Count Nutrients, Not Calories


Something I often hear from patients trying to lose weight is they are counting calories. I ask, "is it working?" and often the answer I hear is some variation of no. We tend to set a high expectation for ourselves, saying we are worthy if we meet our caloric goal for the day, and if not? That's when we can spiral, giving up on our diet for the day, saying we will start again tomorrow. This creates a cycle of shame. We expect to adhere to these caloric guidelines 100% and when we fail, we beat ourselves up and give into all temptation. 

I have been there. It is not a rewarding place to be, and instead of feeling self love and acceptance, we create conditional self love, based on food and caloric intake. To end this cycle, we need to change the focus - I recommend shifting from counting calories to counting nutrients. 

I often use this example to point out the flaws in calorie counting. What is better for you - 200 calories of nuts and seeds or 100 calories of cookies? Most everyone  knows nuts and seeds are far healthier than cookies. Yet, with the reductionist mindset of calories, we trick ourselves into thinking we can eat anything as long as it is within our caloric goal while still maintaining health.  While I will agree, people can lose weight counting calories, I argue it is not the most beneficial way to be dieting and optimizing health. 

I challenge this idea, because health is a far better goal than something such as weight. There is research to show satiety is increased when we eat whole foods. We naturally eat fewer calories when consuming whole foods due to feeling full and satisfied by them. Contrary to highly processed food, which has been engineered to be addictive, it does not give us a sense of satiety, therefore we continue to eat more and more. 

Whole foods are full of complex vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that enhance our health and well-being. Something that processed, chemically based food cannot compete with. So the next time you decide to change your eating patterns or are looking to lose a few pounds - think about nutrient density of the foods you are eating, versus the caloric value they hold. 

A practical resource I use to track calories AND nutrients is Cronometer. I don't discourage some caloric tracking, I encourage a balanced mindset of moderate calories with high nutrient density. As calorie counting is time consuming and has the potential to become obsessive, I recommend tracking 3 days of the week to get an idea of where you fall within total nutrient intake and total caloric intake. Once you are on a somewhat regular diet, drop tracking to once a week for accountability purposes.