Do Calories Really Matter?


For years of my life, I was obsessed with calories. [Read more about there here.] I didn't understand how the body works. I would constantly be on self-prescribed calorie allotments. The amounts would often change (1,200 calories, 1,400 calories, 800 calories, 1,800 calories, 1,000 calories, etc) but it was always significantly less than what I needed to thrive and often times even lower than what I needed to survive.

Today, I could frankly care less about calories.

Because I know now the truth. I understand how the body works. And I want to share the truth about how the body works today.

The truth: Calories matter...but only kinda, sorta...

The other truth: Calorie counting is such a surface level way of looking at the body and its mechanisms. If you know me, you  know I am a very deep person. I often struggle with surface level conversations because I want to be DEEP ALL THE TIME. This need to get deep is not only true with friendships and social connections in my life, but also in my quest to understand how things work. Including the beautiful, amazing mechanisms your body has to create homeostasis and survive.

Let's dig. deep...

Calorie Equations...Are Antiquated.

When I was in school to become an RD, we spent a pretty insignificant amount of time discussing the role of hormones in the body, and a whole lotta time on calculating calories. Miflin-St. Jeor, Harris Benedict...I knew them all like the back of my hand. I also knew almost to the exact number the amount of calories in every food imaginable. I was a calorie counting queen and when I first graduated I, of course, followed the same protocol for all my clients. Giving them calorie counts was all I knew to do. It would work, but for very brief short periods of time. A month, maybe. But then my clients would always start to gain weight back. And blame themselves for their lack of willpower. [Read more about why willpower doesn't exist here].

I was stumped. Not only for my clients but for my own self, too. Around this time when I started to question calorie counting, I started learning about intuitive eating. And it worked, for sure. But, I wanted to know more. I wanted to dig. Deeper.

One of my first epiphanies came when I realized how outdated the calorie equations are. Take for instance the Harris Benedict equation. Developed over 100 years ago  after conducting a study on a small pretty sample size: 136 men, 106 women and 94 newborns [Source]. The calorie equation most of use in today's world is based on slightly more than 300 people. And was developed 100 years ago. Before we really knew much about the role of hormones and now add to that the gut microbiome. Sounds...kinda scary, amiright?!

As a registered dietitian, I absolutely see the need for these approaches- of calorie counting- in a hospital setting where tube feeding and TPN is necessary. Conventional  dietetic practices are necessary in a hospital setting. But where I don't think they are appropriate or applicable is the rest of us trying to figure out how to be healthy in today's world.

Do Calories Really Matter?

It's All About the Hormones.

Our bodies and their ability to store or burn fat is at the mercy of our hormones and how they affect our metabolism. It's not calories in versus calories out. And it's not eat less, move more. It's all about the hormones.

Hormones are why someone who is  underweight and eating in a calorie surplus can continue to lose weight while someone who is overweight and eating in a calorie deficit can continue to gain weight.

Because Liz Wolfe states it perfectly in her book Eat the Yolks (highly recommend reading), let's just quote her directly:

"The hormonal control of our metabolism involves thyroid function, cortisol and a range of other organs, tissues, and hormones, but the most important orchestra tors to understand are the hormones insulin and leptin. Insulin and leptin are responsible, respectively, for storing energy in our fat cells and then maintaining those stores, and they can't be manipulated by counting calories. In fact, conventional diet behavior- avoiding dietary fat and counting calories- works against hormonal harmony in every way. A low-fat diet rich in carbohydrates is insulin's fat-storage dream, and a low-calorie diet sends leptin on a mission to get you eating again...

It's all about the hormones. Hormones, not lack of willpower, drive hunger and overeating in response to dieting and food restriction. Hormones make us move less even when we don't realize it- to conserve energy. Hormones don't play fair, because they operate on the individual level...Hormones downgrade our metabolic rate when we're restricting calories or stressing our bodies with too little nutrition, and hormones unleash the metabolic burn beast when we nourish our bodies right...The path to hormonal balance is also the path to truth health: Don't restrict nourishment. Forget about calories. Eat real food."

Well. Said.

Cortisol, leptin, insulin, thyroid hormones, and even your reproductive hormones like estrogen play a large role in the ways in which our metabolism works and how we access stored fat. This deserves a blog post all its own, but for today know that these are the true indicators of your ability to lose and gain weight, and play a large role in inflammation and health status. I personally feel instead of "calorie counting" if we "optimized hormone status" we would all be much, much healthier and happier people.

So What Really Matters?

