Understanding calories in vs calories out, and why calorie counting is not ideal for long-term permanent weight loss, is key to weight management.
Let’s start by thinking of this simply:
When you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight
When you eat less calories than you burn, you lose weight
“This is a fundamental concept in body weight regulation, and about as close to scientific fact as we can get”, says Precision Nutrition Co-Founder John Berdardi, PHD.
Sooooo...Should you consider eating less and less calories as a good option to continue losing weight, especially when you feel like you’ve maxed out your activity level?
Well, it would seem that’s an option since it’s a simple math equation of calories in minus calories out, but that never works because eating too little food just screws up your internal systems and slows down your metabolism, making you burn less calories. You might have experienced this already, if you have ever hit a weight loss plateau.
What other things can affect our ability to burn calories?
Hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance and other health problems affect metabolism, which ultimately affect how many calories we each burn in a day.
For example, if you find yourself ravenously hungry, it might be because you’re under a lot of stress(ummm yes, life with kids and a job can be stressful), so leptin, the hormone that helps control appetite by acting directly on the brain, is suppressed.
"Damn you leptin...I’m always in the kitchen because of you.
Just do your job and let me stop thinking about food!!"
Another reason it’s difficult to calculate how many calories your unique body burns, is because it’s darn hard to know your basal metabolic rate(BMR- what you burn just to stay alive) and how many calories you burn above your BMR. If you use a calorie tracker, it's an estimate so they’re not totally reliable.
What are some things that affect our ability to accurately track how many calories we eat?
We really don’t have an effing clue how many exact calories we put into our bodies.
Calorie counts on packages aren’t necessarily accurate - the FDA allows a 20% margin of error!
Crazy, right? And what about non-packaged foods? A small apple apparently has around 60 calories(an estimate) but did you just eat a small apple or was it really a medium one at 95 calories?
Also, the amount of energy a food contains in the form of calories is not necessarily the amount of energy we absorb, store, and/or use. The food we eat has to be digested and processed by our unique bodies. The innumerable steps involved in digestion, processing, absorption, storage, and use—as well as our own individual physiological makeup—can all change what calories we properly take in.
I hope you understand a bit better why tracking calories is not a good long-term option for losing weight and keeping it off. I think it’s OK to track calories in the short term, to kick off your weight loss (if you need it for motivation), but long-term, it's never maintainable.
Sustainable weight loss is about first understanding the reason why you overeat, eat too much of the wrong foods or why you turn to food when stressed, so you can start taking the steps to change your relationship with food. And it's also about listening to your unique body's needs and establishing life-long habits around good sleep, proper nutrition (learning to eat slowly and mindfully until you're 80% full), consistent strength training workouts and daily movement. And along with these habits, it's about having a simple strategy in place to get back on track when life's unexpected stressors show up to mess with these healthy habits.
Our bodies are incredible and if you take the time to listen, listen, listen to what your body tells you, and learn to love yourself every step of the way, you'll find your way to a strong, fit body regardless of your age, amount of weight you need to lose or your genetics.