Why You Should Stop Focusing on Calories - and What to Focus on Instead

healthy eating nutrition the non-diet method
calories counter and food

Do you get fixated by calories on food labels and fitness trackers?

The “calories in, calories out” model of weight management was popularised in the early 1900’s when thin body ideals became fashionable among the privileged, white women of America. It was during this period that food became redefined in numbers and the calorie became the prominent tool of a society increasingly focused on female weight loss. AKA diet culture.

Our understanding of the human body has advanced a lot since 1920, and yet calories are still an enduring aspect of diet culture that isn’t really that helpful as a measure of health. This is why it's not that useful and what you should focus on instead. 

Why thinking about nutrition and movement in calories is flawed:

  1. Calories don’t represent the effect different foods have on your body: 500 calories of MacDonalds will have a different impact on your blood sugars, hormones and cells, compared to 500 calories of fish and vegetables.
  2. Every body has a different resting metabolic rate. This means that if you and I sat around all day and did nothing, the amount of calories we burned would be different. Your body is a highly complex and sensitive system, and the way it processes food and burns energy is influenced by many factors including your age, gender, genetics, and how active you are.
  3.  The organisms in your gut also play a role in how much energy your body absorbs from food. meaning that the calorie counts on packaged foods, don't tell you how your body will digest and metabolise those calories.
  4. To add to this, calorie counts on fitness devices have been found to be notoriously inaccurate. A Stanford study that looked at the accuracy of seven different devices found that the calories burned metric was out by 27% at best and 93% at worst.

As Kerry O’Grady from the National Eating Disorders Association once said: "Calorie counters are built on algorithms and your body is not an algorithm".

Better things to focus on to manage your weight

  1. Place your focus on improving diet quality and diversity: Wholefoods over processed and a range of nutrients from different foods to charge the energy factories in your cells. Research suggests that the bacterial composition of gut microbiota differs between overweight and lean individuals, and that the Western-style diet which is high in fats and refined carbohydrates may promote increased intestinal bacteria linked to obesity.
  2. Learn how to balance your macro-nutrients: Protein, good quality dietary fibre, healthy fats and H20. Getting this balance right will reduce the need for snacking, support the body in healthy fat storage and burning and help you to feel satisfied and energised.
  3. Move your body in ways you enjoy and try not to fixate on the calorie count. Focus on the stuff that makes you feel good. Walk up a few hills every week, dance, stretch whatever makes you happy. Enjoyable and consistent movement will support the health of our metabolism and your mental health.
  4. Attend to your emotions and soothe your nervous system regularly. Stress and unchecked emotions cause a build up of stress hormones which also impact your health and weight.

Want to learn the nutrition and emotional health skills that will help you to live in harmony with your hormones, promote better gut health and feel more energised? Take a look at The Non-Diet Method

Research notes:

Metabolic rate Gut microbiome and is role in obesity Stanford study on fitness devices The gut and calorie burn