We’re Still Using Calorie Goals. Here’s Why That’s A Problem.
The other day when I was reviewing another MLM nutrition company, I came across their ‘nutrition guide’ outlining how to ‘eat healthy.’ In it, there was a list of calorie goals to follow according to your weight.
I instantly recoiled, because I can’t stand calorie-specifics or counting. But calorie goals are everywhere: on food tracking apps and meal plans, on social media influencers’ ‘what I eat in a day’ posts (which I hate), and in basically every diet book out there. Even nutrition labels are written for a 2500 calorie a day diet.
I also have my own negative history with calorie goals. I was once given a 1200 calorie goal by MyFitnessPal, and I’m going to tell you right now that I would be an absolute wreck with only 1200 calories a day. I’d lose weight, but I’d also lose my sanity. Even with my ‘activity level’ taken into account, that number was so far off. So far.
Listen, cutting calories causes weight loss, and nobody is disputing that. And I know that having a specific number to aim for appeals to some people, but the risks and downsides to that number far outweigh the benefits.
What Are The Downsides To Calorie Goals?
First off, the number goal itself is nothing more than a guess. You don’t really know how many calories you need in a day, unless you’ve done calorimetry. Which I’m pretty sure you haven’t.
And even if you have? Our calorie needs change day to day because of anything from activity levels to body temperature to energy intake.
It works like this: you have your BMR – basal metabolic rate – which is the amount of energy (aka calories) required to keep you alive. So, BMR includes things like breathing, brain and other organ function, and metabolism, and is the largest source of energy expenditure for the human body (around 60%-70%). BMR fluctuates, but not by a lot, at least not day to day. It’s also hard to measure BMR, unless you have specialized equipment that 99.9% us don’t have access to.
Other sources of energy expenditure are far more variable – the thermic effect of food, which is the number of calories expended by digestion, NEAT – your non-energy activity thermogenesis, otherwise known as the activities of daily living, and your EAT – energy activity thermogenesis, which is intentional exercise.
All of this is super interesting (you can read more about it here, in my post about metabolism), but my point is that unless you know what your BMR is, and unless you’re adjusting your calorie goal to accommodate the other parts of the calorie expenditure equation, you don’t really know how many calories you need in a day.
And, if you don’t know how many calories you need in a day, you can’t possibly predict how many calories you need to create a deficit for weight loss. You’re left with an approximation that may or may not be close to the truth.
But that’s not all. Oh no, we’re just getting started.
All calories aren’t created equal.
There seems to be this tendency to oversimplify the concept of calories in vs calories out, but I can assure you that it’s actually a lot more complex, physiologically. First off, calories themselves are more accessible in certain foods than in others: taking a whole food and cooking, blending, or basically processing it in any way before eating will allow the body to access more calories from it.
For example, raw almonds will contribute fewer calories than almond butter, thanks to the structure of the almonds, which traps some of the fat inside as we digest them.
A smoothie made with blended fruit will deliver more calories than a piece of whole fruit, thanks to the fiber in the whole fruit being pulverized in the blender (not to mention all of the other ingredients in the smoothie).
Even if you eat your entire diet as Twinkies, like that teacher did a few years back, you may lose weight, but that would be because you’re cutting calories overall. Although you’re likely absorbing every last calorie from those ultra-processed cakes, monodiets are boring AF.
A blanket goal doesn’t fit everyone, but that’s what you’re getting when some app or diet plan gives you a calorie level to hit.
Just like my 1200 calorie MyFitnessPal diet, many calorie goals are merely an example of algorithms that undercut caloric needs for everyone, in the name of weight loss success (and eventual failure).
Body size, gut bacteria, genetics, metabolism, and the daily calorie expenditure we discussed above all create a unique calorie requirement for each of us. And not only that, but each of us burns calories differently. I might need more carbs, you might need more protein. If you and a friend eat the exact same meal, you’d both going metabolize it differently because of the above factors.
It’s the same thing as when you and a friend go on a diet together: you don’t lose the same amount of weight in the same amount of time, because you’re different people with different genetics and systems.
Expecting a blanket number to be effective for everyone is just wrong.
Calorie counts can be off…by a lot.
The FDA allows a 20% margin of error for calories on food packaging, which means that your 200 calorie snack can be 160 calories. Or, it could be 240 calories.
And the calorie counts you get for whole food? Also prone to error. The calories in whole foods like fruits and vegetables can vary based on time of harvest, variety, and ripeness, among other things. So while the numbers we see for them are essentially an average, they may be completely off.
Calorie counts ignore some of the most important parts of food and eating: why we eat, our cultural differences, our relationship with food and eating, our financial status and other determinants of health.
You can give anyone a number as a goal, but how about the stuff that lies outside the body, such as their relationship with food? Their preferences, culture, finances, education level, living arrangements, work life, access to food, disabilities, and lifestyle?
These things have a tremendous impact on our food choices and eating habits, yet calorie goals miss all of these by an entire universe. Yes, a number goal is a number goal, but if you’re treating the entire person, you can’t ignore all of the other things that make up their life and rule their decisions around food.
Locking yourself in to an arbitrary number is ridiculous, unhelpful, and it destroys your relationship with food.
It’s like anything – following a number goal is fine, until it’s not.
If you break that goal, not matter how unrealistic that numberl is, you’ll probably have a sense of guilt about it. If you eat something that you know goes over your calorie number for the day, chances are you’re going to feel shame about doing that.
Dinners out, birthday cake, eating local food when you’re travelling, even eating according to your hunger all become a source of anxiety, which isn’t a good way to live your best life.
Counting calories can become an obsessive practice that turns food into numbers. For some people, it can also trigger disordered eating.
All because of some shitty, random goal that some app gave you. It doesn’t make sense, does it?
What If You Want To Lose Weight or Just Eat Normally?
It’s fine to understand the relative calories in food, but following a calorie limit is useless. Honestly, you don’t need to count anything.
Instead, if you want to lose weight or just eat normally, try these things:
Heal your relationship with food.
In order to do this, you need to figure out your ‘why.’ That means going back and finding the reason why you eat the way you do and why you feel the way you feel about food and your body. Where did these feelings come from? It’s a process, but it’s well worth it.
Meaningful, lasting change to your diet is a lot easier when you deal with this stuff first instead of continuing to cover it up by diet after diet.
Eat more whole and minimally processed foods.
From legumes to whole fruit and vegetables (even the frozen ones are great), including these foods in your diet positively affects satiety and the overall amount that you eat. While I’d never suggest cutting out ultra-processed foods completely (because Oreos), striking a balance is important.
Understand the difference between real and fake hunger, fullness and satisfaction.
True hunger strikes when your stomach is empty, not simply when you see a food that you love or when you’re emotional.
Fullness is the state you experience when your stomach is full. Satisfaction is a feeling of physical and emotional wellbeing and contentedness.
Get a handle on emotional eating/diversify your toolbox.
We all eat emotionally sometimes, and that’s normal.
But if food is the only tool you’ve got to cope with stress or other difficult situations, it’s time to add more management techniques to your toolbox.
Look at your lifestyle. Do you sleep well? do you overexercise?
Stress, overexercising, and lack of sleep can impact hunger levels.
My upcoming book Good Food, Bad Diet gets into the nitty gritty of all of this, including fixing your relationship with food, finding your ‘why,’ and the guidelines to eating an emotionally and physically satisfying diet. Pre-order it here:
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