Calories are not evil...

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Medical herbalist and columnist Jenny Logan writes about dieting and counting calories

New Year, New You? Yes? Great. But, this year, why not also try a new approach as well?

Feeling hungry?

Feeling hungry?

Many people dive headlong into a new diet regime in January, punishing themselves for enjoying extra food and drink over the festive period.

The trouble is that so many diets are not sustainable – or successful long term. And one of the reasons for this is the focus so many still have on calorie counting.

Calorie counting is at the root of many disordered relationships with food, it creates anxiety and stress, it demonises food, and even worse, it causes diets to fail. Read on to find out more…

CALORIES ARE NOT EVIL

A calorie is simply a measure of how much energy we will get from a food. Would you want to follow a diet which effectively told you it was going to make you tired? No.

In today’s busy world most of us need all the energy we can get.

NOT ALL CALORIES ARE CREATED EQUAL

The idea that 200 calories is 200 calories, no matter what food those calories come from, is utter nonsense. 200 calories from chocolate does not have the same value to your body as 200 calories from nuts. Avocado contains more calories than a bag of sweets, but has a different effect on and benefit to your body. Our body NEEDS certain nutrients, fats, and fibres, if our diet does not provide them, our brain will send out messages to eat more!

CALORIES REMOVE JOY FROM FOOD AND CREATE GUILT

When we are focused on the calories, we forget to enjoy our food, so often are not satisfied by what we have eaten. We can also find ourselves consumed by guilt – guilt for cheating. Guilt for having too many calories. Guilt for not having enough calories. Guilt for feeling hungry. Guilt for feeling full…It’s soul destroying and leads to failure (more guilt).

CALORIE LABELS ARE NOT ACCURATE

Calorie statements are just a guess – an average. The actual calorie content of a food could vary by up to 20%

We are all individuals, with different needs and digestive systems. You do not actually know how many calories YOUR body will release from a food. It is easier for our body to release calories from cooked food, than from raw food. Our gut bacteria can influence how many calories are released from food and how well our digestion is working will also play a role.

LOW FAT COULD MEAN LOW MOOD

Fats have been demonised for years. But we NEED them. Especially the essential fats found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and avocados – foods often avoided by dieters because they are ‘high calorie’. The problem is that there is now a proven link between diets which are low in these fats and low mood. Which could be one of the reasons why these diets make us feel so miserable (that and the feelings of guilt and depravation).

CALORIE COUNTING MEANS IGNORING YOUR BODY

We are mostly all trained from a young age to ignore our hunger (no, you can’t have a snack wait until dinner), and our feelings of fullness (no, you can’t leave it, finish what’s on the plate and you can have dessert).

With calorie counting we may start to starve ourselves to allow for a binge. We may eat simply to ‘get the calories right’. We may not eat because we’ve already reached out ‘limit’. All this means we are not paying attention to our body. It also causes imbalances in our blood sugars, low mood, food craving and potentially messes up our metabolism – a bad plan!

THE ALTERNATIVE?

Food is good. It provides nutrition, energy, fuel and hopefully, pleasure – we need it. We just need to learn to change how we think about it and our behaviour around it. Here are some of the changes I have made, which also seem to serve my clients well:

Eat when you are hungry – stop when you are full

Try putting only half the amount of food you would usually serve up, and then thinking about whether you need more, and if so, how much.

Eat slowly and enjoy every mouthful

How many of us eat in front of the TV, or whilst looking through our phone, barely even registering how much, or how quickly we have eaten? Eat and chew slowly, and register flavours. Make sure your food is richly flavoured and enjoyable. This will create a strong feeling of being satisfied by what you have eaten.

Look at the true value of food

Not the calorie content – the actual value of the food for your body. If it is simply joy in eating it – make sure you appreciate every mouthful, and when the joy stops, stop eating. Your focus, though, should be on fresh foods – plenty of fibre, lots of proteins, and loads of flavours, which will provide satisfaction and fullness for hours.