When does your food turn into calories

Why you don't have to count calories to lose weight

It seems like we agreed a few decades ago that there can only be one explanation for why more and more people are overweight: they consume too many calories. If you instead eat less and burn more calories, you would lose weight very easily.

That we think this way is understandable, because calories are a measure of how much energy we put into our body, as well as how much energy our body uses. The energy consumption is made up of the so-called basal metabolic rate - the energy that we consume in a resting state - as well as the turnover for movement and digestion. In order to lose weight, the calorie intake must be less than the calorie consumption.

It therefore makes sense to count the calories consumed daily and compare them with the calories consumed. In this way we can work out how much we can eat and how much we have to move in order to lose weight. The data required for this are easily available: the energy of a meal is written on the food packaging and the smartwatch measures our energy consumption. The rest is elementary school math. This simple calculation makes us feel like we are in control of our diet.


My own experience with calories

I've been fat for most of my life. From childhood to the end of my 20s. In spring 2010 I reached my maximum weight. At that time I weighed 150.6 kg. Shortly afterwards, I had had enough and started a radical diet. Shortly before New Year's Eve of the same year, the scales showed my desired weight of 90 kg. During this time I meticulously counted all the calories. So I could say counting calories helped me shed my excess pounds.

But in retrospect, I'm not so sure. After all, I didn't just count calories, I starved radically and did a lot of exercise. I got used to a growling stomach, ate only the bare minimum during the day and went to bed hungry on many evenings. I exercised five to six times a week. My new way of life was so extreme that I didn't have to count any calories because I was already in a big calorie deficit.

I consumed very little energy and burned more than usual from exercising. So it was no wonder the pounds were falling off quickly. Even so, I counted every day, and even after I reached my goal, I kept counting. Although I no longer calculated to the decimal point, in my head I still counted the calories of my meals and my supposed energy consumption during exercise years later. I felt like I had to constantly control myself with it. As if I couldn't trust myself to make the right decisions. I didn't feel good about it.

It didn't help either, because although I was mathematically in the green, I still gained weight again. At first imperceptibly, since it was only a few hundred grams each month, but over the years they added up to a few kilos. Although I was still mindful of calories and exercising a lot. It wasn't until late that it dawned on me that with this way of life I was lulling myself into a false sense of security. It didn't work out.


Why you don't have to count calories

I think the idea of ​​counting calories is out of date. It's deep inside us because it was taught to us at a young age, because magazines write about calories, and because the calorie content is printed on food packaging. But that doesn't make it right to count them. It doesn't make our lives easier, it makes our lives more complicated because we are wrong when counting anyway, because we are constantly reminded to do without and because not every calorie is the same. I would like to expand on these three arguments in the following:


1. Our calorie requirements cannot be precisely determined

On food labels, the daily energy requirement of a person is stated as 2,000 calories - more precisely: 2,000 kilocalories. However, in common parlance we use the word “calories” for the sake of simplicity, and that's what I'll do here. This value has established itself as the benchmark in our minds. He is completely arbitrary. It does not take into account that men and women have different energy requirements. On average, younger people burn more calories than older people. Someone who barely moves uses far fewer calories than someone who exercises regularly. In addition, every person has a different physical structure.

As a result, an older woman who does not do much exercise may only burn 1,500 calories a day, while a young man who does strength / endurance exercise regularly may burn 4,000 calories. It is not expedient to average these differences. That doesn't help anyone.

In order to meet these different requirements, there are calorie requirement calculators on the Internet, but these are also far off because they can never map a person's individual situation. Instead, they lump countless people together on the basis of blanket criteria. They also do not take into account whether someone has tried to lose weight for a long time with the help of numerous diets. With every diet we unintentionally lower our calorie requirement, as the body goes into energy-saving mode when we withhold energy from it. It often happens that long-term dieters can hardly eat anything without gaining weight.

It was probably for this reason that I overestimated my energy requirements at the time. I entered into the needs calculator that I am a tall, strong man who does a lot of sport, but my long diet was not taken into account. My daily calorie consumption was probably a lot less than I thought. So I put on weight again, even though I was mathematically in the green area.

I'm sure it wasn't just me. Studies show that we humans mostly underestimate our calorie intake and overestimate our calorie consumption. We count the situation nicely and cannot do anything about it, because we do not have the necessary tools for it. The only thing we could do was go to a special laboratory and have our actual energy consumption determined. But who does that anyway? And ultimately you only get values ​​there for that one day. But what about other days when the conditions are different again?

So we should admit that under normal circumstances we have no way of precisely determining our energy needs. There is a good chance that we will be off by several hundred calories per day if we try. Then what's the point of counting calories at all?

2. Counting calories implies giving up

Reading food labels, researching the calorie content of meat, fruit and vegetables on the Internet and adding everything up at every meal is no fun anyway. But even worse: counting calories also implies doing without. With every invoice we keep in mind what we are not allowed to eat.

When counting calories, I was often not allowed to eat what I wanted and rarely as much as I wanted. There was no joy, only annoyance, because renunciation creates all the more desire. We cannot simply forget what we are not allowed to eat, we want it all the more. The new diet becomes a test of will and that is exactly what doesn't work.

In my experience, we cannot lose weight or maintain the weight if our willpower is repeatedly tested. None of us are so strong-willed that we can permanently do without the foods we crave. I also kept eating unhealthy foods after my big diet because I thought I could afford it. I jogged for an hour and then ate an ice cream sundae. I often counted exercise against sweets. And I gained weight again.

In order to lose weight and maintain our desired weight in the long term, we have to be able to stop thinking about what we are doing without. We need something else to be attracted to. We should think of healthy foods that we can eat much more of. We have to concentrate on what we are allowed to do.

