At seemingly every restaurant now, each menu item is accompanied with its caloric value. This idea caught on about twenty years ago, and now it is everywhere. But recently there has been controversy about the benefit of counting calories. One side believes you need to count calories to lose weight; the other thinks counting calories does not aid in losing weight.
The honest truth is both sides are correct. In their own way.
The Benefits of Counting Calories
The scientific definition of a calorie is the heat energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. The “urban definition” is calories are often used to describe the amount of energy you receive from food consumption.
The energy your body receives from food is used to build up tissue and utilize it for immediate use to keep your body running. Any extra energy is stored as body fat. In order to ensure the buildup of body fat is minimal, the number of calories consumed should not be over your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
The BMR is the amount of energy needed to keep your basic body functions going. These functions are metabolism (such as brain, kidney, lung, and heart functions), digestion, and physical activity.
Following the same logic used with a counting calorie diet, consuming fewer calories would mean your body needs to turn to the fat stores for the energy your body needs, thus causing you to lose weight.
Although, this makes sense, logically, many people are still gaining weight on a counting calorie diet.
The Issues with Counting Calories
While the basic premise of eating less will cause you to lose weight makes sense, it is only correct if the right calories are consumed. Calories from the different macros have varying effects on the body. Some of those effects will cause you to gain weight even if you are consuming fewer calories.
Many people who participate in a counting calorie diet know that some calories are better than others but chose to count calories because it is simpler to understand. But understanding what the macros do is simpler than one might think.
Carbs are the worst of the three macros. Why? All carbs are broken down into glucose or sugar. The body will use glucose over other energy sources because it is the easiest to break down and use quickly. Also, glucose is needed to power proper cell functions, especially brain cells. In fact, when carbs are consumed, the brain recognizes the glucose and releases dopamine. We all know too much dopamine can cause an addiction. This can happen with glucose as well.
Even though your body prefers glucose, it can have adverse effects if overeaten. These effects include inflammation of cells (including brain cells) and insulin resistance. These two effects can lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, memory impairment, and a lack of energy.
Over consuming carbs is very easy. Not only is it the primary macros available in the American diet, but carbs also do not give you a feeling of fullness. This causes a tendency to eat more.
Although your body prefers glucose for energy, it only needs a little to provide cells with the appropriate amount of glucose.
Even though carbs are the worst of the macros, there are still good and bad carbs. Keep in mind, though, that you only need about 5-10% of carbs in your diet. The good carbs are really only better than bad carbs.
Bad carbs are simple carbs. They are basically already sugar that your body does not need to break down much, if at all, before utilizing it. These carbs include sugary drinks, fruit drinks, candy, most desserts, and cereal.
Better carbs are complex carbs. They take a little more effort for the body to break down and have other nutrients besides sugar. Often these complex carbs have fiber in them. Fiber helps you feel full and causes the body to digest food slower. Complex carb foods include fresh fruit, veggies, beans, and nuts.
When choosing which carbs, choose a complex carb. You tend not to overeat them, and they have other nutrients that are beneficial for your body. But be careful even with these carbs.
Protein is a funny macro because it is overvalued. Don’t get us wrong, protein is essential in many ways, but not as much as people think.
This second macro is essential for building and repairing tissue. It also is a building block for bone, muscle, cartilage, skin, and blood development and health. Additionally, protein aids in making enzymes and hormones.
One issue of protein is that the body does not store protein, so we need to consume it to get the benefits of protein. But too much protein can be converted to carbs. Unfortunately, people are consuming more protein than needed by large amounts.
The recommended amount of protein needed has been broken up into the following categories.
Active men and teen boys should consume three daily servings of protein for a total of 7 ounces.
For young children, the elderly, and inactive women, they should consume two daily servings totaling five ounces.
Older children, teen girls, and active women should consume a total of 6 ounces over a period of two days.
It isn’t a lot, is it? Your body does not need a lot of protein.
As many do, it is good to accompany protein consumption with exercise, but it is the exercise that builds muscle, not protein. Protein simply helps the muscles repair from the strain of exercise.
Another possible issue with consuming too much protein is the production of ammonia. The body naturally produces ammonia to break down protein. Experts are worried about the possible long-term issues of exposure to excessive amounts of ammonia because of excess protein.
As with carbs, there are good and bad protein. Protein to avoid is red meat. Good proteins include beans, nuts, and fish.
This macro is by far the best of the three. Not only does it provide the most energy, it also gives a feeling a fullness. You will not overeat on fatty foods unless you really try.
The good kind of fat you need to focus on are unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fat is considered the heart-friendly fat and the healthiest of the three types of fat. Unsaturated fat has two forms: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated which includes omega 3 and omega 6.
Each of the types of unsaturated fat has various benefits. Monounsaturated protects the heart, supports weight loss, and supports insulin sensitivity. Polyunsaturated lowers “bad” cholesterol. Omega 3 reduces triglycerides, slows plaque buildup in arteries, and lowers blood pressure. Omega 6 reduces the risk of diabetes, lowers blood pressure, and controls blood sugar.
Foods that consist of unsaturated fat include nuts, avocados, many oils, salmon, and leafy greens.
The types of fat to avoid are saturated and trans-fat. These foods tend to increase blood sugar levels causing insulin resistance, a rise in bad cholesterol, and raise the risk of heart disease.
Foods to avoid that have this unhealthy fat are baked goods, snack foods, and processed foods.
For more of break down of fat, read “The Facts about the Types of Fat.”
Another problem with counting calories is they are often miscounted. Many studies have been conducted to determine the weight loss benefit of counting calories found that many people miscounted their calorie intake, often by thousands. This was even the case with nutritionists.
Calories are hard to keep track of, especially when food is prepared at home. Often the caloric value of food changes according to how it is prepared and what foods are eaten together.
Additionally, the BMR you are trying to match when counting calories is hard to determine. Many factors influence BMR including cold, heat, insulin levels, testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, and even your mood. Your BMR change so often that trying to consistently consume calories equal to or less than your BMR is extremely difficult.
It is better to focus on the macro portions.
It is also better to learn how to listen to your body. Your body knows when it is full, especially if you are eating a healthy fat focused diet. Listen to your body and only eat when you are hungry.
Choosing to diligently count calories is a lifestyle change, but as already mentioned, counting calories has challenges.
Instead, focus your diet on healthy, filling foods and add other healthy habits. These habits include exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and avoid stress. Adding these lifestyle changes will help you be healthier overall.
Even though counting calories makes sense logically, it has serious disadvantages. Instead, it is better to increase your physical health through good lifestyle changes and monitoring your diet by portioning your macros correctly.
For more information on how to correctly manage your macro portioning read “The Difference Between Keto and Low Carb.”
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