In Part 1 and Part 2, we discussed--respectively--both the mental stress of counting calories and the unhealthy and counterproductive nature of simply slashing calories without good metabolic flexibility.
Now, we’re going to talk about another reason calories being king can prove detrimental.
I have often had conversations with people about food choices--choices, not quantities--wherein their response is “I don’t eat that much.” It’s interesting how so many people automatically conflate healthy eating with sparse eating. Interesting, but not surprising.
Go to a grocery store and check out the foods that are labeled as being healthy alternatives. What’s the difference? The healthy one has fewer calories. Pop into a restaurant and peruse their version of a “lighter side” menu. What do you see? Menu options with fewer calories. Swing by your local internet for endless lists of “eat this, not that” healthy food and ingredient swaps. What makes them “healthy”?
See the pattern?
Today, “healthy” and “lower in calories” seem to have become synonymous. But this is not science at work, it’s marketing. When everyone knows that being smaller is better, and that getting small requires eating less, then it’s an obvious next step that foods should all be as flavorful but calorie-free as possible, right?
Luckily, it seems the popularity of the Paleo movement has brought (more) into the mainstream terms like nutrient density. This is the idea that you should judge a food’s nutritional value by its nutrients per calorie, rather than the far-less-useful calories per...bite or whatever. Which brings us to the next reason YOU shouldn’t be counting calories...
Food Quality Counts!
Yes, I realize that counting calories and paying attention to food quality are not mutually exclusive. But from what I’ve seen, counting calories (for the average weight loss goal, anyway) usually becomes the only thing that’s considered, while food quality is completely ignored.
Sure, making sure you eat fewer calories than you burn will result in some weight loss at first, but, as we’ve discussed, you will likely end up a smaller, less healthy version of who you were before if just drop calories all willy-nilly. I’m not here to set goals for you, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the one you’d pick…
We Need More Than Calories
Here’s the thing: we are not walking, talking balls of energy. There is more to human biochemistry than how much energy we consume and then burn. We are made up of trillions of cells that all have actual, physical structure, and these structures are not made up of calories. The countless and non-stop biochemical reactions happening in your body are not calories being converted to different calories. The hormones that help our brain, which is not a gray blob of calories, communicate with the rest of our body, which is also not a big glop of calories, are not made of calories.
Basically, we need more than calories to be...well, to be.
What do we need?
The simple answer is all sorts of things! Fats. Protein. A variety of vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes. Cholesterol ::gasp!:: Depending on your activity level, you may even need some carbs!
While some of these things provide calories, none of them is a calorie.
“Can’t I Just Take A Supplement?”
It seems like the obvious answer: control your calories and make up the nutritional difference with a pill. That’s the American way! But I don’t think it’s going to surprise you when the next thing I write is that’s a bad idea. And here are a few reasons why.
First of all, from what I gather it’s a real crapshoot when searching for any sort of vitamin or mineral supplement out there. Without some heavy duty research (or a source you can trust), it’s difficult to know whether the supplement you’re buying even contains the ingredients it claims to. And even if it does, there’s no easy way to tell if the ingredients are in the correct form to be properly absorbed and utilized by your body. Like I said, it’s a crapshoot.
Next, nutrients don’t always function well on their own. For example, some vitamins are fat-soluble, which means they are only absorbed with the help of fat. If you take a multi-vitamin without any fat alongside it, I wouldn’t expect any miracles.
Finally, we do not know everything there is to know about food and nutrition. Hard to swallow, I know.
Let’s look back in our history books. We all know that vitamin C is a fantastic little nutrient. And many of us may even remember that some guy a long time ago gave citrus fruits to some sailors, and the sailors ended up not getting scurvy. Cool, right?!
Well, the man was James Lind and the year was 1747. It was an amazing discovery he made, but he did NOT discover that Vitamin C protects against scurvy. How do I know? Because vitamin C wasn’t discovered until the 1930s!
What’s my point? Whole foods contain a lot of nutritionally important compounds. Many of these compounds have been synthesized, extracted, or otherwise isolated and made into pill form. While that’s helpful, it would be naive to assume we’re done making those discoveries.
The Factory Analogy
Imagine a large factory that decides to report a profit by firing a certain number of workers at the end of the quarter. They no longer worry about the the quality or quantity of the parts that they order to make their own product, either (because they fired the guy in charge of that). They simply cut costs and voila! Profit.
But what happens down the line? They have 10 employees, trying to keep up with the production line as it sends them an endless stream of crummy, mismatched parts. There’s no one left to clean up the factory floor, so it’s a complete wreck. And just for the sake of it, we’ll say that one of the guys--probably Jerry--shows up drunk every day and kicks the stray dog that shows up to the factory for scraps at lunchtime.
That Jerry’s a real jerk.
Sorry - back on track...
Seems to me like they’d be better off in the long run if they made sure they had a balance of skilled workers efficiently turning high-quality, properly matched parts into valuable products, don’t you think?
For more information on how the quality of your food matters, I would recommend checking out The Calorie Myth by Jonathan Bailor. It’s an easy read and does a great job illustrating just how much quality matters.
If you’re feeling extra bold (re: nerdy and ready to do some heavy reading), you might also check out Gary Taubes’s works: Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It (less dense) and Good Calories, Bad Calories (more dense).
Quality counts, people. When the goal is to be happy, healthy, and strong for life, simply limiting your caloric intake will not get you there.