Why Health Coaches Don’t Count Calories?
Pitfalls of counting calories and alternative approach to keep in shape
What does the word “low calorie” remind you of? Healthy? Losing weight? If so, you are not alone.
Nowadays the word “low-calorie” appears often on the menu of a salad bar, of a bread shop, or in the meal plan of a fitness gym… But is counting calorie really THE way to health and losing weight? As a health coach, I do not believe they are completely correlated.
WHY NOT COUNTING CALORIES?
Human body is a complicated, living and changing organism, in which multiple systems co-exist in equilibrium (I had tears in my eyes when first typed these sentences). If we use the linear thinking of “calorie in, calorie out” to approach the body, we would miss out many things.
1. Miss Out Nutrition
Let’s go back to history and think why do people eat at the first place? The main reasons are two folds: to gain energy, and to gain nutrition. If we only evaluate food based on their calories, we may miss out natural foods that seem to have high calorie but are rich in nutrition.
For example, the energy of 100 grams of buckwheat is 343 calories 1, which is significantly higher than that of cooked brown rice (111 calories/100 grams) 2. If we use “low calorie” as the criterion to select food, we probably will choose brown rice and see buckwheat as the landmine.
However, natural foods from Mother Nature have their unique nutritional value, and no food can replace another completely. Buckwheat has low glycemic index (keeping blood sugar stable after meals), is rich in fiber (promoting bowel movement and lowering the risk of colon cancer), and regulates blood lipid profile (beneficial for cardiovascular health) 3.
We need to have a variety of foods. If we stay away from certain natural foods in the long run, it may cause nutritional imbalance.
2. Ignore Other Systems
The body is composed of multiple complex systems and energy consumption is only one facet of the numerous physiological activities. If we focus too much on energy consumption, we may ignore the wellbeing of other systems.
If we want to have healthy immune system, well-functioning digestion and good mood, it is vital to have healthy gut. But when someone only focuses on working out and eating low-calorie foods, she does not take gut health into consideration.
3. Mess Up the Relationship with the Body
The body is our friend. It is working silently for our best interest years after years, without pausing for one second. We need to feed it properly. All the physical symptoms are to remind us: something is out of balance. At this moment, we need to look into the root of the cause, rather than getting rid of the symptoms. When the body is well and balanced, having the weight back to normal is just a natural next step. If we focus on losing weight, the implication is we don’t quite like our body as it is and try to control it. By doing so, we miss the precious signals sent by this loyal friend.
WHY IS COUNTING CALORIE SO POPULAR?
Let’s take a look at the history of calorie and calorie counting.
Origin of Calorie
Studies show that, between 1819 and 1824, the French physicist, chemist Nicholas Clément first introduced the concept of calorie in a speech to his students in Paris. In 1880s, the concept of calorie started to spread among the public in the U.S. Following that, the American Professor Atwater gave calorie numbers to more than 500 foods, so as to create “a scientific and healthy way of maintaining one’s weight”.
In 1918, American physician, author and philanthropist Lulu Hunt Peters invented the approach of counting calories. She believed it was “an effective means of enacting healthy weight loss”. In her book Diet and Health, which targeted at middle-aged American women, Lulu mentioned she herself used this approach to have successfully brought the weight from 200 pounds down by 50 to 70 pounds. Her book was so popular that it was listed among the Top 10 Best Sellers of nonfiction books between 1922 and 1926.
From 1970s, American body-building athletes started to apply the approach of counting calories to gain weight, lose weight or shape their bodies in the way they wanted. In 1980s, two athletes, Rich Gaspari and Lee Labrada, successfully built amazing body shapes by applying very strict calorie counting (to the degree of a cup of tea). Ever since then, body building athletes use the approach of calorie counting to manipulate their weight and shape 4.
With the knowledge of this part of the history, it is safe to say that if someone is going to attend body-building competition or (really) needs to lose weight, counting calorie could be an effective approach in the short term. However, in the long run and from the integrated nutrition perspective, it is not advisable to count calories.
HOW TO EVALUATE FOOD IF WE DO NOT COUNT CALORIES?
From the nutrition perspective, we look at food from another angle: nutrient density. Instead of counting calories, we choose nutrient-dense food.
What is nutrient-dense food? “Food that is high in nutrients but relatively low in calories.”5 Such food includes vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, natural plant-based fats, superfoods, etc. and their various combinations.
IF NOT COUNTING CALORIE, HOW TO KEEP IN SHAPE?
1. Eat Whole Foods
Whole foods refer to natural, unprocessed (or with basic processing) foods, such as vegetables and fruits. Try to have 80% of your diet composed of such food and have at least 4 servings of vegetables and fruits every day. Have home-cooked food as much as possible. And, have a nice breakfast.
2. Listen to the Body
We need to keep in mind that counting calories is something that only emerged in the past 200 years. How did people know in the millenniums before whether they were full or not? Through important organs: the stomach and the gut. In other words, they listened to their gut feeling.
A few weeks ago, I interpreted a mindfulness workshop, which included a mindful eating exercise. During the exercise, each participant took a small piece of longan. They first smell the fruit, then peeled the skin, put it in the mouth without chewing. After a while, they took the first bite, chewed the fruit and eventually swallowed it down. The whole process was disassembled into several steps and lasted a few minutes.
Some participant reported the feeling of contentment after having this tiny piece of fruit, with the feeling of “it was enough”. When we focus on our food without distraction, we tend to be more sensitive to the feedbacks of the body.
Listening to the body after a meal also tells us a lot about the food we just had. You may have had such experiences: sometimes after eating, you feel energized and the whole body feels nourished. While at other times, you may have a lunch coma after eating or feel thirsty. These are all signals from the body trying to tell us something.
3. Adjust the Systems
As mentioned, there are numerous systems co-existing within the body. If something is wrong with the systems, for example, metabolism slows down or resistant fat accumulates in the body due to chronic inflammation, we may find it very hard to lose weight, despite of all the efforts we put in.
If you tried to control your diet and did a fair amount of exercise but still cannot go back to your normal weight, you need to adjust the whole body’s systems and alleviate chronic inflammation through food, exercise and lifestyle adjustments. When the chronic inflammation is reduced, the body can slowly recover its normal shape. As a pleasant surprise, you may find that some other symptoms are also gone.
1 Buckwheat Nutrition Facts & Calories
2 Rice, brown, long-grain, cooked Nutrition Facts & Calories
3 Buckwheat 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits
4 The History of Calorie Counting, Conor Heffernan