Do you find yourself obsessing over calories, meticulously counting each one? Do you feel as though all you’re focusing on is that magic kcal number on your MyFitnessPal app, without really giving other elements of your diet much thought? Are you hoping that as long as you keep those calories below a special limit, you’ll have a body just like the ones you’ve been longing for courtesy of social media?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, read on for a more balanced view about calories and the role they can play in achieving your health and fitness goals.
A lot of people lack a basic fundamental understanding of nutrition, in particular why calories are not the be all and end all of dietetics. This blog will get down to the nitty-gritty of calories and explore the arguments for and against strict calorie counting. I will also be discussing unhealthy relationships with food caused by calorie counting and picking Nutritionist Hannah Cartwrights’ brains to find out how to effectively fuel our bodies for optimal health.
What are calories?
The amount of energy in a food or drink is measured in calories. Kilocalories (kcal) are the most common unit used to display calories, particularly for nutrition. One kcal is the amount of heat required to cause an increase of 1°C in one kilogram of water. Thus, 1 kilocalorie (kcal) is equal to 1000 calories (cal). In layman’s terms – a calorie is how much energy we get from a certain food/ drink.
So, a calorie is just a measurement of energy. Your metabolism is going to vary vastly depending on diet, age, body composition and even how hot or cold it is!
There’s certainly a time and a place to count calories. But, you also have to remember that even your MyFitnessPal app isn’t completely accurate – it calculates an average for each food. The figure on the front of your food packaging telling you exactly how many calories it contains is also just going off an average, which can be off as much as 20%! So, why are we still obsessing over calories down to a single kcal?!
What happens when my calorie intake is way off?
Well, it’s not exactly ground-breaking news to say that eating too many calories makes you gain fat and can lead to chronic health issues.
What I find worrying is how little people (in particular, young impressionable girls who are trying to lose weight when they really don’t need to) know about what happens when you don’t consume enough calories. I spoke to Registered Associate Nutritionist (AfN) Hannah Cartwright to find out more about the importance nutrition has on our health.
Hannah highlighted the important point that undereating is one of the most common causes of fat loss plateaus! She went onto explain:
“Our bodies are wonderful at adaptation, and soon learn to conserve energy by slowing down metabolism and preserving existing resources, which means fat loss stops”.
Decreasing your calorie intake will certainly help you on a steady path to weight loss, but eventually your body will adapt to that calorie intake, and weight loss will cease. Hannah says that “To then achieve progress, you’d have to create an additional deficit, which at some point will stop being plausible or sustainable”. As someone who certainly enjoys their food, slowing down my metabolism is definitely something I want to avoid!
Hannah delved a little deeper into the physiology behind a decreased calorie intake: “Your body adjusts to a decreased calorie supply and makes an effort to use available resources as efficiently as possible.” This means that your body uses those calories to facilitate primary bodily functions which keep you alive: breathing, pumping blood around the body and brain function! This is referred to as metabolic adaption.
This means that the body is constantly evolving to keep up with the demands of the environment. Hannah explains,“Several factors contribute to metabolic adaptation; reduced NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), lowered EAT (exercise activity thermogenesis), altered hormonal regulation and changes in body mass.” When considering your calorie intake needed to reach your goals, you need to take into account all of these factors and also acknowledge how your food consumption makes you feel – both physically and mentally.
So, what’s the healthiest way to approach calories?
As a qualified nutritionist, Hannah has worked with plenty of individuals who have lost sight of what a healthy diet truly means:
“You don’t want to become so obsessed with getting abs that you completely lose sight of what a healthy diet truly means to you. For me it means feeling happy, energised, eating whole, fresh, real foods and most importantly, listening to my body.”
We completely agree with this statement, and believe we should focus on how we feel in ourselves when working towards various health goals. When you feel energised and nourished, you know that you’re fuelling your body efficiently.
Nutrition is so much more than just calories. Hannah points out that when we decrease our calories too dramatically that we will also be missing out on important nutrients, including micronutrients, which are required by the body in small amounts to sustain life. A lack of micronutrients can leave to severe deficiencies and health problems!
Hannah has worked with clients who have let this obsession with calorie counting take away from the bigger picture of their holistic health. Hannah goes onto explain:
“Calorie counting can be really detrimental to some people. Some will get on well with the tracking journey but for a lot of my clients, obsessive calorie counting has been a catalyst to eating disorders, disordered eating behaviours, poor body image and mental health.”
“Some of my clients lived through food tracking apps in the past and feared eating out at cafes or restaurants because they couldn't accurately weigh their foods or know what was in their meals. Food was constantly on their mind and they felt guilty if they didn't stick to their calorie/macronutrient goals. They were scared of fats due to their high calorie content, and they began snacking on low calorie 'fit foods' that were basically made up of chemicals and artificial ingredients that ruin your adrenals, cortisol levels, skin, hormone balance and nutrient absorption etc. This experience had taken the enjoyment out of food.”
Calories are what fuel our bodies: they are not the enemy, but absolutely necessary for our health. Whilst a calorie deficit is pivotal for weight loss, consuming important micronutrients is just as important for our health and should never be disregarded. Calories are important, but they sometimes steal our attention away from the bigger picture of our overall diets.
If you feel like your relationship with food has become a negative area of your life, then please do reach out to Hannah! If you would like her to dive into more of the science and research debunking the concept of 'calories in vs. calories out', then her Instagram handle is @livewellwithhan.
She addresses nutrition-related issues, shares healthy but delicious recipes and helps to improve clients' relationship with food and body image. Her DM’s are always open, so don’t hesitate to get in touch with her if you’d like personalised nutrition consultations!