Counting calories doesn’t add up

When it comes to reaching your health goals, it turns out quality matters more than quantity.

Food isn’t just calories, it's information.

This article first appeared in print in the February 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

Calories, the first listing on nutrition labels, are defined as the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1°C . We’ve all heard the maxim: burn more calories than you consume if you want to lose weight. Certainly, calories burned in a lab (a closed system without variables) are consistent in the heat they release. Yet your body is not a closed system, nor an empty woodstove. Your body is a complex biochemical, hormonal interplay controlled primarily by what you eat. The quality of food you eat matters more than the quantity. And thankfully, it’s a lot easier to control. Science shows that food is much more than another log on the fire – it’s information that regulates almost every function of our body, including immune function, gut flora, brain chemistry, muscle mass, hormonal regulation, metabolism, and gene expression. Food is no less than the cipher that programs your biology.

Over-fed, undernourished

In order to metabolize what we eat, the body requires vitamin and minerals. When we consume foods that are void of nutrients, we end up at a nutrient deficit. This negatively affects all aspects of health.

Can’t get no satiation

Low-calorie, processed foods are not going to trigger satiety nor burn calories the way a high-calorie food containing healthy fat and protein would. Fibre and water content found in whole foods are also integral to satiation, effective function of the digestive system, and even calories burned through digestion. This lack of satiation triggers food cravings, and can lead to intake of high-sugar foods, overeating, fat storage, and an unwanted ride on the blood sugar rollercoaster.

The metabolic maze

Foods are metabolized through different pathways. Some pathways initiate fat storage, while others are more likely to initiate fat burning. The carbohydrate fructose, for example, can only be metabolized by the liver, while glucose can be metabolized by every cell in the body; this makes fructose more likely to be stored as fat. Certain macronutrients also contribute more to building muscle and, in turn, increase resting metabolism.

Insulin the influencer

It’s hormones that tell our bodies what to do, not calories. Insulin is the main hormonal driver of weight gain. The foods we eat determine our sensitivity to insulin, and foods that don’t trigger insulin are more favourable for fat loss. Drastically fluctuating insulin levels contribute to anxiety, mood swings, and further hormone imbalance.

The Cortisol cushion

A survival mechanism, cortisol spikes when insulin crashes, in order to keep us alert. Another survival mechanism? Depositing fat around the abdomen when we’re stressed, because winter is coming and our body wants to help us make it through. Balancing blood sugar, sleeping well, and managing stress, therefore, are much worthier goals than calorie counting when it comes to weight loss and disease prevention.

To live and diet

Counting calories takes time and effort that could be spent getting to the bottom of your health concerns, discovering what foods work for your unique body, preparing delicious meals, and enjoying life. Rather than focusing on something you’re depriving yourself of (calories), focus on how you can nourish yourself, with nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory food that makes you feel good. When we focus on counting numbers outside of ourselves, we outsource our own intelligence. You’re the expert on your body; connect and listen. Notice how what you eat makes you feel, and adjust accordingly. Take a trip to the farmers market and stock up on a wide variety of local, organic, seasonal whole foods. Don’t delay loving and accepting yourself where you’re at. These radical acts can shift eating from a place of punishment and confusion to one of celebration, healing, and progress.