End the Calorie Madness and Eat Real Food

bowl of fresh fruit

Why it Matters

You may have heard the phrase “a calorie is not a calorie.” Let’s get this straight: a calorie is in fact a calorie. In the nutrition world, when we refer to calories we mean food calories or large calories. Here’s the definition.

Calorie: the amount of heat required to increase the temperature of one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.

You may be wondering what all this talk about heat and water and degrees Celsius has to do with what you eat. To be completely honest, I’m with you. When people start talking about the heat-producing or energy-producing food oxidation values, it all sounds like gibberish. But since it’s out there and we need to understand the science behind the calorie concept, I’ll offer this very brief explanation: the basic idea is that the calorie represents the amount of energy your food contains. I could go on and on, but thankfully I’m done with graduate school, and I doubt you’re here to wade through a bunch of technical jargon.

People count calories for lots of reasons. They use their counting to stay disciplined, accountable, and to provide some structure to their weight-loss program. I hear reasons like these all the time: “Counting helps me stay on track” or “Counting calories helps me jump start my weight loss.” Unfortunately, counting sabotages their goals. It keeps them from overall health and wellness, which should be the real goal, rather than hitting an arbitrary number on a scale.

To be completely honest, most of us get the whole calorie thing wrong, and here’s why:

The physical act of counting calories does not help anyone lose weight. 

This is like saying someone needs to spend 60 minutes a day lifting weights to improve their personal best in a particular lifting exercise by 20 pounds. But it doesn’t work that way. A solid strength and conditioning program to improve performance requires artistic-like programming, and a successful individual food plan to promote overall health—and mindful weight loss—requires careful planning, including an intentional balance of the right nutrients and a sensible variety whole foods. A good food plan is far more than counting calories.

How a calorie responds in your body is completely different than how it responds in a lab. 

You are not a science experiment. You’re a living, breathing human being. You’re made up of a complex array of specialized systems, hormones, organs, and tissues, all working together to keep you alive and thriving. Your body processes the energy and nutrients in salmon much differently than the energy and nutrients in white bread and margarine. You may not instantly feel the difference between the two, but the difference is there. When I eat salmon I don’t immediately react by saying “Wow!  I feel the inflammation is going down…check out those ankles! I can see them shrinking!” It doesn’t quite work that way; however, what you choose to eat on a consistent basis will make positive and sustainable changes.

Counting calories is as hopeless and frustrating as watching the current political circus. 

Don’t worry! I’m not about to pick sides. But I do want to make an analogy. The way I feel about what’s going in the American political scene is exactly how I feel about counting calories.  It makes me squirm. It makes me anxious. It makes me kinda crazy. I know I’ve got some readers out there who feel the same way. Some of you may be obsessed with calorie counting, and I applaud your commitment. I also applaud those of you who are equally committed to reading or watching every thing going on with the upcoming election. To my calorie counters, I encourage you to focus on what really matters: food. Real food. Keep it simple and don’t over-complicate things. To my political junkies, I likewise encourage you to focus on what really matters: love. Real love. Keep it simple and don’t over-complicate things.

Please? Real food and real love. You can’t go wrong.

Alternatives to Counting Calories

I don’t want to leave you hanging, here. I understand some of you use calorie counting as your stability and structure. I totally get it. It’s something tangible you can refer to on a daily basis. It’s a number, and numbers can be comforting—and while I do want to ween you off the numbers, I don’t want to take your comfort. Instead, I’m going to offer you something that will give you much more comfort in the long run.

Can you guess what it is? Yes! It’s food, glorious food. Instead of counting calories, everyone here at Skyterra urges you to eat a steady diet of unprocessed, high-quality, nourishing food. This may seem like an oversimplification, but believe me and believe us. It works. We’ve seen it in action with our guests. In our weight-loss programs, there’s no counting and no excessive tracking. Yes, we do keep food journals—but our journals are filled with gratitude and prayer rather than numbers and equations. We encourage you to listen to the body. We teach you to honor your hunger without letting it rule you.

So, why does eating real food matter? How does it affect your health and well-being? Glad you asked. Here’s why and how:

What you eat feeds and influences your microbiome, which may be the most important physiological system the body. 

There’s a total of 9 meters—almost 30 feet—between your mouth and…you know where. There are too many metabolic processes happening in that distance to begin to discuss here. The good thing is that we don’t have to tell our body how to break down food: it does it naturally, governed by what’s called your enteric nervous system, or the part of your nervous system responsible for controlling your gastrointestinal tract.

Now, what’s that word I used just now? Microbiome? Your microbiome or the living community of bacterial species living inside of your digestive tract. Before you say “Eeeeewwwww!” understand these little friends help to both metabolize your food and control your immune system. Why on earth would we want to feed these vital internal partners a bunch of processed junk and sugar? There’s nothing wrong with an occasional piece of cake or scoop of ice cream, but if we think that we can heedlessly eat anything we want every day without consequences, we’re fooling ourselves. We need to feed ourselves—and our microbiome—healthy, sustainable whole foods, including plenty of plants, which are exactly what our internal flora need to thrive.

Eating real food influences hormonal regulation and balance.   

Dr. Mark Hyman explains this in a way I absolutely love. He says that for our bodies, food is information. It’s so very true, and I don’t think there’s a better way put it. Food contains chemical signals (i.e. information) that influence the hormones and other neurotransmitters in our body. Some very important regulators include insulin, cortisol, leptin, ghrelin, serotonin, and dopamine. At Skyterra, we prioritize a plant based food plan while making sure to include anti-inflammatory fats and high-quality protein at every meal.  I repeat: at every meal.

Eating real food cultivates a sustainable lifestyle. 

Take a moment to think about your favorite athlete. In order for them to perform at their best, they focus on proper movement and perfecting the fundamental skills for their sport or event. If the foundational movements and techniques are not dialed in, they end up with aches and pains—and they’re unable to reach their full potential. The same thing happens with us mere mortals, when we make a food plan and set weight loss and fitness goals. If the foundation is not there, the long-term results will be extremely difficult to attain.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 tracked the eating and weight gain/loss patterns of over 120,000 men and women for over twenty years. They broke their data down into four-year increments, and found that those individuals who consumed non-starchy vegetables, starchy vegetables, fruit, yogurt, nuts, seeds and whole grains had an inverse relationship with weight gain. Okay, sorry: that’s gobbledygook. What it means is that even when people ate more of these foods, they lost weight.

And guess what?

These are the same foods we advocate at Skyterra. They’re the foundation of our approach to healthy eating and overall wellness. They’re the minimally processed whole foods we keep talking about. These foods are simple, sustainable, and delicious. You simply can’t beat that!

Stop The Madness

Do yourself a giant favor and ditch the calorie counting. It will save you a ton of mental energy and it doesn’t translate into weight loss. Remember, your body is complicated. You’re more than a simple math equation and you’re absolutely not an abstract science project running in a lab. Provide your body with the real food it deserves and desires, and it will return the favor by providing you with good health and a happy tummy.