(Want to know how I meal plan a month in minutes? Here's how!)
I get asked pretty often these days about nutritional information for my recipes. “How many net carbs are in this?”. “How can I reduce the fat?”. “How many servings does this make?”.
And, honestly, the truth is: I don’t know. I don’t count calories. I don’t track carbs. And I seriously couldn’t care less about how much fat I eat. Macros, SCHMACROS.
I don’t often list servings, either, for the simple reason that I have no idea what a “normal” portion size is. Not that I believe that to be a problem. It’s just that I know how to eat intuitively, for me – and only me. My nutritional “normal” is probably different to yours – and I really don’t ever want to tell someone what or how much they “should” be eating.
I didn’t used to be this way. Like pretty much every other woman on the planet, I have a fantastically checkered past when it comes to food, nutrition and… diets. I went on my first diet before I turned 11. I started counting calories not too much later. I had detailed logs of everything I ate, or didn’t eat. I’d write the words “fat failure” underneath days with intakes I deemed unacceptable.
And that carried on for YEARS. It got even worse with access to the internet and the plethora of tracking sites and apps that became available. I would set weight loss goals on those things that required me to eat a calorie range that was almost always under 1000 a day. I would convince myself that if I just had some damn WILLPOWER that I could stick to these grandiose plans for self-destruction. Except, of course, that the issue of my lack of diet success wasn’t willpower or its absence. It was the simple and predictable natural response to years of deprivation – my body refused to lose weight and for good reasons. I was malnourished. And I was always hungry.
Eventually, you know what happened? I realized that I had been chasing this dream of “thin” for the majority of my life. And I hadn’t gotten anywhere.
That was my wake up call. I was sick of being sick. I was tired of being tired. And I had really, really had enough of being hungry. Which is what kickstarted my own journey into real food and, later, Paleo.
These days, I eat real food. I’m not scared of fat anymore. I don’t believe carbs are the devil. I gave up years of vegetarianism. I’ve learned to love my body as it is and treat it with respect. Which means plenty of nourishing nutrient dense foods. And no calorie counting. On this site, or in my head.
I’ve never felt or been healthier. I’ve learned a lot along the way. So here is my take on…
Counting Calories: Why I Don’t (and You Shouldn’t, Either)
Energy Isn’t The Answer
Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy. If you give your body energy, then it should – in theory – keep on keeping on. And most of the time, it does. But is just providing energy enough? That’s the problem with counting calories. Your body isn’t just interested in quantities of food. It wants and needs nutrient dense whole foods to really thrive and be at its absolute best. 2000 calories of grass fed meats, vegetables and fruit is going to do a lot more for your body than 2000 calories worth of hot dogs and soda – but calories don’t show you the difference.
Sure, your body can run on sub-par food choices for a while. For some people, that could even be several decades. But eventually those food choices will catch up with you: we need to pay more attention to the actual substance of our food, not just the numbers attached to it. Counting calories makes you focus on quantity, but your body is way more interested in the quality of the calories you consume. Counting calories can mask the difference.
Less Is Definitely Not More
When most people think about counting calories as a way of “getting healthier”, they inevitably mean that they’re trying to CUT calories from their daily diet. But, guess what? Eating fewer calories isn’t necessarily healthy eating, despite how often we see that message. If you’re still eating junk food, but just less of it, you may end up losing weight, but you certainly won’t be gaining health. If you’re cutting calories by using artificial sweeteners or low fat options, you’re essentially filling up on food like things that are not contributing to your nutrition. So counting calories isn’t really helping you with your quest for health at all.
Then there’s the small question of the “right” number of calories: how do you decide what the “right” number of calories is? There are plenty of tools out there that will tell you what the “correct” number is – but those numbers aren’t foolproof. Everyone’s body is different: cutting down on calories isn’t necessarily the road to success
Stress, Anxiety & Guilt, Oh My!
Even with the best of intentions, counting calories can totally backfire. What do I mean? Well, the more attention you pay and time you spend on tracking calories, the more time and attention you may find yourself needing to give them. To make sure you’re being accurate. To make sure you’re not forgetting anything. Taking the time every day to track, journal and log the food you ate may seem like no big deal at first. But counting calories creeps up on you: it starts to take over more mental and emotional space as you begin to rely on tracking and analyzing all of your food choices to maintain your sense of achievement or self worth.
In short, counting calories can steal time and joy from your life. It makes you focus on quantity rather than quality and leaves you feeling miserable any time you deviate from whatever “healthy” plan you’re on. So instead of helping you, calorie counting makes you a slave to the numbers. It makes you feel stressed and guilty when you do something “wrong”. Calorie counting long term can make you feel guilty about eating or even fearful of food. No, thank you! Wouldn’t you rather not waste all that time and energy on something that makes you feel bad about yourself?
Calories Don’t Care About You…
That’s the thing. Counting calories can’t tell you anything about your health. Calories are just numbers. They can’t tell you what your body needs. Your body’s needs are going to depend on so many other things: activity levels, how well you sleep, whether or not you have any nutritional deficiencies or hormonal issues. All of those things play a vital part in your overall health.
What do calories do? Nothing. What can counting calories do for you when it comes to assessing or improving your health? Zilch!
…But Your Body Does!
Believe it or not, your body is perfectly capable of running the show. It can tell you how much to eat, what to eat and when – if you just stopped overanalyzing everything in your mind first. If you nourish yourself with nutrient-dense whole foods, your body will thrive. You won’t have to count calories or track macros or depend on apps, trackers or websites to tell you what, when and how to eat. Why? Because you will learn over time how to listen to your body. You won’t be ruled by cravings or emotional eating because your feelings won’t be bound up with food.
Once you strip the processed food from your diet and begin to nourish yourself with real food, you won’t have all the chemical nasties in your system that mess up your metabolism and hunger signals. Know what that means? You won’t need to count calories to know when you’re hungry or have had enough for the day. Hoorah!
What do you think? Do you count calories? Or track macros?