Calorie sensible vs. calorie stupid.
When it comes to the ‘do calories count?’ argument, I have both feet firmly planted on the affirmative side of the fence – aye! they do!. Specifically, although I don’t think that calorie content is the only consideration in a fatloss diet, it is the ‘make or break’ factor. Understanding the relative energy value of foods really is ‘fatloss 101’. Awareness can make all the difference between being calorie sensible or calorie stupid
The first time I successfully lost weight and kept it off was when I discovered The Zone diet. In common with other programs like Body for Life (BFL),South Beach and the Atkins diet, the Zone discourages calorie counting. On the Zone you think in terms of food ‘blocks’. On BFL, you consume ‘portions’ of a certain physical size – your palm for proteins and your fist for carbs. On the Atkins diet you don’t think about much except avoiding carbs and getting enough protein. Research has shown that all of these diets work because they force you to almost accidentally eat fewer calories. All of these ‘just follow the rules’ nutrition plans are fine when they are working, but it’s a bitch when they aren’t working for you because you have no idea why. I personally have lost weight, and mystifyingly gained weight, on the Zone, BFL and the Atkins diet. In 2003 I decided that I could and I would win the Body for Life Challenge. Becoming obsessively interested in fine-tuning my diet, for the first time I researched how many calories I was burning, how many I was eating and where those calories were coming from.
With a little more calorie savvy, it suddenly became obvious why the Zone diet tanked when I started adding calorie-dense flax oil to all my meals. It was no longer a mystery why unrestrained consumption of Atkins bars had made me fat, even though they were low-carb. I also looked through my BFL challenge journal with educated eyes and pinpointed my unwitting mistakes. If eating was like shopping, then I was spending up on my credit card with no idea what the limit was and without looking at the price of anything! I see this calorie stupid behaviour a lot among people who believe that healthy food cannot be fattening. A muffin break high fibre muffin may be full of healthy flax oil and fibre, but at 500-600 calories, it’s the caloric equivalent of two small chocolate bars. If you knew that, you might reconsider eating a whole one every day as a mid-afternoon snack. In my case, there were two glaring areas of calorie blow-out. Firstly, in my quest for health I had become rather too liberal with the ‘healthy’ fats and oils. My daily consumption of olive oil, LSA mix, omega 3 capsules, avocado and the fat that I never bothered to trim from my meat came to around 800 calories a day. With a slight adjustment I was able to reduce that by about half. The second revelation involved a horrified awareness of how much I could put away when I was having a cheat meal, or especially a cheat day. I was mortified to discover that my cheat day breakfast at Starbucks packed 1500 calories, and I didn’t even feel like I’d eaten a lot.
Of course, having done my research and gained some awareness I was now armed and dangerous. I then went headfirst into a stage which is common to those that take to the calorie controlled path, let’s call it calorie craziness. The goal is to become calorie sensible, but it’s common to overshoot and cross the line into insanity. It’s all too easy to enter a phase of obsession, especially when the scales begin to tell you that this calorie nonsense might actually be working. At the start it can be quite useful to weigh everything and track calorie consumption with as much accuracy as possible, but after a while it can become a grind. You can’t count your green peas forever. The whole point is to empower yourself, not enslave yourself into a lifestyle where you must cook with a calculator and hyperventilate at the thought of a day away from your calorie tracking spreadsheet. It’s worth remembering that calorie counts are always estimates and there is no way to be sure that you ate exactly 1854 calories yesterday. It’s just not necessary to think that hard all the bloody time. Once you track your calories for a few weeks and absorb the basics, it is easy to grasp that some foods are low in calories and you can eat more of them (e.g. most fruits and veges) and some foods are higher in calories and so you eat less of them. Some foods, high in fat and/or refined carbohydrates, are horrendous calorie bombs and you want to treat them with extreme respect, much like a real bomb. You don’t have to avoid them, but you do have to know what you are dealing with. Once you understand food, then you have more control and freedom of choice. Knowledge is power. Once you have educated yourself then you can take your calorie-sensibleness and quite possibly conquer the world, starting with those love-handles.
I like Nutritiondata.com for food info. Not only can you learn about calories but, for the true food nerd, there is extensive data on nutrient levels.
Here and here are a couple of articles from Hussman Fitness which explain nicely why calories are important to fatloss. I should mention that he does veer in the direction of craziness with the idea of ‘food plan as law’ and nitty-gritty of the caloric deficit, but there is a lot of good stuff in there too. Some people enjoy obsession, perhaps he is one of them – he is a numbers person after all.