Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Calorie Conundrum

This week I've been testing out a free app: My Fitness Pal. This highly intelligent app counts my calories eaten, my calories burned through various types of exercise, and calculates my nutritional values for everything I eat. I have not attempted to count calories in thirty years, not since I was a teenager back in high school. And I haven't had much trouble losing weight simply by cutting the crap out of my diet and sticking with whole, healthy, nutritious foods. And then I turned 50.

Since January 1st of this year, I've been pretty darn close to perfect in terms of my diet. Empty calories have been purged. No sugar, no refined anything, no grains, no alcohol, no fast food, no junk. I lost a few pounds at first, but I've been stuck for a while now. And I resisted measuring all my food. Ugh. How irritating! What a bore!

I've never been a big fan of calorie counting. There are MANY reasons for this:

1) Every calorie is NOT equal to every other calorie. In other words, the way your body responds to a "calorie" of sugary soft drink is WAY different from the way your body responds to a "calorie" of beef. Or butter. Or turkey breast. Or french fries.

2) A low calorie diet might encourage people to cut out many extremely nutritious foods from their diets. Foods like avocado, nuts, beef, eggs, whole milk, and grass fed butter might get nixed based on their calorie count. And this could be in favor of low calorie foods which are much LESS nutritious: iceberg lettuce, zucchini, marshmallows, jello, white rice and Wonder bread, for example.

3) Many low calorie foods are high in carbohydrates and specifically sugar. Eating more sugar is a recipe for disaster, health-wise. Diets high in sugar could be low calorie, but could never be considered healthy. High sugar consumption has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimers, and many types of cancer.

4) Just looking at the calorie-count in a particular food tells you NOTHING about whether or not you should eat that food. Your diet should be made up of whole foods, nutritious foods, foods like meat, eggs, fish, veggies, nuts, fruits, seeds, and possibly dairy products. You need protein, fat and carbs, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. You need a wide variety of all of these foods.

Okay. Now that I've gotten that tirade off my chest, let's talk about why calorie counting might actually work. Because I think it can.

IF you are already eating a great diet, filled with nutritious whole foods, then you are a good candidate for calorie counting. Because, like me, you are probably already healthy, but just eating a bit too much of that healthy stuff.

So when you start to cut your calories, where should you begin?

I suggest just eating as you always do and simply counting your calories FIRST. Get a baseline. And then cut the LEAST NUTRITIOUS stuff from your diet. Cut the ketchup and the pickles. (Yes, I know they're tasty!) Cut the french fries or the pasta or the bread. If you've already cut all the grains, all the sugars, all the processed foods, then begin to look at the nuts and dairy. Cut back on cheese and nuts BEFORE you cut protein or veggies. You can also cut back on the fruit because fruit is high in sugar and generally less nutritious than vegetables. Do not cut back on protein as this will cause your body to cannibalize your muscle tissue! You do not want to deplete your muscle mass in order to lose weight.

Keep in mind that My Fitness Pal might have a very different notion of what composes a healthy diet than you do. For example, this app wants me to eat a diet which contains 50% carbs. I'm aiming for about half of that. And I'm eating about 50% fat right now. I think I'd like to up my protein to closer to 40% and lower my fat slightly. If you're following a Paleo diet, it will naturally be low in carbs. As will an Atkins program. If you are a fan of the Zone, you will want to aim for 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat. My Fitness Pal will show you a pie chart of your macro-nutrients for each day, as well as one for your week as a whole. I find these charts very helpful!

My bottom line advice: before you start to count calories, make sure you are eating healthy foods, not junk. If you are already 100% Paleo, and still need to lose weight, then you might choose to turn to cutting calories. Cut a little at a time and it won't be too painful! Good luck!

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