Why Low Calorie Eating is Futile - and Why It's Not Your Fault.
Updated: Apr 2, 2019
As a registered dietitian and a future certified intuitive eating counselor, I don’t encourage low calorie eating. The side effects of low calorie eating include a lowered metabolism, increased preoccupation with food thoughts, increased likelihood of feeling out of control or binging and weight cycling or yoyo dieting… It’s simply not something I can ethically endorse as a registered dietitian.
Calories = Energy
Think of calories for what they are: units of energy. Or, more simply put, energy. When you reframe calories this way, it can help put some of the low calorie nonsense in perspective. Suddenly, low calorie eating becomes low energy eating. Low calorie meals become low energy meals. Snacks that “should” have a certain calorie limit are also going to be limited in the energy they provide. Calorie counting becomes especially problematic when the ‘recommended amount’ happens to be inadequate compared to what your body actually needs. Did you know that our energy needs fluctuate each and every day? Did you know many RDs (whether they identify as non-diet or not!) are in agreement that the number most commonly recommended from popular calorie counting apps more closely resembles starvation than it resembles health? Did you know that 70% of your energy needs are for keeping your organs well fueled and adequately functioning? Organs that are kinda important, like your heart, lungs, digestive system, etc.
If you've ever struggled to 'stick with it’ when it comes to low calorie eating or counting, know this isn’t a lack of will power. No wonder it’s hard to stick to for a long time - the inability to do so is your body fiercely fighting for your wellbeing. It’s important to say that while I definitely don’t recommend low calorie eating, I also don’t necessarily recommend calorie counting in general. It may be important for you to have a meal plan to make sure you’re eating adequately if your cues aren’t reliable, but outright calorie (or macro) counting is rarely ever necessary.
The great irony is that we are so concerned with getting the ‘right amount’ of energy that it often means we end up underfeed, because we don’t give our bodies enough credit. And when our bodies are underfueled, we often end overshooting what we need as a form of protection. If you pull a pendulum back in one direction, it will most certainly swing through to the opposite side. There’s a way to feel more flexible around food, and to avoid pingponging between chaos and rigidity, and it's intuitive eating.
Imagine a day with adequate energy from food. It won’t mean you’re less sleep deprived or less stressed (those are other areas we could work on though!), but it would mean that you’d get through your day without the added effort of feeling fatigued or tired from a lack of food, or thinking about food in a nearly constant way.
There’s a big public health drive to make calorie counts known to consumers. The theory is that this will allow consumers to have more information regarding nutrition - but it’s also thought to be helpful in helping people to ‘control their weight.’ First things first, your weight and your body do not need controlling. Instead, it may be helpful to consider what it would mean to show your body (and it’s natural set point) more respect. Second, your weight is much more nuanced than calories in, calories out. There are many different factors that affect a persons weight - we owe weight to genetic disposition, previous life experiences (including the number of diets a person has been on), social determinants of health, relationship to food and movement, hormone levels, feedback from the brain intended to protect our bodies, and possibly even the myriad bacteria within our bodies.
The truth is, calorie information doesn’t tell you much about the nutrition of a certain food, meal or snack. Calories simply tell you how much energy that food provides, and this information is pretty much useless outside of what you’ve learned about what your body needs from past experience. The reality is, different types of food will make different people feel differently. As will different quantities. And this will vary, each any every day.
Variance is Normal
It’s a myth that our bodies need the exact same amount of energy each day. Variance is normal, and we have research to support this. The suggestion that our body’s needs are static is another major flaw of calorie counting. The idea that you can calculate one number and then that meets your needs for 365 days per year is simply inaccurate. When calorie counting is encouraged, there’s zero room for the very normal variance that occurs, and this often leads to feelings of guilt or overt control, which usually backfires. Some days we eat more, other days we eat less. If we don’t mess with things and try to exert control on our bodies, this normal occurrence evens out pretty well.
Margin of Error
While I’m not here to debate the law of thermodynamics, calories in/calories out is an oversimplification of how our bodies work. Weight regulation is much more complex. Even if we felt calories in/calories out was accurate (which this RD doesn’t), the desire to control our intake through specific calculations and calorie counts may be futile for another reason. How do we know these calorie counts are even accurate? Food companies are allowed a certain margin of error (up to 20%) when it comes to food labels. The FDA is fairly busy, so I’m not sure how often this even gets policed - not to be a conspiracy theorist, but it could have an even wider margin in some instances. So, any sort of calorie count you create is likely to be at least +/- 20% of what you expect. This doesn’t account for the decades old research that suggests we aren’t good at estimating proper amounts of what we eat. I’ve known about this for years as I learned about it getting my degrees, but as I’ve become aware of the science behind Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size, I feel further supported that this is simply a sign that we aren’t meant to micromanage what we eat.
So, what to do instead?
Here’s where intuitive eating comes in. Intuitive eating is the anecdote to the belief that you need to micromanage your food. Intuitive eating encourages a person begin to get curious and notice in order to be more connected to their bodies. Notice how food - or critical thoughts around food - makes them feel. Notice the signs of hunger within their bodies. Notice what they need to feel comfortably satiated, and what they need to be satisfied.
Each person has had different experiences, so becoming an ‘intuitive eater’ may take time and varying levels of support for different people. Regardless, I strongly and passionately believe that all people are able to unlearn what you’ve learned, and reconnect with your intrinsic ability to feed yourself, free from preoccupation and distress. No matter who you are or what your story is, you simply do not need to micromanage your body. How is the belief that you do serving you?