Wednesday, January 28, 2015

calorie counting: the good, the bad and the ugly

It's one of the most common questions I get asked and the most common false assumption by people [mostly women] trying to "be healthy."

How many calories do I need?

Since NYC shut down yesterday and much of today, classes were cancelled so all my meals were eaten at home yesterday, hence the lack of tupperware :) 
WIAW breakfast // PB&J oats made with chia seeds + almond milk + vanilla extract + a sliced banana 
mid morning snack // homemade chocolate chip cookie dough "Laraball"

The diet + fitness industry is largely to blame for misinforming the public, causing thousands upon thousands of women [and men!] to believe that healthy means chronic calorie deprivation. But, if I'm being honest, I think far too many healthcare professionals are lending false advice as well. Now, hear me out, I am by no means saying that healthcare professionals, particularly fellow RDs, are intentionally giving false advice and recommendations- rather, I think there's a huge misconception and lack of education surrounding how much energy our bodies truly need and what factors play into weight gain, weight maintenance, amenorrhea, hypothyroidism, etc, etc, etc. 

And just to be clear, no health professional - including myself - knows everything. The second we begin thinking we do know everything is when you become the worst healthcare provider because the learning never stops and there is no such thing as knowing it all. So, I too, love learning from other health professionals and still have lots to learn! But my hope is, this post will shed some light on a topic that's wrapped up in false interpretation + confusion.

lunch // kale salad [massaged with 1 tsp EVOO and 1 tbsp ACV + sea salt] topped with roasted butternut squash, green beans and chopped bell pepper
two rice cakes topped with hummus, sunflower seeds and hemp seeds
two clementines

When I googled, "how many calories do I need?" it gave me 20,300,000 hits and the first five resources that contained online calorie calculators all gave me a different number. Using the first online tool, when I put in my height and weight and a "medium" activity level [since I walk to/from school, about 4-5 miles/day, but do sit often with class/studying] it generated these numbers. As a side note, I'm 5'6" with a very average pant size- all that to say, these numbers reflect your average woman. 

Some people might think these numbers are high, some maybe low, but many will think these numbers are what they should be eating. As an RD though, I screamed at my computer screen with a "WHAT?!"

You guys, eating 1250 or even 1450 calories to lose weight is not healthy, but that's what we're told by many online sources, advertisements and magazine articles. I'd argue also that 1750 is low for maintaining weight while being moderately active and 1950 is definitely borderline for an accurate estimate of calorie needs. Keep in mind that these estimations are based on no formal exercise such as running, cross-fit, yoga, elliptical or anything like that- this is just if you went about your day to day life. For many active men and women, calorie needs are 2500+ depending on how much or how often you work out- and so often I hear people mention eating 1,200 or 1,400 or 1,600 calories to lose weight while working out too.

The most amazing thing about our bodies is their ability to burn through energy if we give them sufficient energy day in and day out- creating a calorie deficit day after day after day wreaks absolute havoc on your hormones and can actually lead to weight gain, or at least difficult weight maintenance in the long run. My greatest joy in working with Nutshell clients is when they realize how much they can eat while maintaining a healthy weight now that they're bodies aren't under constant calorie restriction. There's so much freedom in that.

afternoon snacks // popcorn + PB&J 
post Jillian Michaels sweat sesh green smoothie // 1 cup almond milk + 1/2 scoop Vega One +  frozen banana + spinach 

But my point in all of this is that online calorie counters are misleading and even more importantly, our bodies are not an exact science. They don't work off an input/output system and without some hardcore science and expensive equipment, you will never know the exact amount of calories your bodies takes in or expends. Calories in and calories out isn't a black-and-white-absolute thing, there's a whole lot of gray. 

Which is exactly why calorie counting can be detrimental. Too often, we eat based on an arbitrary number versus what our body is telling us. If you ate lunch at noon and you're hungry by 2pm then you should eat because hunger means eat. It sounds simple, but somehow it's become so complicated. If you don't eat you end up sending your body into hormonal mayhem that only leads to irritability, fat storage and inflammation. 

With that said though, if you're feeling completely clueless on how much you should be eating [which many, many people are and that's OKAY] then talk to a credible health professional you trust about your own unique needs- as you adjust to eating enough, calorie counting can be extremely helpful to ensure you're eating enough when your hunger cues aren't quite reliable. Intuitive eating isn't always a good thing.

dinner // miso gravy bowl with sautéed kale 
night time snack // slice of this banana crumb bread and a square of chocolate 

The body is not a machine where we plug in a certain number and are guaranteed a certain outcome. There's so many factors besides calories- body composition, hormones, sleep, stress, exercise, illness, and so much more. So not only are online calorie calculators extremely misleading, adhering to an arbitrary calorie number can be extremely detrimental to your long term health- especially if that number is below your body's estimated calorie needs. Calorie restriction day in and day out leads to a whirlwind of health problems. If healthy weight loss is your goal, restricting calories every day isn't going to lead to sustainable weight loss, but rather difficult weight maintenance.

There's a lot of nutrition information out there and unfortunately, much of it is deceptive and just plain confusing. Health and wellbeing is far more than simply calories. And most importantly, you're body needs MUCH more than 1200 calories a day. More than 1600. In most cases more than 1800. And often more than 2000. 

Our bodies are meant to be nourished based on their present demand, not based on general, arbitrary numbers or a certain time of day.