When the FDA recently proposed changes to the food label–including calorie count in a larger, bolder font–there were people who said that if you’re eating a diet of mostly whole foods, you don’t even need to think (much less worry) about calories at all. That calories don’t really matter.
Oh, they matter alright. I’ve learned that myself the hard way. Twice.
In college, I gained the dreaded and cliched “Freshman 15” thanks to a whole bunch of junk food (read: “The Freshman 15 is a Myth? Alas, Not For Me.”). But more recently, I gained weight thanks to a whole bunch of really wholesome food. A couple of years ago, I made a big push to get rid of a lot of packaged food from my life and start making more things myself. But turns out, my homemade nut butter was so good that one spoonful wasn’t enough. The bars I made with dates and unsweetened coconut seemed so healthy that having one after lunch and dinner seemed perfectly reasonable. And my homemade bread (with real butter, natch) didn’t have any high fructose corn syrup or chemical dough conditioners, so why not have an extra slice before bed? Though I was eating a seemingly “cleaner” diet than I had been, my pants were getting tighter by the day. I was simply eating too many calories.
I went to my clean eating guru, fellow dietitian Danielle Omar, with my problem. Yes, she said, you can get too much of a good thing, especially when it comes to calorie-dense foods. Case in point: coconut oil. “People go a little overboard with it, adding it by the cup-full to desserts and other recipes without any regard for calories,” she said. According to Danielle, though research is showing that coconut oil is a great anti-fungal and anti-microbial and can even help improve metabolism, the studies often use only 15-30 grams per day–that’s only about 1 tablespoon! “There’s a false notion that if a little bit of something is good, a lot is even better,” she says.
Believe me, I don’t actively count calories. I don’t eschew butter or nuts because of the calorie content. I focus on the overall quality of the food over digits on the label. But I also believe that calories matter. Because when it comes to our weight–something that many of us are either focused on losing or maintaining– it’s about the energy we put into our bodies and the energy we expend. That energy is counted in calories.
In an ideal world we’d eat only when we were hungry and stop when we were full. (There would also be peace and harmony in the world and no mean people on Facebook.) But in the real world, we also eat because we’re bored, because it’s so delicious, or because it’s six-o’clock. No matter how clean or healthy or virtuous our meals and snacks are, we have to create calorie balance.
So yes, I still eat calorie-dense foods. I still enjoy from-scratch bread and homemade nut butter. But if I want to maintain my weight–and as I get older, I’m more focused on doing just that for the sake of my health–I have to watch my portions. I have to balance out those foods by loading my plate with salads and vegetables too. Because balance is important.
Calories are important.