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On Counting Calories

A headline in The New York Times’ Smarter Living Newsletter caught my attention this morning: “Is Counting Calories Harmful?  Helpful?  Should We Even Bother?)”

The question of counting calories comes up a lot in clinic.  In short, I believe there are far better ways to orient ourselves toward a healthy diet and a healthy relationship with food than in the tracking of a number.  

In the words of the author Michael Pollan in his book Food Rules, my first recommendation is simple: Eat Real Food. Too simplistic?  In a country where most grocery stores contain more food-like-substances than actual food, eating real food is far more difficult than it sounds.  For many people confused by the maelstrom of nutritional “guidance” bombarding us on a daily basis, the simplicity of this mandate is a welcome change. Eat real food.  This is where we begin, and real food doesn’t list calories. How do you measure the calories in the bowl of home-cooked garlic-ginger chicken and vegetable soup you had for dinner?

The second big piece is to encourage you to give your body back to yourself.  Counting calories turns your relationship to food into something external.  I want to turn your attention inward. I want you to be curious about yourself and pay attention to your body.  I want you to get to know and trust yourself again.  I want you to notice when you’re hungry and full, when you’re snacking and why, and how these factors affect your digestion, your mood, your sleep.  Is eating the only thing you’re doing, or are you juggling work, driving, social media and Netflix all while mindlessly moving fork to face? If it's the latter, of course you can’t tell when you’re full--you're too busy to notice!! The argument for calorie-counting in the service of portion control readily evaporates in the face of actually paying attention to the fact that we’re eating.  Then there’s the physiological piece. For example, from Chinese medicine’s perspective on metabolism, the number of calories you eat is irrelevant if you never experience a healthy grumble in your tummy—we need to stimulate and/or decongest your digestion. Similarly if you snack because your belly aches when it’s empty, then that’s where we focus our energies— worrying about the calorie count of the snacks is a distraction. 

Next of course come personalized recommendations based on your individual constitution and presentation… but that’s for another post (or office visit).  For now, eat real food, and savor it while doing so.