When it comes to weight control, calorie counting approach is a commonly used strategy. Even though calories are important, counting them or being consciously aware of them can negatively affect mental health, lead to disordered eating (dieting) and cause weight gain (binging/uncontrolled eating).
While the strategy makes perfect sense as all calories have the same amount of energy (one dietary calorie is equal to approximately 4,2 Joules), calorie counting does not take into account several factors such as our unique biochemistry, different metabolism that regulates energy balance, the type of bacteria living in our gut, levels of hormone, physical activity demands and more importantly calorie quality (the type of food we eat).
Even more important is the fact that we do not only eat just to satisfy hunger and restore our energy but we often eat in celebration, in response to emotions (mood, stress, guilt, boredom, sadness and loneliness), or out of habit. This supports the idea that what and how much we eat is greatly influenced by behavioural, psychological, and social factors.
All calories are not created equal
Counting calories alone to control weight does not work but where your calories come from ultimately matters. Consider food quality, not just calories. Energy dense and nutrient dense food are important terms to understand when making food choices.
What does nutrient – dense and calorie – dense mean?
Research suggests the standard Western diet is energy – rich and nutrient – poor. And when we talk about food energy, we mean calories. Calorie – dense foods often refer to foods that provide a lot of calories without much nutritional value. Many of the foods with empty calories are often packaged foods that have been ultra – processed, high in added sugar, sodium and fat and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Nutrient – dense foods are rich in nutrients, fibre, essential vitamins and minerals important for health, low in saturated fat, added sugar and sodium. They are often low in calories, yet incredibly filling.
When you are aiming for weight loss, one strategy is to eat low – energy – nutrient – dense foods. Nutrient – dense foods include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and seafood, unprocessed lean meat and poultry, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
The concept of energy density can really help with weight control without calorie counting. Choosing foods that are less energy dense – meaning you get a larger portion size with a fewer number of calories – can help you lose or maintain healthy weight and control your hunger.
Think of it this way: Fruits and vegetables have high water content, which provide volume and weight but not calories. That’s why they are low calorie foods. Strawberries, leafy greens, broccoli, cucumber, zucchini, tomatoes, for instance, are about 95% water and are very low in calories. Vegetables, fruits and whole grains are also high – fibre foods. They provide volume but also take longer to digest, making you feel full for longer on fewer calories.
Our team of experts at PAAR are here to help you make the necessary changes to your diet without calorie counting. Book a session with one of our nutritionists to learn more.
Why is calorie counting is mentally unhealthy
Weight loss became a priority – especially for women chasing the ideal body shapes presented in social media.
Calorie counting as a weight loss strategy can lead to:
→ dieting behaviour and eating disorders
→ black and white thinking, all or nothing attitude, perfectionism
→ self - esteem fluctuations
Dieting behaviour and eating disorders: skipping meals to compensate for overindulging, bingeing and purging, avoiding social events, restaurants or eating in public, cutting out or restricting some nutrient - dense food groups such as healthy fats and complex carbohydrates to lose weight.
“Black and white” thinking, all or nothing attitude → perfectionism: damage your relationship with food and those who live with you, get you easily obsessed, anxious, erode your self – esteem and keep you striving for perfection. All or nothing attitude can lead to:
→ feeling of self-loathing and guilt about going over a fixed number of calories and breaking promises
→ feeling you must count calories every time you need to eat something
→ feeling of guilt and shame for overeating and the urge to “compensate” by skipping your next meal or fasting for a longer period of time after overeating, exercising hard to “make up for it”, detoxing (juice cleansing)
→ feeling proud of yourself for not breaking strict dietary rules
One of the best strategies to be a healthy weight without calorie counting is to focus on diet (calorie) quality, moderate exercise such as walking, cycling or dancing, sleep hygiene (when you do not get adequate sleep, the body makes more of hunger hormone ghrelin and less of fullness hormone leptin, leaving you hungry and increasing your appetite), stress management (chronic stress, or poorly managed stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels that increase your appetite, cravings for "comfort"foods high in fat, sugar, or both, all of which can contribute to excess weight).