Our obsession with calories and calorie counting today can be blamed on Wilbur Atwater, the scientist that discovered what calories were. In the early 1900’s he found that all foods contained a certain amount of energy (now known as calories) and that same energy is used up when we partake in physical activity. While Atwater had a great scientific finding that has allowed us to understand how weight gain and loss works, the subsequent result of obsessive calorie counting isn’t always the best nor healthiest habit.
Should I be counting calories?
My short answer: no.
My long answer: maybe sometimes. Here’s why:
Calorie counting is tedious, time consuming, and unrealistic over the long term and therefore is not sustainable. It also takes the enjoyment of eating. If every plate becomes a math equation and entry into a food long, you are neither going to have a pleasant time eating nor a healthy relationship with food. On the other hand, I think one of the most important ways for people to sustain a healthy diet is to understand what is in the food they are eating. It can be a great tool to be able to look at a plate and eyeball about how many ounces of chicken you are having or about how many calories are in the side of stir-fried vegetables. It is also a good tool to be able to know about how big your portion sizes should be or how many snacks you should have to keep your daily calorie intake around 2,000. So, one of the best ways you can gain that knowledge and ability to guess-timate you calorie intake is to count calories- but just for a week or two.
If you are new to the calorie counting game, I would recommend keeping track of everything you eat each day (for a about a week) and adding up the calories at the end of the day (or you can use a fancy calorie tracker on your phone – My favorite app is MyFitnessPal). This will give you an idea of about how many calories you are eating on any particular day. If you are around 2,000 calories, great! Now you may want to focus on the types of foods you are eating (but I’ll leave that topic for another post). If you aren’t around 2,000 calories, you should revisit your log from the past week. Figure out if there are certain foods that are putting you over your calorie allowance, or maybe your portion sizes are unrealistic. This is where calorie counting is helpful; it allows you to figure out where “the bumps in the road” are. Once you have identified those “bumps”, try to make some changes, keep a food long for another week and see if you get closer to your calorie goal. Once you get a good feel of what “normal” portion sizes are and about how much you should eat per day, then I don’t recommend keeping track. Counting calories for too long can make you become obsessive over every little thing you put in your mouth. The goal is for you to be able to understand what fits into your daily “calorie budget” naturally in your daily life, not to be able to precisely know statistics about your food.
Not to burst your bubble, but…
The calories listed on food packages might not actually be true. Many recent studies (like this one) show that the actual number of calories in a food item is about 8% higher than what is stated on the package. Better yet, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) allows this as long as the actual values are not more than 20% greater than what is listed on the label. That means that a product label could list 250 calories but it could actually have 299 calories, and the FDA would say the label was acceptable! Same goes for all the other nutrients like fat, carbohydrates, and protein. This is all the more reason why counting calories is not the best idea!