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Friday, July 11, 2014

7 Strategies to Solve the Calorie Debate

To count or not to count?
“I barely made it under my calorie quota yesterday, but I succeeded!” my client proudly said, handing me a very itemized daily food journal providing total calories, macronutrients, and certain micronutrients. 

I knew just how detailed the $10-a-month website that itemized these foods could be, and all those numbers made my head spin. “Just eat real food and stop counting,” I replied, perhaps appearing a little snappy dismissing her journal.

For what felt like eons, I had made “Calories count, but hormones count more” my clients’ mantra. Why wasn’t this woman obediently heading my hard-earned advice?

Except more recently, something changed. I’ve been carrying about five refuse-to-vacate pounds around my midsection for a while. You would never know it unless you saw me naked, and, well, you’re not going to see me naked. Regardless, as a fitness expert, those extra pounds felt unacceptable.

Never one to leave any stone unturned, I addressed food intolerances. I
nixed empty carbs. If a colleague promoted a popular diet, I wholeheartedly tried it.

Over time, I figured out the problem. I wasn’t eating too much sugar, fat, or anything else. I didn’t have food intolerances.

I was eating too many calories, period.

So I went against everything I believed, everything my mentors taught me to believe, and reduced my caloric intake.

Those extra five pounds: Gone.

Have I swallowed the (no-sugar-added) Kool-Aid, concluded calories constitute the whole picture, and recommend some cool website that tracks your daily caloric intake? Not quite, and here’s why.

Calories Count… But Wait, They Don’t
The calorie argument refuses to die. “A calorie is a calorie, period,” argues one camp. Some of these folks are pretty smart and bring in highbrow concepts like the second law of thermodynamics to prove their point.

On the other are those who argue that calories count, but hormones count more. All calories are not equal, they say, and different foods influence different hormones that tell your body to do things like burn or store fat. “Your body is a chemistry lab, not a bank account,” says my friend JJ Virgin.

The debate can become heated. Recently, Jonathan Bailor stirred the pot calling his book The Calorie Myth. A famous protein-bar manufacturer picked up one of Bailor’s videos and all hell broke lose.

How dare Bailor claim calories don’t count, enraged customers asked. The protein-bar manufacturer quickly pulled Bailor’s video, and out of the brouhaha came James Fell’s blog The Science Behind Why Calories Matter - And Why Dismissing Them Is Naïve.

“Saying weight loss is not about calories is sexy, and it sells books,” Fell says. 
Yes! I screamed. Finally, someone has the balls to confront the feel-good calorie-are-irrelevant arguments I constantly read in popular fat-loss books and blogs.

Except that, wait: No one ever argued calories don’t matter for fat loss. Not one single responsible person I’ve met in my whole life made that claim.

What some experts argue is that calories count, but hormones count more. That’s a really big difference than saying calories don’t matter at all.

As if to add to the confusion, Dr. Frank Lipman just wrote a blog entitled Why You Don't Need To Count Calories Ever Again.

Contrary to what your Momma, track coach, or even doctor led you to believe, all calories are NOT created equal, and thinking you’ll lose weight simply by counting them or cutting them will likely leave you hungry, irritable, malnourished and not much lighter than you were when you started,” writes Lipman, who goes on to call calorie counting “nutritional navel-gazing.”

You need to count calories for weight loss, butYou don’t need to count calories for weight loss? What if I argued both perspectives have excellent points? Can’t we all just pour a nice glass of red wine, have some warm baguette (gluten-free, if you must) with butter, and agree to disagree?

Then I read an enlightening blog in The Huffington Post from David Katz, MD, entitled Fructose, Fruit, and Frittering, which helped clarify my confusion.

“[W]e are frittering away our social capital,” writes Katz, in response to Dr. Robert Lustig’s comment that sugar is toxic. “We are frittering away our capacity to inform and empower. The more silly messages we propagate and retract, the less people take any of us ‘nutrition experts’ seriously.”
I’m not sure debating whether calories count is silly, but squabbling about it sure becomes confusing. I wondered whether both pro- and anti-calorie counting groups could come together and find common ground.

A More Rational Approach to Calorie Counting
For the record, I’m all about robust debate. Nutrition should be controversial. But we’re missing the bigger picture splitting hairs.

Listen, even as I write, folks are gorging on all sorts of trans-fatty, high-fructose corn syrup Franken-conconctions. Rather than obsess over whether their asparagus is non-GMO and organic, they need to eat asparagus, period.

Can we at least agree on some fundamental stuff? I want to create common ground among the squabblers and scholars. So from here on out, I propose that:

1.      Vegetables are healthy. We should all be eating more green leafy and cruciferous vegetables, right? Right.
2.     No one ever got fat eating carrots. Carrots are among the whole, nutrient-rich foods that have a high glycemic index, plus they’re a little high in carbs, but I have never, ever met a client who ate too many carrots and suddenly had to shop the plus size at Lane Bryant.
3.     Reducing but not eliminating added sugar is probably a good idea. The easiest way to do this involves eating whole, unprocessed foods. Second best is to rigorously read labels. “I will never eat sugar again” becomes a surefire way to suddenly find yourself devouring a pint of Chunky Monkey.
4.     Calories count, but there’s no need to count them. Eat whole, unprocessed foods until you’re full, slow down when you eat, and chances are your brain will get the message to stop eating.
5.     Everyone has a different metabolism. Calorie counting works for some people; for others, not so much. Figure out what works for you, but don’t proselytize that your way works best.
6.     Food should be pleasurable. By micromanaging every little detail, we’ve sapped all the fun and joy out of eating. Meals should be enjoyable, not a math or science experiment. The late, great Robert Crayhon said that pleasure is a nutrient.
7.     Sometimes you just need to step away from your laptop and live life. No one ever changed anyone’s mind posting a snarky rebuttal coupled with a contrary study in a Facebook comment thread. I love reading well-researched, rational debate about controversial subjects like calorie counting, but a great big world exists beyond the Internet. Nature calls; your friends would probably like to see you for dinner; besides, you’ve probably been sitting too long so go take a walk. Like, now.

But first, take a minute to share your thoughts. What commonsensical strategies would you add to this list? Share your thoughts below or on my Facebook fan page.
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Fitness expert and strength coach Jini Cicero, CSCS, teaches intermediate exercisers how to blast through plateaus to create incredible transformations. Are you ready to take your fitness to a whole new level?  Find out now!  Take Jini's "Are you Ready?" Quiz at© 2014 Jinifit, Inc.

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