Stop Counting Calories and Just Eat Clean - An Opposing View
As of lately, I have seen the same images floating around Pinterest and Facebook with the same message – encouraging people to stop counting calories and start eating clean to lose weight. Here is some advice from someone who has lost 120+ lbs. – there is a point at which you absolutely have to track your calories consumed and calories burned (as accurately as humanly possible) to reach your fitness goals. This point comes much sooner for some than others.
To lose weight, and more specifically to lose fat, you must be eating fewer calories than you are burning each day, thus creating a caloric deficit and encouraging your body to utilize fat stores for energy. Everyone’s bodies are different (meaning that there is no one magic number of calories a person must consume to lose weight – it varies by individual) but NO ONE defies the laws of physics. If you are not losing weight, you are not eating in a caloric deficit.
This logic also applies to those trying to gain weight (bodybuilders, recovering anorexics, etc.), who must eat more calories than they are expending each day, thus creating a surplus of calories and encouraging their bodies to store fat and/or create muscle. If you are not gaining weight, you are not eating in a caloric surplus.
Contrary to popular belief, it is actually quite easy to overeat while eating a “clean” diet.
Example: You’ve stocked your cabinets with organic nut butter, raw nuts, whole grains and granola, and your refrigerator and countertops are overflowing with bananas, avocados, grapes, sweet potatoes, and more – how can you possibly overeat while eating SO healthy? It’s a lot easier than you think. All the things I just listed are actually calorie dense items. If you are eating clean and are not losing weight, the simple and honest truth is that you are consuming more calories than you think. That tablespoon of organic nut butter you measured out with a soup spoon is actually more like 2-3 servings (and an extra 200-300 calories) if you put it on a food scale. I know, what a bummer. At an obese weight, things like this may not make enough difference to stall weight loss considerably – but once you get to those last 15 or 20 pounds(for some, much sooner than that), it is imperative to track your calorie intake accurately if you want to shed the rest of the weight.
While eating clean is a very good idea for your health, mood, appearance and a multitude of other things – you cannot simply eat clean without changing other behaviors and be successful at losing weight and keeping it off for a lifetime. For example, if you have a propensity to overeat – you will still overeat unless you learn to modify the behavior. Your body does not care if you are eating too much sheet cake or too many apples – excess calories not used for energy will be stored as fat.
Counting calories gives you a much better understanding of portion sizes and food in general. Over the long-term, I have learned an unbelievable amount of information about food just by counting calories; whereas eating clean alone does also does not necessarily teach you anything about nutrition. Most calorie counting apps and programs will give detailed information about your macronutrient ratios: carbohydrates, protein and fats. While an individual is sustaining a caloric deficit, it is extremely important to get adequate protein intake to preserve precious lean mass (muscle). It is also important to eat meals that are a balance of all three macronutrients for optimum satiety. The only way you’re going to be able keep track of your macronutrients is to log what you’re eating.
The last point I want to make is the one that bothers me the most. By giving a positive connotation (clean) to some foods, a negative connotation gets applied by implication to others (dirty). I believe that “judging” food by applying either of these connotations is disordered thinking that, for many, has resulted in an eating disorder. Forming a healthy relationship with food is the key to making a lifestyle change conducive to weight loss, and this is impossible when you choose to live by categorizing all food as either clean or dirty, which psychologically can make you feel like you’ve done something good or bad just because of what you ate!
I see it time and time again… “I’m eating 100% clean, why am I not losing weight???”, leading those individuals to become discouraged and frustrated with meeting their weight loss goals. Those individuals are not doing anything wrong, they just need to run the numbers. I’m not at all saying that eating clean doesn’t have benefits, as I myself eat as clean as possible. But to me, the mantra of “just eat clean and the weight will fall off” is as misleading and uninformed as your average Saturday afternoon weight loss infomercial gimmick.
I’m going to end this post by restating a previous point:
If you are not losing weight, you are not eating in a caloric deficit.
And how do you know whether or not you are eating in a caloric deficit? By counting calories.