We’re all familiar with the concept of counting calories. We’ve learned that if we want to maintain or reach a healthy weight, then we need to count our calories and keep them low! The thought behind counting calories is simple: calories consumed minus calories burned will equal the amount of weight gained or lost. Unfortunately, our bodies just don’t operate quite that simply.
As Dr. Cate Shanahan points out in her book Deep Nutrition, weight gain or weight loss isn’t as much about energy as it is about information. When we eat food, it is providing our bodies with more than simply just energy. The food we eat sends powerful messages to our cells that can influence the very function of that cell! The simple point here is that it’s not only important how much we eat, but what kind of things we’re eating and what those foods are communicating to our cells!
Let’s look at fats, for example. We all know that there are the good and healthy fats as well as the bad and unhealthy fats. But all fats, regardless of whether they are the healthy or unhealthy kind, provide nine calories a gram! Therefore, there must be other properties beyond calories that determine whether the fat is healthy or unhealthy and these properties communicate things to our cells that influence not only our health but our weight.
It’s likely that most of us have heard omega-3 fats are healthy for us. Similarly, omega-6 fats are also necessary to our health. Both of these fats are essential, but in different amounts. Research discovered that our bodies need roughly three times more omega-3 than omega-6 fats. As we start to see an imbalance of these fats, as is common in America today with most of us getting far too many omega-6 to omega-3 fats, we start to also see a hindrance in our cellular functioning. This example of the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio gives us a glimpse at just how sensitive our cells are to the specific things we eat. What we eat communicates on a cellular level a very strong message to our bodies and can be the difference between an optimally balanced, well-functioning body and one that’s sick and likely overweight.
The message is simple, whether our goal is purely to improve our health or to lose weight, forget about counting the calories! Calories don’t tell us what’s being communicated to our bodies. Instead of focusing on calories, focus on eating foods that send the right messages to our cells.
To illustrate this point, let’s take two different foods. If we have 100 calories worth of fruit snacks versus 300 calories of fresh fruit, the impact on our bodies is going to be very different. Even though the fruit snacks in this example provide significantly fewer calories, the calories are coming from a highly processed, sugar-laden, dyed “food” that doesn’t provide the body with any nutrition. This high sugar food will impair the body’s functioning at the cellular level and can cause an imbalance in hormones such as insulin, can block nutrient channels in the body (which leads to deficiencies that can lead to cravings), can impair metabolism, can deplete the body’s stores of nutrients, and can have plenty of other harmful effects. Bottom line: though it’s only providing 100 calories of energy, this food is communicating a negative effect on our health and our waistlines.
Fresh fruit, on the other hand, might be providing more calories (in this example), but with those calories we are also providing the body with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other important nutrition. What this food is communicating to our cells goes beyond simple calories and energy—it’s fueling our cells and systems with the components it needs to run efficiently. When our bodies are able to function as they were designed, we aren’t going to experience hormone imbalances, system fatigue (such as adrenal fatigue), or other issues that are not only harmful to our health, but that also have a negative impact on our weight.
When we eat poor quality food, though it may be low calorie, the internal result is inflammation, nutrient depletion, and hormone disruption. When these three things are found, you will also see water retention, fat accumulation, and a very difficult time losing any weight. Our body’s biological systems are so intricate that by only focusing on the energy (calories) provided by food, we are missing a big part of the picture. This is why there are individuals who eat very low calorie diets and yet are still overweight and can’t seem to lose pounds.
Another issue with counting calories is trying to decrease our calories too much, especially when exercise and activity is increased; our metabolism is affected and we’re going to burn less energy in a day than we otherwise would. Furthermore, focusing on counting calories will put our minds in a state that is continually thinking about food and can cause stress, putting the body out of balance and causing us to secrete cortisol, a fat-storing hormone.
To conclude, health and weight can simply be summarized with the word balance. Balance is not simply achieved on a cellular level by balancing the number of calories going in and out. Because our food choices communicate powerfully to our cells, creating true balance is going to depend on the source of the calories we’re taking in. The best way to achieve health and weight management is through a lifestyle that provides an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and all the foods nature intended, while avoiding all of the man-made, heavily processed junk that causes imbalance.