Most diet plans make eating right seem like a numbers game: Consume X calories and add Y exercise, and you will reach Z ideal weight. But as obesity levels and weight-loss industry profits continue to skyrocket, it's clear something's not working. Could all that counting, calculating, and measuring be the wrong way to go about it? Top medical, nutrition, and fitness experts share their views on what really adds up to healthy eating.
Do the Math
One reason tracking your calorie consumption is so often recommended is to increase your awareness of how much you're really eating. "Knowing the number of calories you're consuming can help you figure out how much you should eat to reach your weight-loss or maintenance goals," says Elisa Zied, R.D.N., author of Younger Next Week.
And once you get over the shock that you're downing hundreds more calories than you thought and that your go-to frozen dinner is actually two servings, you can adjust your intake so it's more appropriate.
Put Away the Calculator
Yet most pros generally advise against relying on calorie counting as a long-term weight-loss and maintenance tool. [Tweet this fact!] What seems to be an easy equation—burn more calories than you eat to lose weight, or eat as many as you burn to maintain—is not so simple.
First, it's nearly impossible to determine your exact calorie allotment for each day. To gauge merely an estimate, you'd need to determine your resting metabolic rate with an expensive test at a medical office that requires breathing into a tube for 15 minutes—not anyone's idea of fun. Then factor in that your caloric needs vary daily based on how active you are. "Different bodies metabolize foods at different rates depending on factors such as muscle mass, exercise habits, and dieting style," explains Jen Sinkler, certified personal trainer and founder of fitness and nutrition website Thrive. So don't think that an app or website can tell you exactly what you should be eating based on a few personal statistics you enter.
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Another missing piece of the puzzle: Simply counting calories does not take into account how foods impact our bodies' hormones, which determine if we burn fat or store it, says Dana James, a triple-board-certified nutritionist and founder of Food Coach NYC, a nutritional therapy practice. To synthesize the body's fat-burning hormones, you need a combination of protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals at every meal, James explains, and the more carbs you eat, the more insulin you release, and this hormone inhibits the fat-burning process.
Tallying your calories also emphasizes the quantity of calories, rather than the quality of your foods. "Your effort is much better spent focusing on the nutritional value of foods rather than on an endless race between your mouth and the treadmill," says Darya Rose, Ph.D., author of Foodist: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight without Dieting. If you eat 1,000 calories of refined carbs but stay below your calorie limit for the day, you're not doing your body any favors.