- How many calories should I consume every day?
- How many calories am I using in my workout?
- Why am I not losing weight when I appear to be in a caloric deficit?
- What's the best app for calorie tracking?
I'm not going to answer any of these questions. We, my friends, are going to throw those all out of the window. Because they aren't the right questions.
Calorie tracking is notoriously inaccurate. It's almost impossible to calculate your calorie intake with any useful level of accuracy. And unless you have an exercise physiology lab, you aren't getting near with calories out either. The best you can hope for is that the inaccuracies cancel each other out and you end up in the right ball park.
Calorie counting is also laborious, boring and potentially invites obsessive, disordered eating behaviours.
[It's sometimes a useful tool as an advanced level strategy for athletes under supervision, but not most of us who are simply trying to maintain a healthy weight.]
But most of all, you don't need any of that. Your body comes equipped with the most technologically advanced nutrition monitoring systems you could ever hope to get your hands on.
Your body knows what you have absorbed, where it has been utilised, and if there is an excess or deficit. And it is giving you feedback on that all the time. You just have to learn to listen to it.
So why isn't your calorie counter working for you?
Let's break it down...
Your body evolved to eat foods in their natural state. You crave nutrient dense food, because that's good eating, but in nature those foods are scarce.
If you had to farm or forage for your food, sugar rich berries or fat rich nuts would be a seasonal treat to stock up on, and prioritising them would be a good nutrition strategy. But when you can pop to the shops and buy all the chocolate you like... that's no longer going to work for you.
Think about food processing. Imagine making a plate of chips from scratch. You'd have to peel the potatoes, cut them, boil the oil... it's a long process. If you had to do that, you probably wouldn't eat them very often. But if you can pop into a fast food restaurant and grab them any time, you are probably going to eat more than is necessary.
Eating a high proportion of highly processed, nutrient dense food confuses your hunger cues and prevents your body from properly signalling when it's time to back away from the plate.
Did you have to clear your plate when you were a kid? Do you feel guilty about throwing away leftovers, so your body becomes the dustbin? Do other people influence how you eat? Most of us are conditioned to ignore our satiety cues (when our body is telling us we've had enough) for one reason or another.
Then there are factors like routine and habit. Do you always eat a meal or snack, because it's that time of day, whether you need it or not?
Many of the people I work with are survivors of the diet wars. They are used to ignoring hunger pangs because they've already eaten their quota, it's not time to eat or because they have learned to associate the feeling with accomplishment.
One of the most influential satiety hormones, is produced when we sleep. That's why most of us aren't getting up at 2am for a snack. If you aren't getting enough quality sleep, then your systems will be confused and you will feel hungrier (we've all had a day of incessant snacking after a rough night...)
Stress also plays a significant factor, if you are spending long periods in a stressed state you're going to be eating more, storing more fat and craving a sugar hit.
High intensity exercise is another form of stress (because stress isn't bad, in short bursts...) Your blood sugar will drop and you'll get a hit of a hunger hormone which will have you suddenly feeling like your stomach is digesting itself.
So how do you harness your natural calorie counter
Oddly... by practising the foundation habits all my nutrition coaching clients learn, such as....
- Eating mostly minimally processed food.
- Avoiding consuming large amounts of calorie dense foods and high calorie drinks.
- Eating balanced portions that include proteins and fats.
- Eating when hungry in the belly (not just the head).
- Eating until satisfied, not stuffed (or 80% full if you are trying to lose weight).
- Getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep.
- Practising some form of stress management daily.
It seems simple, because it is, but all of these habits take practice, and you will need to learn the skills to integrate them into your lifestyle. But once you have, you'll never have to worry about counting or weighing again.
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