If you’ve been around more than 5 seconds, you’ve heard these before:
Okay, not so fast! It turns out, as a matter of fact, just within the past few days that the “metabolism slows as you age” meme is not as cut and dried as we thought.
If counting calories or losing weight in general when you’re over 50 confuses you, I’m here to cut through the noise and BS.
Contrary to anything else you have read (yes, I said anything), calories do count when trying to lose weight (or maintain it for that matter).
Sure some people eat what they want, stop when they’re satisfied, and move enough each day to maintain a stable weight.
But we’re not all like that! And that’s probably not you since you’re reading this. 😉
At its most basic, losing weight comes down to eating fewer calories than you burn (or burning more calories through exercise than you eat).
The CDC says, “Most weight loss occurs because of decreased caloric intake. However, evidence shows the only way to maintain weight loss is to engage in regular physical activity.”
By the time you finish reading this, you’ll know:
- what calories are
- why calories matter
- why a calorie is a calorie no matter what its composition
- all calories are not created equal
And yes, even if the last two points seem to contradict one another, bear with me! You’ll be glad you did in the end.
What’s The Big Deal About Calories?
Strictly speaking, a calorie is a unit of measure. Specifically it’s the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.
That sounds innocent enough. But the word itself is fraught with all sorts of controversy, not to mention intense internet arguments!
Why are calories important? It doesn’t really matter what you call them; but calories provide our bodies with the energy they need to perform basic functions like breathing, resting and sleeping.
They also provide us the energy to think, run, climb, drive, make love, and any other activity that requires effort.
Suffice it to say…you NEED calories! You can’t live without them.
Are Calories Bad?
It’s not the calories that are bad…it’s the slavish adherence to, or obsessive counting of them.
Some people obsess to the point of anxiety and in extreme cases, eating disorders. Those issues are best addressed by mental health professionals and are beyond the scope of what I’m writing about here.
Another reason some consider counting calories bad, is that two foods can have the same number of calories, but be wildly different in their nutritional value.
Let’s look at, say, Oreos vs. apples. It takes a couple of regular oreos to roughly equal 100 calories (2 of them are 106 calories to be precise).
How much apple do you get for 100 calories? A whole medium apple.
Which one do you think has more nutritional value? Of course the apple does.
And since it has fiber and more volume, it should fill you up for longer as well.
And that, my friends, is the reason people say calories don’t matter. Because eating 100 calories of Oreos is not as good for you as eating 100 calories of apple.
But here’s where the problems can arise. I don’t know about you, but if I’m craving a couple of Oreos, an apple is NOT going to cut it.
Even if I
shame talk myself into eating the apple, I’ll probably still want the Oreos!
So then I eat the apple and the Oreos. Yeah, not such a great idea, was it?
Overfeeding Leads To Weight Gain…Every Time
Study after study over the years has shown the same conclusion: overfeeding leads to weight gain.
An interesting one in the mid 1990s overfed subjects by 50% first with carbohydrates, and then with fat. Half the subjects were lean and half were obese.
When fed excess carbs, they stored about 75-85% of the excess energy.
When fed excess fat, however, they stored 90-95% of the excess energy! And carbs always get the bad rap!
In any case, more calories = weight gain every time.
And the corollary is true as well: fewer calories = weight loss. So, calorie counting works.
How To Navigate The Calorie Minefield
You can have a healthy relationship with calorie counting.
Maintaining a successful weight loss/weight maintenance journey involves a lot of things, like:
- being in it for the long haul
- understanding your brain and why you eat the way you do now
- being honest with yourself about what you’re eating/drinking
- gradually changing your eating habits so you don’t feel deprived
- enthusiastically discovering healthier ways to make favorite foods
- realizing that quick weight loss is almost guaranteed to be temporary
- acknowledging that exercise (or some kind of regular movement) is necessary
So calories count, for sure, but they’re not the only thing that counts.
If you are unable to get a handle on most of the above, you’ll probably end up being miserable, as well as firmly in the “calorie counting doesn’t work” camp.
A Calorie Is A Calorie, Is A Calorie
A true statement! Since a calorie, like an inch, is a unit of measurement, it means the same no matter if it’s from a Pop-Tart or an orange.
Of course we all know that Twinkies have virtually no nutritional value and are mostly fat and sugar. No one is saying that a Twinkie is good for you.
A Twinkie has 180 calories. Would a Twinkie fill you up and satisfy hunger? I doubt it. But if you wanted a Twinkie for some reason, you can certainly have one.
One-hundred eighty calories can certainly fit into your food plan for the day. But the 180 calories still count.
If you eat that Twinkie in addition to however many calories you need each day to maintain weight, in one year you will have gained about 19 pounds, all other things being equal.
So yes, Virginia, calorie counting most assuredly works!
But if better nutrition is what you’re after, of course you’re going to choose something other than a Twinkie most of the time.
What yummy treat could you eat for about the same calories that would be relatively healthy and perhaps even fill you up better?
How about a fudgy beet brownie? Yes, beet! These are really good.
Or a baked apple with cinnamon, some greek yogurt with fruit, a couple of Clementines, frozen pineapple or mango, sliced fruit with nonfat vanilla yogurt…
There are a lot of healthy, delicious choices available.
