The calorie counting problem


Calories have been the focus of our obsession with weight and, by proxy, health, leaving us all feeling like big fat failures for not being able to lose weight.  The message from our doctors and the society at large is that weight is a simple mathematical equation (calories in – calories out = the size of our rear). Based on that, anyone with a large rear is just not very good at math. This message does a great disservice because a) it replaces the markers of health — a body that feels good and is full of energy — with a superficial marker of having a thin frame and b) it oversimplifies the notion so much that it actually causes people to retain more weight.

In the US right now, well over half (68%) of people are overweight. If you don’t think that at least some of those people have tracked their calories and increased their exercise, you would be fooling yourself.  The problem is that the well-crafted message of calories in versus calories out doesn’t touch on the importance of nutrients or the type of calories you are putting in. This means that the message is ripe for exploitation. Take the low-cal, no-fat foods that were so in vogue in the nineties. “Foods” like Snackwell cookies, Slimfast shakes, and even low-fat yogurt managed to stay really low in calories but were all extremely high in sugar and simple carbohydrates and almost completely devoid of nutrients.

Calories from low-cal but high sugar or carbohydrate foods cause our body to retain more fat. Sugar (from sugary treats or simple carbohydrates) spikes our blood sugar causing insulin to be produced which store that energy in our fat cells. Sugar also harms our liver and causes inflammation throughout the body. On the other hand, a fatty, delicious avocado is pretty high in calories but it reduces inflammation, delivers lots of great nutrients, and lowers our blood fat levels.

While many of us have been on calorie restrictive diets and have found that we did, in fact, drop weight, that weight loss wasn’t sustainable and the process was pretty unpleasant. Hoping to lose weight, people will often choose a chemical-ladened diet soda  and a salad topped with sugar-ladened dressing. Just a few hours later, they discover they are starving and find themselves unable to stick to the 1200 calories the calorie app allotted them. Personally, after years of trying this approach, I found that the only change was that both my metabolism and self-esteem were in the toilet. Our focus should be on how we feel and our energy level. We don’t get healthy on a calorie-restrictive diet. In fact, the evidence is showing that we actually get fatter and more prone to disease on such a diet.  We get healthy when we start to focus on eating foods that nourish our bodies and our brains and tending to those non-food-related activities that keep us healthy.

For further information, I recommend Dr. David Ludwig’s new book Always Hungry.

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