Most of us have at some point viewed fitness through a binary lens. In other words, we’ve probably found ourselves labeling things as being one of two extremes on a spectrum, such as “good” versus “bad,” or “healthy” versus “unhealthy,” while ignoring everything in the middle. In fact, we’ve probably viewed a lot of things like this. It’s just human nature.
The topic of nutrition in particular seems to be fertile ground for this type of thinking. For example, how many online debates over the validity of calories-in, calories-out have you witnessed? What about clean eating versus flexible dieting? If you’ve hung around fitness and nutrition content long enough, you’ve probably heard quite a few.
Me disagree! Smash keyboard!
On one side, there are staunch calories-in, calories-out advocates who claim that only calories matter and that the composition of the diet is irrelevant. In other words, as long as you’re in a calorie deficit, you can eat nothing but Ben and Jerry’s and still lose weight.
On the flip side, there are the proponents of diet quality, who claim that calories don’t matter as long as you choose healthy foods. In other words, as long as it’s “clean” food, you can eat as much of it as you want.
Along those lines, there are also those who claim that calories don’t matter as long as the macronutrient composition of the diet meets certain requirements — and more. So who is right?
They’re both right.
It’s true that calories are the most important factor in body composition change. In order for weight loss to happen, a caloric deficit needs to be in place. That’s non-negotiable, and is something that has been demonstrated in research repeatedly.
But that doesn’t mean that food quality is insignificant. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. In fact, food quality is quite significant. Making nutrient-dense whole, or minimally processed, foods the foundation of your diet comes with many benefits.
What’s so great about whole foods?
- Whole foods tend to be more filling for fewer calories, therefore physically harder to overeat.
- Whole foods are not as palatable as processed foods, which may reduce the urge to overindulge.
- Whole foods provide micronutrients, fiber, etc. which are important for health.
- Whole foods provide a sustainable way to manage caloric intake.
Back to calories for a moment.
Circling back to the topic of calories, the fact that food choices matter doesn’t mean that we can just ignore calories. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Calories count, but it’s complicated. The calories-in side of the equation is fairly straightforward. But the calories-out side of the equation isn’t as cut-and-dry.
Calories-out is tough to nail down because countless factors affect that side of the equation, including calories-in. As a result, estimating energy balance with any degree of accuracy is tricky, because it’s akin to trying to shoot at a moving target. In other words, it’s a dynamic system.
Does this mean that calories aren’t important? No. The fact that we need an energy deficit to lose weight remains true. It just means that quantifying where we’re at on the energy balance spectrum isn’t as simple as some people might have you believe.
Does that mean that calorie counting is useless?
Absolutely not. It’s an imperfect tool, sure. But it’s still a good one. In fact, I’d wager that it’s one of the best tools we’ve got right now.
Can you lose weight without counting calories?
Absolutely. But don’t think for a minute that the weight loss has nothing to do with an energy deficit. Just because you don’t actively quantify the deficit doesn’t mean that it isn’t in place.
So what’s the best approach?
While both calories and food quality are important, you probably won’t get more benefit from being overly focused on either one. Being overly focused on calories — for example, filling your diet with junk as long as it fits within your calorie goal — can mean missing out on important health benefits of whole foods. Likewise, being overly focused on food choices — for example, only eating healthy foods — can mean ignoring calories, therefore not making progress.
The best approach is to find a balance between the two. If your focus is on food quality, be sure to also keep calories in mind. And you don’t have to fear an occasional indulgence, if you wish to partake. If your focus is on calories, be sure you’re also eating plenty of whole foods to make sure you cover your nutritional bases. They both matter, so incorporate a little of each and find your own happy medium.