Focus on the Food

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Written by: Stacy Fairey, Dietetic Intern

For years, the main message behind weight loss has been to eat fewer calories than you burn. What comes in should be less than what goes out. This mindset has created a culture of counting and tracking every calorie that is eaten. Research has proven these efforts ineffective for maintaining weight loss long-term, yet they still continue. There are hundreds of programs and apps that will track your food and tell you exactly how much you should eat in order to reach a certain weight. The practice of counting calories can quickly turn into restrictive and disordered eating, as people begin obsessing over the numbers in their diet. Failure to see results only makes it worse, often leading to further restriction that may become unhealthy and even dangerous. These attempts at “healthy eating” start to become less about the actual food and more about the numbers on the labels and on the scale. This is not so healthy after all, and it can actually have a harmful effect on our health and body.

Whether attempting to lose weight or simply eating to improve your overall health, there are many other factors outside of calories that play a role. Our weight is impacted by a number of different elements such as genetics, hormones, sleep, physical activity, and the environment. And that is just naming a few. Because of this, eating fewer calories will not automatically lead to sustainable weight loss. If it was that simple, all of our dieting efforts would be working. There are many scientific reasons why counting calories is not effective. Popular calorie trackers oversimplify the complexity of our metabolism and calorie absorption. These are factors that are way more complicated than a single equation. Instead of focusing on these complexities, let’s focus on a better alternative to tracking calories. Let’s focus on the food.

Eating a balanced diet, in which we focus more on foods as a whole rather than the numbers behind the foods, is a much healthier (and more enjoyable) practice than counting calories. A balanced diet requires you to concentrate on eating whole foods instead of foods with the fewest number of calories. Aim for a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats. Still allow yourself to eat a variety of foods and do not stress about how many calories you have eaten. Calories are not all bad for you and are what our body needs for energy. In fact, some foods that are considered healthy options may actually be higher in calories.

Instead of restricting yourself to a certain number of calories, practice mindful eating in which you slow down and take time to actually taste your food. Listen to your body’s natural hunger cues- eat when you feel hungry and stop when you feel satisfied. Years of restricting and dieting have quieted these cues and have thrown off our body’s natural system of regulation. Eating a balanced diet will allow your body to rediscover its balance. While you may or may not find that you lose weight, balanced eating will ensure that you are getting all of the nutrients your body needs.

Taking a balanced approached to eating allows one to have more flexibility and freedom than counting calories. It should be thought of as a lifestyle that is sustainable, not just another diet. Fill your plate with a variety of foods and enjoy every bite until you feel full. Say goodbye to the calculators and restrictions and hello to a healthy relationship with food.