Eating has to be fun, just like any other healthy habit. Only then do we have a chance to live healthily in the long term. Waiver does not motivate - but fun does. However, this does not occur when counting calories, but when we eat foods that are both healthy and tasty.


3. Not all calories are created equal

When we count calories, we are only looking at them one-dimensionally. The only thing that counts is the amount. But we neglect the quality of calories - because not every calorie is the same. Every food regulates our appetite differently and satisfies us differently. It also has an impact on whether the energy goes to our fat cells or to the muscles and organs where we actually want it. To put it bluntly: our bodies process 100 calories from chocolate differently than 100 calories from vegetables.

Energy from easily digestible carbohydrates (e.g. sugar, grain, alcohol) raises the blood sugar level quickly and significantly. This causes a high output of insulin. Since our muscles and organs cannot absorb the suddenly released energy so quickly, the task of insulin is to transport the energy into the fat cells. Basically, the higher the blood sugar level, the more insulin is released and the more fat is accumulated.

Healthy foods, on the other hand - especially vegetables - only cause blood sugar levels to rise slowly. As a result, the pancreas releases less insulin and the energy is distributed more slowly so that it can be processed by muscles and organs without reaching the fat cells. This is exactly how it should be if we want to lose weight.

In addition, with a healthy diet, the body burns excess energy simply in the form of body heat. In addition, our urge to move increases so that we burn more energy without having to laboriously pull ourselves up. So what's the use of counting calories if one calorie is burned while the other ends up in fat cells?


Plus, it's not calories that keep us feeling full, but nutrients. While it is possible to meet your calorie needs, you can still be hungry. This happens when the food contains little nutritional value. This also applies to foods containing sugar and cereals as well as beverages containing calories. One speaks of “empty calories”. The daily calorie requirement is often already covered when we eat a pizza, drink a bottle of cola and eat a chocolate bar for dessert. But I think that shouldn't be enough for most people to stay full for the rest of the day.

The real art is meeting your calorie needs and filling yourself up in the process. Only then can we succeed in staying slim over the long term. However, this will not work if you just count the amount of calories. The quality is more important.

According to Jonathan Bailor in "The Calorie Myth", the quality of calories can be described using four factors:
• Satiety: How quickly do the calories fill us up?
• Aggression: How likely are the calories to be stored as fat?
• Nutritional value: How many vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids etc. do the calories contain?
• Efficiency: How easily are calories converted into fat?

Accordingly, foods are of high quality if they have a high nutritional value and are very filling. These are vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. They contain most of the nutrients, high in fiber, and protein and complex carbohydrates.

On the other hand, foods whose energy can easily be converted into fat are unhealthy. These are the easily digestible carbohydrates already mentioned. These include industrially manufactured products, sugary foods and grain-based foods such as bread, pasta, etc.

It is important to understand that you can't just count calories, you also have to evaluate their quality. The healthier a food is, the more we can eat of it, because our body can use it better. A matching quote comes from T. Colin Campbell, author of the book China Study: "Give your body the right food and it will do the right thing."


Eat healthy instead of counting calories

The question that remains to be answered is which foods are the healthiest. Is it that easy to say? I think so. At Healthy Habits we call them real food, which means fresh food as found in nature. This mainly includes fruits and vegetables. They contain a lot of nutrients (so satiate well) and a low energy density (so few calories). Seeds and nuts are also real foods. Those who want to lose weight often avoid them because they are very energetic. But they are also very filling and healthy in moderation, because instead of carbohydrates they contain a lot of healthy fats, vitamins, fiber and protein. High-quality meat is also a real food, and it should be a side dish on the plate.

Some foods are only available in a processed state, such as bread, yogurt or cheese. We count them as real foods if they consist of few real ingredients and the degree of processing is low. When it comes to grain products, make sure that they are made from whole grain.

More processed foods should be avoided if possible. They are very likely to contain low quality calories. This includes products with added sugar, many grain products, most snacks, and fast food. They are almost always high in calories but low in nutrients.

When it comes to drinks, the decision is easy because there is only one unprocessed drink: water. It does not contain any calories, but it contains everything the body needs to replenish its fluid balance. Unsweetened tea is a good addition to water. Caloric drinks, on the other hand, are high in energy without filling you up.

There is no need to count calories with real food. Those who mainly eat vegetables are probably full long before a critical amount is reached. If you still want to take notes, you can keep a food diary and ask yourself the following questions:
• What did I eat?
• How much did I eat?
• Why did I eat?
• How did I feel about it?

This information is much more valuable than a lot of calories that says little.

The most important thing is to establish healthy eating habits. As soon as we eat healthy, our body knows what to do with the energy. Whether we eat a little more or less of it has little effect on body fat.

Quality takes precedence over quantity.

About Patrick Hundt

Photo: Healthy HabitsPatrick Hundt is a blogger at Healthy Habits and the author of books like “Eat real food!”, “Sugared out” and “Slimmed down”. Professionally and privately, he deals with topics related to a healthy lifestyle.

Since Patrick was severely overweight for most of his life, nutrition is at the heart of many of his texts. He does not believe in diets, but in habits that we should all integrate into our everyday lives in order to stay slim and healthy in the long term. Fresh food and the largely avoidance of added sugar play the central roles. An important feature of any healthy diet is cooking instead of using ready-made meals - that's the philosophy of Patrick and his blogger colleague Jasmin Schindler.

According to Healthy Habits, the habitual approach can be applied to all areas of life. Instead of covering up the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle with short-term tricks, he recommends sustainable routines. This applies to everyday exercise, regular sport, but also to everything that promotes emotional well-being and personal development. In a time when many people feel stressed and are increasingly looking for meaning in their work, topics such as serenity, happiness, freedom and relationships are more and more in demand. Patrick and Jasmin write about exactly these topics at Healthy Habits and here at Generali Vitality.