Don’t Waste Time Counting Calories.

chapter 1[This is 1 of 16 blogs that will be the basis of a book project – “16 Simple Truths to Lose Weight, Gain Strength and Be Happy.” The goal is to send the manuscript to a publisher by end of the year. Each of 16 chapters will cover one specific “truth.” Each blog, published about every other Tuesday, will be a synopsis of each chapter. You are now cordially invited to join the process. Please leave a comment and offer your thoughts, ideas and insight. Thank you.]

Oh, those tiny little calories. They do add up. And generally faster than we can do the math. But, for all the trouble, is your daily total even close to accurate? And if your intake number was on the money, how about the count on those little rascals as they were expended? If your intake is off and you compound that with an inaccurate burn rate, then obviously your net energy balance is just . . . well, wrong. Oh, and did your caloric total breakdown into the correct ratio of macronutrients? Good grief, you might as well earn a Master’s in Mathematics or at least an Associates in Accounting

math-education-student-smTo cut to the calorie chase, stop counting. For the love of goodness, just stop! That said, understand calories count. That’s right. “Stop counting calories, but calories count. Stop.” Those seven words just may be the secret to reducing your waist line and more importantly your risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, a range of cancers, and more. In fact, if you just lived that line, you would likely yield years of healthy living.

Now, let’s see that again in slow motion. A calorie is nothing more than a unit of heat measurement. To measure the potential energy in food scientist use a bomb calorimeter to combust the food. As the food burns it heats the surrounding air which is directed out of the device via a copper tube submersed in water, thus transferring the heat to the water. The increase in water temperature is then used to calculate actual “Calories” of the food being burned.

The inherent problem is the body doesn’t work like a bomb calorimeter. There are many factors and circumstances that affect actual calorie count such as the body not fully processing starches/fibers in comparison, the lack of consistency between batches of processed foods, product differences in whole foods like soil and growing  conditions, ripeness at time of harvest, animal’s diet, length of storage and even preparation method and cooking time. Not to mention that only a mere fraction of the 40,000 items that you could choose to put in your grocery cart has even been tested. Most are calculated based on a previously inaccurate measurement of something else “similar.”

Many estimate the caloric error being as much as +/- 25%. And that’s if you actually put in your calories consumed accurately. Surprise, most don’t. You can add a minimum of 20% less calories going into the calculator than went in the tummy. Some studies show as much as 50%. But enough about our cheating ways. What about burning calories? Can’t we do that accurately? In a word, make that two, “not really.” We can get off to a good start by calculating our RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate), that is, roughly how many calories we burn at rest given our oxygen consumption, weight and age. On average the RMR of a physically active person is about 60% of their daily energy expenditure, which includes all vital functions, like a heartbeat. It does not include movement or digestive activity. The outcome of an assortment of methodologies gets you to an error rate of +/- 10%. Then you still need to figure out the other 40% of the expenditure, which breaks down to 30% needing to come from movement with the remaining 10% come from other factors like the thermic effect of various foods, the process of healing, or staying warm.

The bottom line is the gap between having the right caloric count going in and the right calorie count going out could easily be 30 to 50% off, and the more you eat the less accurate it becomes. So, if my seven secret words, “Stop counting calories, but calories count. Stop.” is in fact, meaningful, and it is, what’s next? It’s as simple as:

  1. Stop. Don’t eat what you know is not good for you – at least 5 to 6 days per week
  2. Win with 3 pairs every day; fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, and nuts and seeds.
  3. Each Meal (as suggested by the good folks at Precision Nutrition
    • 2 fist sized portions of vegetables
    • 1-2 palm-sized portions of lean meat
    • 2 cupped handfuls of carb dense foods (most meals) – whole or sprouted grain bread, whole grain pasta, oats, potatoes, legumes, beans, fruit
    • 2 thumb sized portions of fat dense foods – eggs, dairy, cheese, nuts, seeds
    • Drink water, coffee, tea or diluted fruit juice
  4. Eat whole, minimally processed foods
  5. Eat a wide variety of food

That’s it! Now, how do you hold yourself accountable and track your success. Add one more pair – the dynamic duo of changing dimensions – the scale and a full-length mirror. Yes, mirror. Together they simply cannot lie. Once a week for the scale – always same day of the week, same time (preferably when you wake up), and always wearing the same thing – nothing.

As far as the mirror goes, I suggest once or twice a month. And what are you looking for? Change. Know where those lost pounds came from, allow yourself to see the success and visualize further improvement. It may seem weird at first. But trust me, you’ll get over it. After all, this is about you . . . your health . . . your happiness. Besides it’s way easier than tracking how many calories  is in what; remembering what you ate to begin with; and finding the time to do all that math. Not to mention recording all the gory details.

If we’re talking lifestyle change, let’s get real! Who has time or inclination to count calories forever more? Your new motto should be, “If you can’t do it for a lifetime, it’s not worth learning the behavior.” How many people have you ever heard say, “I would love to be healthier for seven months?” That’s what I thought. Over 90 percent of people who followed some contrived diet regain their original weight, and more within 12 months. In other words, as a rule, the biggest loser, in time, earns the title all over again.

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