SARAH MESSER & MIKE KEENAN
Food is fuel. Somewhere along the line, that message has been convoluted and our connection to the process of eating has been lost - in part, if not altogether.
The lesson here is simple: count the quality of what you are eating, not the quantity. If your diet is made up of whole, natural foods balanced in nutritional content, your body will function and regulate itself at an optimal level.
Your body needs calories, which provide the energy that keeps your systems functioning. But all calories are not created equally. The confusion sets in when we try to sort through the messages from big food companies, Hollywood fad diets, and cultural shame surrounding the process of eating.
Calories only become "bad" when they come from processed sugar, grains, or chemicals that your body cannot easily digest (or cannot digest at all) - these calories offer no sustainable energy for your body and mind to run on. These calories - the ones that give us nothing but a stomach ache and sluggish tendencies - are the ones we want to avoid. A 100-calorie Oreo pack is not going to give your body the same energy as it will get from 100 calories worth of fresh produce.
Furthermore, counting calories is no easy feat, even for people trained to do just that. In whole foods that occur in nature, calorie content is specific to each and every apple, avocado, spinach leaf, cashew, etc. - there is no magic formula to tell us exactly how many calories each item contains. And when it comes to labels on processed foods, the USDA labeling laws allow for the calorie count you see on the label to be up to 20% off in one direction or the other. That means an item marked 200 calories could, in reality, be anywhere between 160 and 240!
The number of calories required to function properly varies from person to person and, even for the same individual, from one day to the next. There is no set 2,000 calories-per-day diet that is appropriate for everyone. Limiting yourself to a hard calorie count may lead you to starving your body when it needs fuel, and this will actually slow down your metabolism and force your body into burning muscle, instead of fat, to find the energy it needs to function.
When reading labels with calorie counts, we send mixed messages to the brain and body. If the number on the label says 1 serving = X calories, we try to tell ourselves to be full after reaching that serving size (or we feel shame if we eat more than "one serving"). But perhaps that serving wasn't actually enough to satiate you in this particular instance. Now your brain is saying one thing while your gut is saying another, and we don't want our systems and signals fighting against one another.
Counting calories can also lead to other undesirable habits, such as over-exercising to negate a poor eating choice - e.g., one too many cupcakes at an office party. This sort of behavior is not ideal for the body, as you are using good energy to burn off the calories from all the excess processed sugar and wheat you consumed, which provided little to no usable energy in the first place!
It's not wrong to pay attention to the calories we're consuming, but if we just shift the focus a little bit and pay more attention to where those calories are coming from - counting colors rather than calories themselves - we'll all be better off.