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Calorie Counting

Will It Work For YOU?

This video, glorifying a ballet dancer’s calorie counting method to lose weight, has been brought to my attention by more than a few clients. Now, I’m certainly not one for creating controversy, but this is something that needs to be discussed. Although it is presented as an easy-to-follow guide for losing weight, it does not cover the whole story behind calorie counting. Sure, it can be an effective tool for fat loss, but it certainly isn't devoid of negative, if not harmful, side effects.

There are many different diets out there these days, and many of them work quite well for fat loss. But, they all have their danger zones and flaws (that’s the benefit of having a coach, to help you navigate around those flaws). And, when any diet is presented without disclosing all the facts - the good, the bad, and the ugly - it has the potential to be poisonous.

In this video, the ballerina talks about calorie counting so casually, like it’s a no-brainer, an easy method for fat loss. Easy, breezy, beautiful, right? If you are someone desperately wanting to lose weight, it’s likely that you will be heavily persuaded that this is the answer to all your prayers.

What isn’t mentioned are the negative aspects that go along with this type of diet. In order to make an educated decision for yourself about taking care of your body, you need both sides of the story. By conveniently neglecting to talk about this other stuff, this video can be quite deceptive.

Instead of tricking you into something by pulling the wool over your eyes, I want to educate you by pulling back the curtain. When you are able to see the full picture, you’ll have a better chance of making a decision for yourself that will benefit not only your body but your mind and health, as well. So, before you start counting calories, consider the full story:

  • There is a level of obsession with food that you have to have in order to get to the point where you know calorie counts off the top of your head. Sure, it looks quick and easy in the video when she spouts off the number of calories in a piece of bread or an apple, but at some point, she had to research all that and use up precious memory space to store those numbers away. Are you ready to deal with the emotional and mental involvement required to recognize the calorie count of every morsel of food you put in your mouth? Wouldn’t you rather free up your mental space to visualize that variation you have to perform at YAGP…or develop depth to the Giselle character you have to perform next month?
  • On a similar note, it’s very time consuming. Unless you are eating packaged, processed foods with a label on the back (and, let’s face it, we all know we should be eating real, whole, unprocessed foods in the first place), it is going to take a lot of time to look up the calorie information online or enter it into an app every time you eat something. While modern apps are making this job slightly easier, the healthier you eat (meaning you make your own food rather than eating prepared or packaged foods), the harder it is to keep a food log. That kale salad you just made doesn’t come with a label on the bottom of the bowl. You will have to enter each component individually into your food log, guesstimating amounts while you are at it. That can take a lot of time.
  • It’s very difficult to come up with accurate calorie measurements in the first place. There are many different factors that affect the nutritional content of food:
    • There’s the problem with measuring. Is it a cup of densely-packed broccoli or loosely-packed broccoli? Was that 1 Tbsp of cream I just poured in my coffee or 2 Tbsp? Is that baked potato on your plate at the restaurant 4 oz or 5 oz? Unless you have a scale and measuring cup in your purse that you are ready to whip out at a dinner party, you are going to have to guess.
    • Then, you have to consider how the food was prepared. If you are eating a cup of broccoli…is it a cup of sautéed, steamed, roasted, raw broccoli? Were those mushrooms sautéed in butter, coconut oil, or PAM? It all makes a difference in the total calorie count.
    • Furthermore, where did your food come from? A 6 oz-fillet of farm-raised salmon has a different nutritional value than 6 oz of wild salmon. Grass-fed beef is different from grain-fed beef. Organic vegetables have different calorie contents than conventional...
    • Even if you are super careful and meticulous with your measurements, do you really think those numbers online are absolutely accurate? The point is that calorie counts are estimates that can vary greatly depending on how the food was measured, prepared, and where it came from. At the end of the day, your numbers can be off by several hundred calories. 
    • (***When calorie counting is used for fat loss, it is often based on these estimates. And, that works just fine most of the time. The trouble occurs when you have a particular mindset (like I do!) that isn't okay with the guesswork. I get too obsessed and frustrated trying to figure out the exact numbers. If I’m going to use a diet technique that relies on unbiased addition and subtraction of numbers to be effective…I want that math to be accurate. And that type of pressure to get the numbers right when there are so many variables affecting their real value drives me crazy!)
  • Not all calories are created equal. This simplified version of nutrition that focuses only on the total number of calories consumed disregards vital macro and micro nutrient requirements. There’s no concern for how much protein you are consuming, or the differentiation between healthy and non-healthy fats, or simple versus complex carbohydrates, not to mention the complex formula of micronutrients required to optimize your health. A daily intake of 2000 calories of Frosted Flakes is VERY different from 2000 calories of steak+veggies+coconut oil+salad+… But, this video treats all foods as equal determined by their calorie count alone. It doesn’t work that way in your body. Just because you may lose fat with this approach, it doesn't mean you will be healthy.
  • When you play this calories in/calories out game, it’s a never-ending battle. This video will have you believe that she can just go back to eating normal again once she hits her desired weight. In reality, she will always have to count those calories and calculate her physical expenditure. The body is smart; it adapts to the circumstances it is in as part of its survival mechanism. If you eat a decreased amount of calories for a period of time, your body will adapt to it by slowing down your metabolism and altering other hormonal factors…and weight loss will eventually halt. Then, the only way to get results is to eat even less calories (or create a bigger calorie deficit by burning more through activity)...and so on.
  • A method of weight loss that relies on steady, unchanging numbers is unrealistic. Your body is not a machine that requires the exact "X" amount of fuel to run every single day forever and ever. Hormones change. Circumstances in your life change. You get less sleep. You grow older. You gain muscle. You lose muscle. You have varying levels of activity. You go through periods of extreme stress. All of these factors affect how many calories your body burns and how many it needs to stay vibrant. The magical equation of needing “this” many calories for fat loss isn’t as simple as we are lead to believe.

As you can see, calorie counting isn't as straightforward and easy as this video makes it out to be. If you are someone who can handle all this stuff without being consumed by anxiety or obsessed with the numbers and constant litany of your daily food intake running through your head, then this calorie counting might be a viable option for you. If any of the above points cause you to say, “hmm…that's disconcerting,” then you might want to explore other methods for fat loss. I can tell you firsthand that calorie counting wasn’t for me. It led me down a selfish, lonely, depressing, anxiety-ridden path that was very unhealthy for me...and made me miserable.

Can you get results with it? Sure. Can you use calorie counting in a safe way? Yep. Many people do. But, I know that for my personality type (and I’m willing to bet many dancers’ personality types) this calorie counting can be extremely dangerous – both physically and mentally. Anytime you feel like you have to sacrifice the health of your body and mind to lose fat, you probably need to find another way of doing things.

I will repeat that there is not one “right” way to eat or diet. Nutrition is a complicated realm that we humans haven't even begun to fully understand yet. Fat loss should be an individual approach unique to YOUR needs, situation, and goals. The key is knowing yourself enough to be able to recognize which methods are going to feed your demons and which are going to fuel your fierceness. That requires research and experimentation on your part. The world lies to you all the time. It’s up to you to dig beneath the surface to find out all the facts so you don’t let yourself be manipulated by propaganda that attempts to paint things a certain way. Be a scientist with your body, and find a method that works for you.

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