Products like rice cakes or a handful of pretzels might seem like a great weight-loss snack, but they won’t keep you full. Both are starch, which breaks down into sugar within the body, leaving you hungry shortly afterward and with nothing much to show for it nutritionally.
Ideas to add better nutritional content into that mid-morning or late-afternoon snack might involve dipping those pretzels in hummus for added protein and fullness or topping rice cakes with guacamole or a chopped hard-boiled egg. A favorite snack for many is dipping bell peppers into guacamole.
Not all calories are created equal
“The exact amount of food ideal for maintaining a healthy weight will be different for everyone,” Fuson-Hill said. “But we all need to eat the right kind of foods, not just a specific amount of them.”
Technically, you could consume all your daily calories from candy, chips, pasta and sweet tea. While it would influence your health, it wouldn’t be a positive influence. Processed junk food, excessive starch and added sugars can lead to further weight gain over time without providing much, if any, nourishment. Even if you eat at a deficit, the type of food you would be eating would have a different hormonal effect on your body than healthier options.
This hormonal effect is called the insulin response, when the body increases production of insulin to lessen blood sugar after a big spike. Carbohydrate-based and processed foods cause greater blood sugar increases than whole foods or proteins. Having a high amount of insulin circulating through your system long-term sets the stage for fat storage and raises your risk of developing diabetes.
“The exact same number of calories coming from foods like poultry, seafood, eggs, vegetables and healthy fats instead gives your body the fuel it needs without those dangerous spikes and crashes in your blood sugar,” said Fuson-Hill. “It’s much easier to maintain a healthy insulin level to support your weight loss efforts that way.”
It isn’t just about “calories in, calories out”
Healthy, sustainable weight loss simply cannot be reduced to a math equation. The healthiest foods available to us are widely varied and complex, and our diets should reflect that variety.
“Quite a few of the most nutritious foods out there don’t come with a readily prepared nutrition label and a specific number of calories listed,” said Fuson-Hill. “It can feel overwhelming to try and measure out the exact calorie intake for every ingredient in your favorite lasagna recipe or exactly how many servings are in that cedar plank salmon you ordered at the restaurant. The thought of keeping this up long-term can feel daunting and even sabotage your weight loss efforts.”
Counting calories as the sole method of working toward losing weight isn’t sustainable for the average person. What does work, according to Fuson-Hill, is thinking of the food you eat in terms of nourishment.
Variety and color are the key to a healthy diet
“I encourage focusing on eating a variety of foods known to have a minimal impact on your blood sugar, like protein and vegetables,” said Fuson-Hill. “Stick to a consistent eating pattern and appropriate overall portion sizes. I also encourage mindful eating, where you really consider and enjoy every bite.”
For those who still feel like they should be counting in some way as they work toward a healthy lifestyle, the following ideas might be helpful and healthier than calorie counting:
- Count your daily steps, increasing your daily goals little by little to reach an average of 10,000 per day
- Keep track of the grams of protein you consume
- Note how many ounces of water you drink per day
- Count how many hours of sleep you are getting per night
These numbers matter much more than a calorie count.
“My hope is that approaching things this way will help those seeking to lose weight or build and maintain a healthier lifestyle at least some degree of freedom from the restriction of calorie counting,” said Fuson-Hill.
Discuss with your healthcare team the best and healthiest approach for you.
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