NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: Should we count calories?

Is there any benefit in counting calories to assist weight loss?
Photo / Thinkstock
Is there any benefit in counting calories to assist weight loss? Photo / Thinkstock

Not so long ago we didn't even know what calories were, let alone count them. Now, everyone is eating less and exercising more to tilt the calorie equation in their favour.

Calories are units of energy, with some foods being more energy dense than others. If we eat too much and burn too little, the likelihood is, we'll gain weight. But do calories matter? Well, yes. But should we be counting them? Well, no.

So they matter, but we shouldn't be counting them. Why?

Here's a ground breaking fun fact - a calorie is not necessarily a calorie. They aren't all born equal. And what many people do to lose weight - eating less and exercising more - is often ineffective. Instead, it's exactly what you would do to make yourself hungry.

More calorific insights to consider

Humans evolved to eat food directly from nature.

Our ancestors gorged on a polyculture of animals, plants and fungi. Calories came entwined with a mountain of nutrients to nourish us. We were in a state of good health that was easy to find through real foods. But times have changed and now, many of the foods we eat have no resemblance to nature. The last 200 years of dietary evolution and rising rates of chronic disease is proof that humans were not made to eat much of what we call food today.

The cheapest calories are the most fattening
I am constantly suspended in disbelief at the amount of people counting calories who continue to scoff cheap, energy dense, nutrition-less food. Our body can tell the difference in what we eat. A couple of hundred calories of sugar does not equal 200 calories of salmon. Unlike sugar, salmon is packed full of high quality protein, valuable omega-3 fats and the essential vitamin B-12. When we eat good food, we feel more energetic, we burn more fat and we feel better about ourselves - choose quality over quantity every time.

Satisfy your hunger
Eat smarter, not less. Deprivation and starvation are not healthy. Neither is feeling hungry all the time, so we need to eat more of the foods that give satisfaction to both our stomachs and minds. Making sure you get enough protein through foods like meat, chicken, fish and eggs is a great way to kill hunger pains. Plus if you add some healthy fat and a bowl of high fibre veg, your going to feel fuller for even longer. On the other hand, if you choose to eat easily digestible, refined foods you'll likely uncover a superhuman ability to eat a never-ending amount of calories without ever feeling full.

The blood sugar effect
It's agreed we need to cut down on refined carbohydrates and sugars. They are easily digestible, low in fibre and don't often offer us any good nutrition. When we eat them in large amounts and by themselves, our blood sugars rise and fall so sharply that it places a huge amount of stress on our body. Over time, this can be highly inflammatory and lead to a never-ending list of chronic diseases - like diabetes. Western diets are packed full of these foods - cakes, biscuits, sweets, white bread - and avoiding them is one of the greatest challenges we face today.

If you've calorie counted before, you'll know how painstaking it can be. Don't get me wrong, it's a great tool to learn about how many calories are in different portion sizes and what low energy foods are available, but it's not really sustainable in the long term. If you struggle with motivation and keeping on the good-diet bandwagon, then your focus may be better spent on the cognitive-side of eating. By getting rid of guilt, shame and inattentiveness, you may find you're more in touch with your body's hunger and satisfaction cues - coincidentally allowing us to eat less.

Where to from here?
Our body is designed to burn more when we eat more and burn less when we eat less. That's what happens when we choose to eat good quality foods. By simply choosing quality over quantity we can double our portion sizes, feel fuller, more satisfied and shed kilos. Quality eating means sticking to foods that are real, nutritious and satisfying - meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. When this happens, we can ditch counterproductive approaches like calorie counting.

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NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave works in public health and alongside some of New Zealand’s top athletes. Whether it's for vitality, performance, identity or spirituality, Dave loves the way food brings people together. He believes that no one diet is the cure for our growing rates of chronic disease, but a diet based on wholefoods is the perfect start. Always keeping up-to-date with current evidence and food trends, Dave is a relentless researcher for how we should eat and likes to challenge what we may think about nutrition.

Read more by Dave Shaw

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