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The Dangers of Calorie Counting (March 2024)

Why Nutrition Matters Most

If you've ever sought weight loss, you are no stranger to the concept of calories. By definition, a calorie is a unit of energy that constitutes our food. It's measured by the temperature required to burn it. The higher the temperature, the more calories a food contains. Based on this information, calories in must equal calories out, right? Wrong.

The body is far more complex than a steady-state machine requiring only fuel for energy. The food we eat is made up of different components that work synergistically and require many functions to be appropriately digested and absorbed. A calorie is a calorie if we separate it from the vitamins, minerals, enzymes, electrolytes, water, etc., but that is impossible. Thus, the food we eat provides much more than just a unit of energy.

Food provides nutrients that are important for numerous processes. Nutrients rebuild lost cells that naturally die, facilitate immunity in our guts, balance the pH in our stomach and blood, regenerate healthy DNA that lowers the risk of many diseases and cancers, and much more!

Calories do matter in the long run, but should not be counted excessively. Nutrition matters most! Hormones determine the use and storage of calories, which means they should be well balanced. Well-balanced hormones are the result of eating a highly nutritious diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables, quality proteins and healthy fats and fiber. Prioritizing nutrients over calories provides lots of energy without the risk for storing calories as body fat.

Being in a caloric deficit is usually intentional for a goal of weight loss, but I often see low caloric intake from those who may not know they are in a deficit.

Causes of Caloric Deficits

  • Busy schedules: You may run from class to class and forget to take a break to eat. By the end of the day, you’re famished. You may eat dinner and feel ok, fall asleep and not realize you just chronically under-ate for the energy you spent during the day.
  • Seeking weight loss: Commonly pursued by those starting out or returning to weight loss.
  • Stress: Stress burns through calories like a blazing fire. If you don’t refuel for your busy days, you’ll under-eat even if you eat what you normally do on non-busy days. Think of stress like a workout - you need a little extra to get you through.
  • Anxiety: Similar to stress, anxiety can burn through fuel quickly. Twitching, pacing, worrying, etc. can indeed burn extra calories.
  • Illness: Metabolic rates increase during sickness, demanding extra calories for fighting infections and replenishing the body.
  • Following inappropriate caloric counts: While online calorie calculators can educate about base needs, they often underreport or overreport calorie levels, resulting in overeating or undereating.
  • Overexercising: This one is obvious and goes without saying, but we’re burning more energy by our workouts and should be consuming more nutrients for replenishment.

Dangers of Prolonged Caloric Deficits

  • Mood imbalances - irritability, crankiness, short temper, etc.
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Muscle loss (Sarcopenia) - long-term caloric deficits or severe drops signal the body to use muscle for fuel
  • Lowered metabolic rate - using muscle as fuel decreases the ability to consume as many calories as before, risking nutrient deficiency and often leading to weight gain
  • Constipation, gas, bloating
  • Food intolerances
  • Risk of eating disorders - excessive focus on numbers indicates disordered eating tendencies and may lead to diagnosed eating disorders
  • Decreased energy levels
  • Hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Cold intolerance - loss of necessary insulation and down-regulation of certain mechanisms can decrease metabolic rate, reducing heat production
  • Hormonal imbalances - for menstruating individuals: PMS, PCOS, and other cycle irregularities. For non-menstruating individuals: depression, mood imbalances, insatiable hunger, cravings, etc.
  • Reduced immune function- low caloric deficits may increase susceptibility to illness

Losing Weight Without Calorie Counting

  1. Focus on nutrients. Build a colorful plate of fruits and vegetables to ensure you’re getting lots of nutrients. The more nutrients you give your body, the less it will scream at you for calories.
  2. Eat enough protein. Aim for 1.1g – 1.4g protein/kg of body weight for fat loss, especially if you are strength training. This ensures that you’re feeding your muscles and tells your body to not use them for fuel (in case you find yourself in a caloric deficit). To calculate your body weight in kilograms, take your body weight in pounds and divide by 2.2kg. Example: 150lbs / 2.2kg = 68kg
  3. Get enough fiber. You need around 30 grams of fiber daily. Fiber keeps us full and feeds our gut microbiome, which helps with satiety, hormone regulation and cholesterol balance.
  4. Moderate carbohydrates. Unless you’re an endurance athlete or do hours of cardio, don’t overeat on carbohydrates. Eating more than our body demands can lead to unnecessary fat gain or fat loss retention.
  5. Don’t fear fat. Fat is essential for the functioning of all organs and regulates our hormones. Fat does not raise insulin, which can be useful in fat loss and satiety.

To learn more about calories and weight management, please contact the Dietitian for more information.