Is it important to track calories?
Over the years I have shifted in and out of phases of having all clients track calorie intake. When I have clients track calories; some see weight loss, some see weight gain, most see no change, and a few see weight loss with body fat increase. The idea is simple, if you eat less calories than you burn in a day you lose weight. So why does calorie counting only work for some people?
It is true that calories-in vs. calories-out is important to losing weight. The problem is not all calories are equal. The body is very complex and treats different types of food in different ways. Calories from the macronutrients are all treated differently. One calorie of protein is different from one calorie of fat and one calorie of carbohydrates. Even deeper, one calorie of carbohydrates from broccoli is treated differently from one calorie of sugar. On top of that when you consume calories from highly processed food sources there are added chemicals that further change how your body handles those calories. So when considering all of these factors, while calories in vs. calories out is important, quality of food trumps everything.
Mentally counting calories is extremely difficult for a lot of people. In fact, the only clients I have seen success with while calorie counting are highly analytical, number driven people. These people are logical, self driven, learn from mistakes, and do not get easily overwhelmed by information. The problem is this is a minority. Most people are either honest on food journals, lie to themselves about what they eat, or unable to remember mindless snack eating during the day. Those who are honest and eat poorly get overwhelmed with their less than perfect eating habits. They then fall into a vicious circle of being depressed by their eating habits and eating poorly because they are depressed. The ones who lie to themselves or are unable to track accurately also fall into this vicious cycle for a different reason. They see on paper that they are under their calorie total, yet aren't losing weight. This then triggers they depressed eating. Added to this is the stress caused by perceived failure increasing cortisol levels, further inhibiting weight loss.
So what is the answer?
Calorie tracking can be an effective weight loss strategy if you eat clean already and can handle the feedback it gives you. For the most part people who want to lose weight are far better served concentrating their energy on small habit changes that will have lasting effects. Slowly clean up the food sources you use, remove processed and add fresh food. Remove simple carbs and add vegetables. Take away calorie containing drinks and add more water. These strategies will be far more effective in the long run and carries much less stress to complete.
Remember to succeed you need to concentrate on the journey and allow the destination to just happen.