FOOD

Why You Should Stop Counting Calories (And Count Nutrients Instead)

Calorie counting is a misleading, unsustainable method.

12/10/2016 5:16 AM AEDT | Updated 12/10/2016 5:16 AM AEDT
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Think about quality over quantity.

It's tempting, isn't it? Simply keeping track of what you eat and quickly losing weight.

But then you realise you have to weigh, measure and note every single thing you eat. And that awful feeling you get when you see that the salad you just ate for dinner actually puts you 200 calories over your 'allowed' daily amount.

You might have chosen a 250 calorie doughnut instead of eating a stir fry in order to stay under your already reduced energy intake.

It's for all these reasons, plus more, that calorie counting is not the best -- or healthiest -- way to keep track of what you're eating or to lose weight.

The easier, more fruitful option? Focusing on the nutrient content of your meals and snacks.

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"There are some population groups that this method may work for, such as body builders, elite athletes and the morbidly obese, but for a majority of people this method is not sustainable or enjoyable," Robbie Clark, dietitian and sports nutritionist, told The Huffington Post Australia.

If you're thinking about counting calories, or are in the midst of frantically counting every oat and carrot, consider these reasons to let the counting go.

"There may come a time in my practice where I recommend calorie counting, but for the most part I recommend counting nutrients over calories, and here is why," Clark said.

1. Not all calories are created equal

Swapped out a sandwich in place of two Mars bars because they have the same energy content? Unfortunately, the way the body will metabolise and use this energy is not as simple as we think.

"This is a very common misconception -- that a calorie from fruit is the same as a calorie in chocolate," Clark explained.

Unhealthy food is unhealthy food, no matter how many calories it has.

"This may be true when they're on the plate since all 'calories' have the same amount of energy. However, the calories on paper are not necessarily the calories we actually receive due to the human body being a highly complex biochemical system with elaborate processes that regulate energy balance."

On top of this, Clark said the calories (or energy) in fat, protein and carbohydrates (the three macronutrients) have a different biological influence on satiety, metabolic rate, brain activity, blood sugar and the way our body stores fat. For example, a whole grain pasta with lean mince will keep you more full than two doughnuts worth the same amount.

Charlotte Allen
Calorie counting can cloud your vision on what's healthy or not.

2. It ignores the nutritional content

"Unhealthy food is unhealthy food, no matter how many calories it has," Clark said.

"Calories from nutrient-dense foods versus nutritionally-poor foods (for example, processed or refined carbs) will have different effects on the body."

If you're only keeping the number of energy in mind, it's easy to forget about the nutrient quality. Yes, a handful of nuts may be energy dense, but the nutritional benefits you get from them outweigh the number of calories.

"Healthy, nutrient-dense foods will keep hunger at bay, help maintain stable blood glucose levels, reduce cravings, and allow your brain to signal to your stomach that it's full," Clark said.

"Nutrient-poor foods will have the opposite effect, causing hormonal dysfunction, spiking insulin levels, increasing cravings, suppressing satiety signals and encouraging overeating."

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Being strict about calories becomes tiring and unsustainable.

3. It doesn't support a healthy relationship with food

According to Clark, if we constantly see food as 'the thing that makes us fat', we will never form a healthy relationship with food.

"The major risk associated with counting calories is that it does not support a healthy relationship with food," he said.

"This method can create a mental obsession about food and food groups, which can result in restrictive food choices and practices. The worst possible outcome is that this may lead to the development of eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia nervosa or orthorexia nervosa (an unhealthy obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy)."

Accredited practising dietitian Jemma O'Hanlon agrees, saying calorie counting is useful for getting a rough idea of how much you should be eating, but it should not be the focus of your nutrition.

Choosing food for their quality rather than quantity is the main focus here.

"There's a fine line when it comes to counting calories," O'Hanlon told HuffPost Australia.

"Although it may help people to eat a nutritionally balanced diet at the right calorie level for them, for some people it could lead to obsessive behaviours and disorders such as orthorexia. There's no one size fits all approach to healthy eating, but counting calories every day certainly isn't healthy."

Now, if you're reading this feeling deflated and wondering what to do instead, don't worry. Tackling healthy, sustainable and long term weight loss is as easy as focusing on the nutrients in your food -- that is, looking at how much colour, vitamins, minerals and fibre there is.

"Counting nutrients refers to the consumption of nourishing foods that have a high nutritional value as well as being mindful and aware of the particular foods you are putting into your body and the health benefits they have," Clark said.

"Choosing food for their quality rather than quantity is the main focus here."

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Include as many colours as you can.

Clark added that focusing on the quality of what you're eating helps teach about how food can fuel your body, giving it the energy and nutrients it needs.

"I strongly believe that this approach promotes healthy mindful eating rather than jumping on the bandwagon of the latest fad diet. As the old saying goes 'knowledge is power'," Clark said.

"I'd like to think that if people are educated about the role nutrients have in their body, the effects poor food choices have and how to embrace the right mindset, they are more likely to achieve a long lasting healthier lifestyle."

While focusing on nutrients is beneficial, O'Hanlon still warns people to not become overly obsessive, especially in regards to natural sugars.

"A nutrient-based approach to eating may be helpful in guiding people to meeting their requirements for carbohydrates, proteins and good fats, but also may be harmful if it becomes too obsessive," O'Hanlon said.

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Fruit is not the devil.

"For example, if someone is purely focused on reducing their sugar intake, they may start to reduce the amount of fresh fruit and milk in their diet, even though these are core foods which contain natural sugars. Approaches such as 'if it fits my macros' can really take away from enjoyable, balanced eating and can result in behaviours which are quite unbalanced."

To help you focus on a healthy, balanced diet, Clark and O'Hanlon recommend the following tips.

1. Educate yourself and others

"Firstly, it could pay dividends to expand your knowledge and education around what is considered a 'healthy' food," Clark said.

"Everyone has some level of knowledge, but it's important to have a bit of understanding about macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre and phytochemicals. Once you know what foods contain health benefits, it's easier to include them into your daily routine."

Become familiar with the core food groups: fruit, vegetables and legumes (for example, chickpeas and lentils), whole grains and other grains, lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and dairy.

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Variety is key.

"This will help you with making sure you consume a good variety of different foods that are important for good health and reduce your risk of nutrient deficiencies," Clark said.

"The Australian Dietary Guidelines are also a fabulous resource to help guide people to eat healthier and lose weight," O'Hanlon added.

2. Eat a rainbow a day

Look at your dinner plate: does it boast lots of colours, or just one or two?

"When in doubt, make sure you're eating a rainbow a day. If you record all the food you eat in a day and see that it is mostly of one or two colours, then you can be rest assured that you are lacking variety," Clark said.

"By eating a rainbow (different colours from fruit and vegetables), you are making sure your body is receiving a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals."

Ezra Bailey

3. Shop wisely

When food shopping, Clark recommends avoiding the centre supermarket aisles as best you can.

"This is where most of the processed and refined foods are found," he said.

"Shop mainly in the fruit and vegetable section and around the perimeter as this is where more of the whole foods are found."

4. See a health professional

If you're feeling overwhelmed or don't know where to start, O'Hanlon advises to get in touch with a health professional.

"If you're feeling a little confused by all the nutrition messages out there, accredited practising dietitians are your first point of call," she said. "They're the university qualified experts in food and nutrition and are the best people to take advice from."

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