If you are a client of mine at Nourishing Minds Nutrition, you know I could care less about calories. Because what really matters is first and foremost, understanding why you want to make your body look a certain way. If your health is truly of concern, then yes weight loss may be the best thing for you. But if you are trying to make your body fit in to today's societal expectations, then we need to really examine the why behind that.

With all my clients, even if they need help with weight loss, I don't approach it by discussing calories. I do so by encouraging behaviors and actions that will:

  • Improve balance of healthy gut flora in the digestive tract by healing any digestion issues present, improving mindset around food (yes that impacts your gut bacteria and the gut brain axis) and by eating in a way that promotes a diverse gut microbiome (including fermented foods and prebiotics, if appropriate).

  • Regulating hormones by healing HPA axis dysfunction (adrenal fatigue) if present, ensuring properly functioning reproductive hormones, testing thyroid hormone levels if needed and eating in a way that encourages less insulin spikes. For SOME people, this is where a low carbohydrate diet with fasting is appropriate (for instance older, less active clients who may have metabolic damage already occurring like prediabetes). For the MAJORITY of my clients, this is not appropriate. If you are a young to middle aged (i.e. in your reproductive years), active women who has previously dieted or had disordered thoughts around food (including the obsession with eating perfectly) that is NOT what you need. Trustttt me. It shall backfire. More to come on intermittent fasting in another post.

  • Stress reducing techniques and daily acts of self care, especially for my women who constantly give to others before taking care of themselves. This absolutely CANNOT be underestimated for the power it holds over the way your body responds to health issues, holding onto weight and your ability to thrive instead of just survive.

  • Instinctively eating. This is mine and Meg's unique approach where we utilize mindful eating practices in combination with eating a traditional, whole foods diet. Eating foods that existed before diet dogmas and food trends began. Foods that we have always eaten including fatty meat and fish, meat on the bone and with the skin, organ meats, soaked and sprouted grains, legumes and nuts/seeds, fermented foods (as long as SIBO isn't present), and a diet full of produce. But also not taking this to extremes where you don't enjoy foods like a juicy cheeseburger, an ice cream date with your family or enjoying a glass of wine while cooking.

Free Your Mind

When I find myself  thinking about calories and if I'm eating too much (very infrequently now, but hey- it happens), I remind myself of two things...evidenced based research and evolution.

From an evidenced based perspective, the only long-term study we have conducted on humans in a calorie deficit was completed in the 1940's on young men for 6 month period on a little less 1,600 calories a day. And what happened, is astounding. Participants experienced hysteria, depression, self-mutilation, and hypochondria, as well as preoccupation with food, hoarding food, loss of sexual drive, anger, decreased social interest and lower leg edema due to the increased water intake to try to rid hunger pains [source].  As when this says self-mutilation...that means one of the participants cut his hand off. No joke.

This frightens me. Because most women I know or have ever had a conversation about food with often talk about a lot less calories than 1,600 calories. To many, that would be a lot. Think about the ramifications here for a moment...women get stigmatized for being moody, irritable, unstable, depressed and so much more. If those words have been used to describe you, I ask: have you ever considered it may be because your undereating, may have nutrient deficiencies and very likely have hormonal dysfunction occurring from your calorie counting methods?

Further more, how many of us have spent years of our life obsessing over our body fat and how we will remove it? Spending hours on a daily basis calculating calories, macronutrients and planning each detail of what you are going to eat for the day? Every moment of the day is spent thinking about food, even when you are actually in the action of eating. How freeing would that be if your beautiful, powerful brain was used for far more important things?

Now let's look at things from a big picture, evolutionary perspective.

Your body is super, super smart. It has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to do and be the actions that can do today. But, it is has not yet evolved to understand where we are in today's world. For thousands of years, reduction in calories meant a food shortage and famine. In those situations, of course your body sent signals to refuse to give up its body fat stores. And as women, we are evolutionary meant to have body fat. Let's not let these ridiculous and current societal expectations that exist get in your head. It was only a short time frame ago that women like Marilyn Monroe- who was not a size 0, was idolized. We just happen to be  in a current societal expectation that wants us to be both strong and skinny (read six pack abs with curves, but not too many curves).

We humans have lived  for a long time without the need to calculate calories, measure and weigh our food.

So join me. Become a nutrient seeker. Not a calorie counter.

Let's spend our time and brain power are far more important things than obsessively calorie counting.

Welcome to freedom.

To continue this discussion join the free Facebook group, Nourishing Minds Tribe, where we will talk more in detail about this post. I will also love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Do you think calories really matter?