Most of us have at some point viewed diet and training through a binary lens. In other words, we’ve probably labeled 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, as 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.
Flexible dieting vs. clean eating
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 and drink a few protein shakes, you can eat little more than 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. So as long as a food has earned the “clean” stamp of approval, you can eat as much of it as you want.
This example is a bit of a caricature, as these are the two extreme ends of the spectrum and most people, regardless of which camp they fall in, land somewhere closer to the middle. But it still illustrates the type of rigid thinking that often arises online. 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, assuming that your hunger and satiety signals function normally.
- Whole foods are not as palatable as processed foods, which may reduce the urge to overeat.
- Whole foods provide micronutrients, fiber, etc., which contribute to overall health.
- Whole foods may make it easier to manage caloric intake because many of them, fruits and vegetables in particular, contain relatively few calories per gram of food.
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. Calories count, but it’s complicated. The calories-in side of the equation is pretty straightforward (though frequently underestimated), but the calories-out side of the equation isn’t.
Short of taking a little vacation to a metabolic ward, calories-out is tough speculate on with any degree of accuracy. This is because the the body is a dynamic system, and countless factors affect energy expenditure — ironically, including energy intake. So energy balance is a moving target.
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 consulting your Fitbit or plugging your stats into an equation.
Does that mean that counting calories is useless?
Absolutely not. It’s an imperfect tool, but it’s still a good one — probably the best we’ve got.
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, focusing exclusively on one while ignoring the other probably isn’t the best strategy. The best approach is a balance between the two.
Being overly focused on calories (for example, filling your diet with junk as long as it fits within your calorie goal) means you may not feel as satisfied, are more likely to over-consume calories, and potentially aren’t as healthy.
Likewise, being overly focused on food choices (for example, limiting yourself to only healthy or “clean” foods, but eating them in any quantity you please) means you might be ignoring energy balance and therefore may not make progress.
So find a comfortable spot in the gray area that works for you. Be mindful of your caloric intake. Get enough of those calories from protein. Make nutrient-dense whole or minimally processed foods the foundation of your diet, but know that you don’t have to fear the occasional indulgence, nor do you need to limit yourself to a narrow list of approved foods.