counting caloriesIn my most recent On Nutrition column for The Seattle Times, “Counting calories? Don’t put too much faith in numbers,” I wrote about how it’s useful to have an idea of about how many calories are in certain foods (for example, that some entrees at “upscale casual” chain restaurants have close to 2,000 calories), but it’s not useful to get bogged down in tracking calories in and calories out. While there is a sense of security in numbers, it’s increasingly difficult to be certain of what a calorie actually means, for a few reasons:

  1. How do you know how many calories you are really eating? I think I discussed this pretty well in my column
  2. How do you know how many calories you really need? Dietitians have equations to get an estimate (and you can readily access them online). If you use a tracker app, it likely uses the same equation. But people are not equations, people are variable, so when you eat to meet a number goal, you may be widely missing the true mark of your calorie needs.
  3. How do you know how many calories you burn through exercise? The calorie estimators on gym cardio equipment give notoriously (falsely) high numbers, but even your tracker app is just guessing based on your age, gender and weight. If the good feeling you have from checking exercise off your to-do list makes you decide you “deserve” a burger and fries, you’ve just out-eaten your exercise, and then some.

If you eat fewer calories than your body needs, you probably be hungry, but you may or may not lose weight. If you eat more calories than your body needs, you may feel overfull (but maybe not) and if this is a trend, you will likely gain weight. Overeating also contributes to inflammation, because it’s a stress on the body.

Looking Inside Instead of Out

A better way to know what your body needs is to start paying attention to your body. Ask yourself:

  • When do you feel hungry?
  • How much food does it take to feel satisfied (i.e., no longer hungry?
  • How much food does it take to feel full? How much food does it take to feel overfull?
  • How do you feel when you eat a good amount of protein for breakfast (such as eggs or Greek yogurt) vs. when you eat toast, oatmeal or cereal?
  • Do you need snacks between meals (i.e., you feel actual hunger) or do you simply want a snack between meals (i.e., you’re bored, or you’re operating on autopilot)?
  • Does your food make you feel energized, or sleepy?
  • What happens when you are absolutely starving at mealtime, vs. when you are just “normal hungry”?
  • Do you eat for non-hunger reasons (stress/emotions/cravings)?
  • Do you eat just because food’s there?
  • Are most of your meals based on whole or minimally processed foods [include examples], or do you eat a lot of foods that come from boxes, bags and to-go containers?

Get a handle on the answers to these questions, and calories become almost irrelevant.