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What a Dietitian Really Thinks About Counting Calories

In some circles counting calories is considered a must-do if you want to make changes to your eating habits and body composition. But is it really necessary? We take a look at the pros and cons of counting calories and whether you should do it.

Firstly, what are calories and why count them?

Although many Aussies use the term calories, the recommended unit of measurement is kilojoules. A kilojoule is a unit of energy, used to measure how much energy people get from consuming food or drink. One calorie is equal to 4.2 kilojoules.

We take energy from the food we eat which fuels our everyday lives from breathing to breaking a sweat. Everyone’s energy requirements differ depending on things like age, sex, height, and level of physical activity. In order to maintain a healthy weight, we need to balance the amount of energy we’re consuming with the amount of energy we’re using. If we consume more kilojoules than we use, these will be stored in the body. Over time this will lead to weight gain. You can use a kilojoule calculator like this one to give yourself a rough idea of how many kilojoules you should be consuming each day.

Different foods offer different amounts of kilojoules – 1g of fats contains 37 kJ, 1g of protein contains 17kJ, and 1g of carbohydrates contains 29kJ. Counting calories can help you understand relative calories for example, doughnuts are high in energy and spinach is low in energy. If you have certain goals in mind, it can help you stay accountable and identify the eating habits that you may need to change. However, calorie counting is not essential for this and the process can have some downsides.

Calories and kilojoules aren’t created equal

Different foods affect your hormones, hunger and metabolism differently. Eating 100 grams of doughnuts will not have the same effect on your body and health as eating 100 grams of spinach. If you eat the recommended number of calories in a day as doughnuts, you’re not going to feel crash hot. If you’re counting the calories you’re eating rather than the content of the calories, you might also end up limiting your consumption of energy-dense but nutrient-dense foods like extra virgin olive oil, for example.

It can impact your enjoyment of food

When you weigh, record and critique every mouthful of food, what should be a joyful and nourishing experience can become stressful and obsessive for some people. Sure, some people can log their kilojoules in a healthy way but if you find the habit severely impacting your enjoyment of food and life you might want to re-think the strategy.

Other methods for eating healthy and balancing your energy intake

Understanding and considering the food you eat is important for your health but counting calories isn’t essential for that task. So, what can you do to manage your eating habits and ensure you’re eating well? Aim to get the right balance of protein, fruit and vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats.

Use the plate method

As a general rule of thumb, each plate of food should contain roughly 50% vegetables, legumes, or fruit, 25% whole grains and 25% lean meat.

Get handy

Another helpful way of managing your portions is by using your hands to measure food.

  • Your protein makes the size of your palm
  • Your veggies make up the size of your fist
  • Your carbs make up the size of your cupped hand
  • And your healthy fats your fit the size of your thumb

Serve up on smaller plates

Whether it’s a full meal or a snack, always serve your food on a plate rather than eating out of the packet or box (or pecking through the fridge). Avoid enormous plates or bowls that are easily overfilled and opt for smaller dishes.

Opt for volume

Volume eating involves consuming large volumes of food, with a focus on low energy density foods. Instead of smashing a whole pizza, plate up three slices and serve it with a hearty salad.

Eat mindfully

Mindful eating is incredibly important for portion control. Mindful eating uses the act of mindfulness or being present while consuming food to really focus on the taste, texture and satiety of your meal. It involves listening to your hunger cues to eat when you feel like it and stopping when you don’t. This is helped by eating slowly and without distraction, which research has found leads to overeating and extra snacking.

Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.

Explore more content like this in our series, Ask a Dietitian.

Health & Performance Collective is the brainchild of Sydney Dietitians Jessica Spendlove and Chloe McLeod. They use their 20 years of combined knowledge and skills as dietitians to work with motivated people to live and perform at their best.

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