Year after year as soon as the New Year approaches it is never long before I hear someone vowing to go on a diet. Whether it has been my mother, her friends, or family members there has been an association with calorie counting and health, and I am not so sure the two should be associated so closely and definitely. I feel hypocritical advising others against calorie counting. I myself have vigorously counted the calories time and time again. I have even kept food diaries and charts, and found myself in tears when I had consumed more calories than I was ‘allowed’. It’s taken a long time, but I have shifted my outlook drastically. I want to emphasise that in those times of restriction I was unhappy, irritable, and the most malnourished I’ve ever felt. Focusing on the quantity of food and recording everything is exhausting, and I want to explain why it is utterly unnecessary. Focusing on the quality of the nourishment in your diet is a resolution that is a realistic commitment.
A calorie is a unit of measurement for the energy potential of food and is measured by bomb calorimeters which do not work the same way as our bodies. What we predict our bodies to do may not necessarily happen. The key word to focus on here is ‘potential’. To me, this word is perfect to explain why calorie counting is dangerous. Think of it this way, considering those calories come from wholesome, nutritious food the ‘potential’ is the vital energy we need to nourish and encourage our bodies. Studies by Dr Michael Noonan illuminate this point. Noonan emphasises in an article written for Bangor Daily News that we should not eat anything that “isn’t food” this includes hydrogenated fats and artificial sweeteners which are common ingredients in low calorie diet foods. Noonan continues and argues that using low fat foods to control weight is a myth we must start debunking, making it clear that a diet low in fat will also be a diet low in vital fat based nutrients like vitamins A, D, and E. Dr Michael Noonan’s study encourages an attitude that If we can help it, we should aim to maximise the energy potential from our food not deplete it. That we need to work with our metabolism, not against it no matter how frustrating it can be. Our bodies thrive off of energy, and whilst nutrition is a way of life, calorie counting is a distraction from life.
I think it is important to compare the goal of both calorie counting and nutrition watching. The ultimate goal for counting calories and restriction is weight loss, but what about health? Unless you have been advised by a doctor or health professional to lose weight because it is affecting the quality of your life surely weight loss should not be a goal. Those two words ‘weight loss’ have become words I now associate with danger, sadness, and emptiness. Now I’m by no means saying weight gain should be a goal but I attempting to illustrate a point. My point, is that our bodies want to be healthy. They want nutrients, vitamins, healthy fats, and occasional treats. Our bodies need balance and unnecessary
weight loss is a threat to that balance. Nutrition doesn’t need to be associated with weight, because that isn’t the goal. The goal is health and wellness. When weight is no longer the centre of attention, it can be replaced with health. If only I had asked myself questions such as “how am I ensuring my health is optimized, and my body is strong?” instead of “how much weight do I still need to shift?” maybe I wouldn’t obsess over making it my business to analyse and scrutinize the latest health regimes.
It may have taken me until adolescence to learn that the process of burning fat or turning nutrients into energy is more complex than simply calorie counting. That if the goal is to lose weight the body will respond better when lean muscle mass is increased, but I’m glad. I’m glad that I had to learn the hard way. Needing to educate myself about the way my body works as a shameful result of depleted health has made nutrition a definite priority in my life. Committing yourself to counting the amount of nutrients you are feeding your body is a far more freeing and manageable approach to your diet. I really do empathise with people who cannot shift their focus from consuming as little calories and fat as possible to wholeness, relaxation, and nutrition because the two mind-sets are unfortunately constantly referred to in unison. We are constantly being fed conflicting information, however, as a way to grasp hold of some clarity I urge you to contemplate one question: How can we possibly recover from running out of energy? And I invite you to share my resolution to view every mealtime as an opportunity to nourish and be kind to your body.
P.S Chocolate is not off the menu (so long as it is raw)
Sarah Wood, Online Features Columnist