hands preparing parsley over bowls with cauliflower, lemons and tomato

January is my Super Bowl.

Living in my own, real food world, sometimes I can get discouraged and think…being healthy is so simple that maybe people don’t need dietitians anymore. And then I hit the bookstore. Around the New Year.

The things I heard made me realize that some of you really need me.

One of the reasons I created the #Energize2016 challenge online is to be the calming voice of reason in a sea of quackery…and yet still giving you positive tools to help reclaim your health in the New Year. However, I think you and I should still chat, in case New Year’s eating anxiety is setting in and making you think you need to follow some crazy diet to absolve your past ‘sins’.

One of the most wonderful things about having nutrition as your career is that it is ever evolving. I am never bored…and always learning. But I realize that this makes nutrition science totally confusing for most people.

Example: there was a time not too long ago when you might hear me say that weight loss is all about ‘calories in vs calories out’. And I don’t say that anymore.

Here’s why: while technically a calorie is a calorie, in that one calorie is a standard unit of energy that can be released from a food, the food providing those calories doesn’t always behave as we expect it to in the lab. The food providing those calories can have very different impacts on your metabolism, your disease risk and your eating behaviour too. Let’s unpack this concept a bit.

  1. Are you really harnessing all of the calories in a food? Maybe not. The way we measure calorie content in a food is to burn it up in a lab machine called a bomb calorimeter. You see, one calorie is the amount of energy required to bring 1 gram of water up 1 degree celsius. What we call ‘calories’ in everyday nutrition is actually 1000 calories or a kilocalorie. The big message here is that our body may not be as efficient as a machine at harnessing that energy. For example, researchers measured the actual calories released from an ounce of almonds at 129 calories…but the ‘official’ calorie count is 160. That’s a huge discrepancy. So when we eat whole foods, we are likely getting less energy (but lots of nutrition) than we expect. However, when we eat super-processed foods, those machines are essentially pre-digesting the foods for us…so those 700 calorie muffins are probably adding 700 calories to your bottom line.
  2. Different foods impact your appetite and eating behaviour differently. For example, if you eat 100 calories of broccoli – that’s 3 cups of chopped broccoli – you’re going to be super full. And your tastebuds will be a bit bored. But if you eat a 100 calorie snack pack of ‘chocolatey’ wafers, it’s a tiny amount of food. It is engineered to light up your taste buds so you want to eat all the snack packs in the box. And, since that hyper processed food spikes (and then tanks) your blood sugars, you will be madly craving the rest of the box.
  3. Foods either promote or harm health. It’s that simple. Eat enough of the health promoting ones and the unhealthy ones won’t hurt you on the occasion you enjoy them. But if you’re focused on calories, you may shy away from high cal avocados and nuts in favour of low cal, artificially flavoured junk. In addition, a highly processed diet creates chronic inflammation in the body that can alter your gut flora, your sensitivity to insulin and your ability to put on weight.
  4. Not to mention, that how we estimate your caloric needs is pretty sketchy. The best, research validated equations are still off by +/- 20%. That’s enough to tank your goals.

I am happy to see the tide changing somewhat in 2016. Fewer of us are using the word ‘diet’; although, if you are going on a ‘detox’ when what you really want to do is lose weight, you’re missing the point. Even Weight Watchers is stepping away from the scale somewhat.

I get it – getting healthier might mean losing a bit of weight. Too much body fat isn’t good for anyone. But if your primary motivation is weight loss, you will torture yourself over a newly shaky science of calories instead of focusing on true health.

If you want to do something positive that will lead to a healthier weight, try my #Energize2016 challenge or read my realistic (but no less effective) book, Un-Junk Your Diet.

Commit to health in 2016…and your weight will fall in line, I promise. Strive for weight loss and your health (and sanity) might suffer. Stop counting calories. Eat lots of plants, move your body and don’t sweat the (occasional) cupcake. Now that’s living deliciously.