And let’s face it. If something fills you up more, you’re less likely to want to eat something else 5 minutes later. (At least based on hunger).
What If I Still Want The Twinkie????
Well, it’s true I said up there earlier that if I want Oreos and I eat an apple instead, I’ll probably still want the Oreos, right?
Yes, again, all things being equal.
But what if you could change something about your mindset? What if you could learn to WANT to eat stuff that’s good for you, and eat it in amounts that would allow you to lose…and then maintain…weight?
Maybe you can change to the point that you don’t WANT the Twinkie, and you WANT the orange instead.
Is that even possible?
Yes, it is.
How? You train yourself to do it. And once you do it, you will come to love it!
You will love the way your body responds, how you feel, how you look, and you will love that you feel in control.
Your Mind Is More Powerful Than You Think
Despite the feeling you may have in your gut right this minute that says, “NO!! Counting calories and restricting what I eat is torture! I’ve tried it before and I hate it,” you can train yourself to find pleasure in it.
Trust me, I know whereof I speak. The very thought of having to limit what I ate, or count calories, or deprive myself of something made me crazy.
But it comes down to what you value in life. What’s most important to you.
If you value being fit and healthy, then train your own thoughts to crave health, and develop habits that eventually become second nature.
You can look forward to finding new ways to eat things that you absolutely love and that support your health and your well-being.
It’s the exact opposite of feeling deprived!
How Are All Calories Not The Same?
Even though I just told you that a calorie is a calorie, it’s certainly true (as I’ve hinted) that they’re not equal in every way.
You can absolutely and totally lose weight (or maintain) on a junk food only diet. See here, too.
Both articles show that as long as you’re cutting calories you’ll lose weight. And, in both cases, other health markers improved too.
Does that mean you can just eat junk food all the time as long as your calories are okay? Well, yes, if you just want to maintain or lose weight.
But it’s a hard no if you want to be healthy long term.
The fact is, you need certain nutritients to function optimally. Fiber, vitamins, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, etc., are obviously the keys to good health.
Some Things To Watch Out For With Calorie Counting
If calorie counting is all I’ve said it is, why does it have such a bad reputation?
I’ve mentioned a few reasons already, but I believe it comes down to people being enslaved to every single calorie, becoming almost obsessive with it.
It’s absolutely true that you can take almost anything good or positive and turn it into a negative if you take it to an extreme.
Calorie counting is no exception. For people with obsessive/compulsive traits, counting calories could turn into a severe eating disorder.
Just like enjoying a run can turn into obsessively continuing to run even if you’re sick or injured is harmful, so excessively adhering to ever more precise calorie counting can become harmful.
But consistent overeating is not healthy, either. Virtually anything done to excess can potentially harm you. That’s not an excuse to throw up the white flag and surrender to the elements!
As long as you know the limitations, and you approach calories as neutral units of measurement designed to give your mind and body the energy they need to survive and thrive, you can succeed.
Calories Are Not The Enemy
Any more than money is the enemy just because some people overspend. It’s the spending habits or the eating habits that can go awry.
Look up “why counting calories is bad” or something similar.
The resulting articles typically say, either:
- not all calories are the same (already discussed above)
- calorie counts on foods aren’t always accurate
- fat doesn’t make you fat (irrelevent to the discussion)
- you might try to work off your calories
- obsessive behaviors aren’t healthy (duh)
- obsessing over labels means more processed foods (no, one doesn’t follow from the other)
- it doesn’t respect your body’s signals of hunger
None of that refutes what I’ve said above, and all can be mitigated with the right knowledge mindset.
If You Don’t Count Calories You’ll Count Something Else
If you don’t want to count calories can you still lose weight? Of course you can.
But for sure you will be restricting your calories in some way.
It will just be by focusing on whole foods, being more mindful of portions, eating mindfully and understanding your body’s hunger and satiety signals, etc.
Or cutting out some type of food completely: carbs, fat, grains, animal foods, sugar, gluten, and many more.
The truth is, whether you count calories or use some other restriction, you have to change something if you want to lose weight.
But you certainly CAN eat stuff you love and lose or maintain your weight, just by being sure you eat at a calorie deficit
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, because they are simply not telling you the truth.
Here’s the thing: you need to learn how to (happily) work the foods and activities you want into a lifestyle that will keep you fit AND healthy.
Learning this is how you get where you want to go. And learning to LOVE this and actually crave this is absolutely possible when you learn new ways of thinking and new habits to support this new lifestyle.
And that, my friend, is the only way to permanent health, weight loss and maintenance.
Make Calorie Counting Work For You
A wise person once said, “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”
Do you get that? Do you see the wisdom in that? You’re going to work one way or the other.
You alone can decide: will you work to improve your health, happiness, and vitality, or will you work in such a way that keeps you angry, defeated, and unhealthy?
Can you view calorie counting as an adventure and a positive thing instead of drudgery? Absolutely! Remember, you alone control your thoughts.
I love discovering lower calorie and/or healthier ways to make my favorite foods!
So consider calories your ally, figure out how to enjoy the amount you need to sustain you at a healthy weight, and learn to enthusiastically enjoy delicious food within the range that is best for you.
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