There we go again. You open your calorie counting app, recording what you ate for the day, measuring your food, tapping the numbers in so that you’re kept accountable to what you eat. It’s your fifth time using the app now and you’re wondering if you’re eating enough.
“What a hassle!” you thought, as you record that chia seed pudding you had into your app before closing it.
“But it’s all worth it. After all, I’m counting my calories, and it’s accurate. I think.”
Opps. Guess you thought wrong.
Calorie counting is tough, troublesome and a pain in the nostrils. Furthermore, the variance in calorie counting is +/- 20%, which means you might be over or underestimating the amount of calories you’re consuming for the day. Well, to be fair, within the nutrition world, we don’t have an 100% accurate tool for measuring calories aside from lab methods, which is too impractical for real-world use.
That is why as a sports nutritionist while I may use these numbers to represent scientific studies and showcase evidence, calories and macronutrient counting is the last thing I get my clients to do. The only exception would be to weight-making or elite athletes where these numbers become very sensitive to their performance.
How are calories calculated?
Perhaps it would be good to give you a tiny insight on how food industries calculate calories in their food. As you would know, calories are basically a unit used to measure heat energy. Calorimetry is process used to measure how much heat is produced from the food. This would be done with a bomb calorimeter where they’ll place a
living mouse sample in the calorimeter to burn. As the food burns, the calorimeter will then measure the amount of energy expanded from the food, which will then tell us how many calories said food produces.
When do you use calorie counting?
Perhaps one area I use this the most would be to get a good feel of what my clients are eating. Similarly, that’s a potential area for you to test it out too. Humans are habitual creatures – similarly in our food, while we may eat a variety of food, we generally consume pretty much similar amounts of calories. Using calorie counting for 3-7 days may give you a good feel of what you’re actually eating and help you manage your food well. Anything beyond that may not be all that necessary unless you’re a special breed (like my elite athletes who needs to ensure they keep their body fat% super low).
BUT JAMES! If I don’t count calories, how would I know how much I should eat?!
There’re many ways to be more mindful of your food without counting calories. Are they more accurate compared to calorie counting? Maybe, maybe not. But are they more hassle free, therefore a more sustainable method to measure your food and help you keep track of what you’re eating? Most definitely yes. So I thought I should share three strategies with you.
1. Precision Nutrition’s Hand Sized Portion Guide
One of the most popular option I would use with my own clients, PN’s Hand Sized portion guide is easy to follow, helps you portion your essential nutrients and gives you a good idea of how much more or less food you’re eating.
Things to note: PN’s portion guide is created for the active population who’re exercising 3-4 times a week. If this is not you, you may need to reduce a cupped size of carbs or two per day when using this guide.
[P.S: Yes, I am a Precision Nutrition Coach, and I’m clearing Level 2 now. But no, I’m not in any way shape or form endorsing their products here]
2. My Healthy Plate (Ministry of Health, Singapore)
For the health conscious, portioning your food according to the size of your plate may help you find out how much you’re eating just by looking at your plate.
Things to note: While useful as a method, the healthy plate method was mainly focused on the healthy-population. Thus, if you’re an active population, you may need more portions of certain nutrients to be on your plate
Important thing to note: Your plate size matters to make this work!
[P.S: Again, Singaporean here but this is a non-sponsored post!]
3. Plan your meals using calorie-calculated meals/recipes
This is probably the most trouble to follow amongst the three. However, if you’re looking for pure accuracy, this might be a little better compared to the other 2. You’ll only need to count calories once, enjoy the meals and recipes you use to cook your meals, and only adjust your calories according to the food you didn’t have that day.
The big limitation would be that this routine way of eating lacks varieties unless you have a library worth of meals & recipes. You’ll also need to make time to plan in advance. If you’re just starting out in mindful eating, I would suggest trying the first two strategies first.
As humans, we eat between 3-5 times per day. While it’s important to be mindful about what we’re eating, it’s also important to keep a life. If calorie counting keeps you accountable without causing you to restrict you to other food, nor create any sort of emotional fear and you don’t mind the hassle, go for it. But the above mentioned methods are also awesome ways to help you create a healthy eating habit, all while keeping your food in check, giving you the freedom of choice, and most importantly, can seam well into your lifestyle without the hassle. Do you have better methods to manage calories? Let me know in the comments section below!