We live in a time where fads sell. From politics to diets, our culture has been groomed for the newest. The hottest. The must. This year’s macro is next year’s no-no (hi, carbs). One day, dairy is verboten; the next, cheese can help fight heart disease. Are we juicing; are we not juicing? Are we wearing shoes on the running trail? Are we even allowed to run? And let’s not get started on fasting.
But when it comes to wellness, we take issue with the notion that there’s only one fit.
As the web’s longest-running authority on the organic approach to wellbeing, with bona fide old-school journalists on our team, we’ve decided to pull from the best of old-school shoe-leather newsprint, too. We’re providing a forum for debate on wellness topics with the launch of our Pro vs. Con series. But this isn’t your cable news pundit’s false equivalency schtick. We're driven by evidence and curiosity. Our standards are high, and we brook no b.s. Enjoy the positive ruckus, and let’s all learn together.
To start? Calorie counting.
For years, we followed the tenets of calorie in, calorie out. Cloaked under the Weight Watchers brand or simply as a pen and paper, counting calories was touted as the secret to healthy, sustainable weight loss.
But times are changing, and for many experts, this mindset is reductive at best and hazardous at worst. Elise Museles is an attorney turned certified eating psychology expert and the host of Once Upon a Food Story. We sat down with her and fitness expert, Jillian Michaels to get both sides of the story when it comes to calorie counting. You can read Jillian Michaels smart science based approach to calorie counting for weight loss here.
OA: So, Elise, let's start things off with an easy one: are all calories created the same?
Elise Museles: No! But you can’t say that enough. I think that’s where the inherent issues are in calorie counting.
If we go back to basics that even an elementary school child would understand, if you had soda out and you also had broccoli, for example, and you showed a thousand calories of each, they would understand that you’re getting so many more nutrients in that big mound of broccoli versus a couple of cans of soda. Not all calories are created equal, and a calorie doesn’t tell the whole story.
OA: So is calorie counting ever a healthy habit?
EM: Well, first of all, remember: we need calories. It’s sort of become a word that has a negative connotation, but all food is energy and calories, and so a calorie isn’t necessarily a negative thing.
I think having that baseline understanding of calories is helpful for people. For example, I like adding a little bit of fat to my morning matcha latte, but I also like eating. But if I was gonna put in a bunch of tablespoons of fat, that would be a lot of fat for me, in the morning. So I know the calories, and I consciously choose not to get my calories from extra coconut oil. I’d rather eat something else that’s more satisfying for me. But it’s not just about the calories. I’m asking: is that how I want to fill up? And I’m deciding… no. I’d like to have some food as well.
OA: Is there anyone to whom you would recommend calorie counting as a way of starting a weight loss journey?
EM: If people have been really not as conscious about their food choices, and they’re coming from a place of health, and they don’t have a history of restrictive or obsessiveness with food, and they are educating themselves. For these people, learning about calories as a unit measuring energy, just the same way you would learn about why it’s high in vitamin C, and seeing the different components of food and thinking about what it can do for you – that it can energize you, that it can help you think clearer – and really associating it with the positive way that calories can support you to live your best life... that is helpful.
OA: When can counting calories become a harmful habit?
EM: The problem lies in when people become obsessive about it. It’s obviously a slippery slope, but just like anything, you want to go back to why: what’s your intention? What will this information do for you? Will it help you make choices that are healthier, or will it lead you down a path of being obsessive and restrictive?
It creates a stress around food. It makes food about the numbers instead of seeing the whole story, all the different elements of food. Nourishment, or nutrients, or the connection part. You miss out on all of that, not to mention the pleasure piece of it, too.
OA: When we’re talking specifically about weight loss, there's this "calorie-in, calorie-out" mindset. Does that physiological concept work to reduce weight?
EM: I don’t think so. Because not all calories are created equal. And depending on your hormones, your exercise level, your personal metabolism… allergies, intolerances, there are so many factors that come into play. So really, being more connected to how you feel after eating certain foods or honoring some of the cravings that you’re having, that can help you make smarter choices and be more tuned in with what works with your particular body.
Stress can also make a difference on your metabolism, your digestion, and your nutrient assimilation. So that affects the way that your body is dealing with calories. And that stress can come from being restrictive, having a set of food rules around numbers and calories, and then having behaviors that are kind of backfiring and then you get all upset with yourself and you start this whole cycle.
OA: So why do you think calorie-counting has long been so popular an approach to weight loss?
EM: I think that it’s much easier to add up numbers than it is to tune into your body when you’ve been disconnected for a long time.
There’s not a really easy formula to help someone do that, right? It’s much easier to count calories than it is to, say, reduce stressors in your life so that your body functions optimally, and does what it needs to do with the foods. So I think that people like to have answers, and answers that are sometimes even outside of themselves that don’t require them to do the deeper work.
OA: For someone whose brain is almost hardwired to count calories or macros or carbs... what’s a good strategy to wean yourself off of those behaviors and move into a more holistic approach?
EM: Getting back to basics. Like what foods do I actually even like? Healthy, not healthy, it doesn’t matter. But really trying to connect back to your body. Oftentimes, we might convince ourselves: I don’t like brownies; I don’t even like avocado. But really, it’s because you told yourself that, because you believed it over such a long period of time because of the numbers.
So not necessarily even eating all that stuff, but just getting back to: what do I like? What will make me feel good? Only then, can the conversation in your own head shift.
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