Learned behaviors surrounding food begin at a young age, when we are told to “clean your plate,” often as an incentive for dessert or night-time snack. Fast-forward to adulthood, and you may realize that you don’t actually stop eating when you are full, typically you stop eating when your food is gone. Or maybe you grab lunch with your coworkers, even if you are not hungry, just because it is a habit? Or maybe you are preoccupied with calorie counting, that you are forgetting to enjoy your food!

This behavior is not easy to change; we have been doing it for most of our lives! In an effort to raise healthy and strong teens, many parents raised (and continue to raise) children who are not aware of their body’s hunger cues. Today, we are accountable adults and it is time to crack down on this ongoing issue. Did you know that there are many different kinds of hunger? Yeah, neither did I, until I started my journey to become a dietitian. The reality is that so many things impact our hunger on a day to day basis.

So, what are the different types of hunger?

There are several different types of hunger and it is important to be able to distinguish between them when they strike.

Mouth hunger: “That tasted amazing; I want more!”

Head hunger: “It is noon and time to eat.”

Eye hunger: “I just saw a commercial for pizza, and now I am so hungry for pizza!”

Stomach/Physical hunger: “My stomach is grumbling and feels empty.”

Emotional hunger: I am sad, and a bowl of ice cream would make me feel better.”

As adults, some of us have found a new outside source to tell us when and how much to eat, calorie counting.  While this was common practice for a while, research has shown us that calorie counting may not be the most effective way to help you reach your nutrition and wellness goals.

1. You Might Be Eating Too Much, Or Too Little!

The problem with calorie counting is that it can cause you to eat less food than your body needs because you stop eating when your allotted calories for the day are gone, not when you are satisfied and no longer hungry. This can lead to a feeling a deprivation, which can in turn lead to overeating at a later time to compensate for the feeling of hunger you have now.

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On the opposite end of this spectrum, you may have a surplus of calories left at the end of a day and decide to eat more because you “have more calories left” when you are not actually hungry.

2. Quality Over Quantity

Another huge problem with calorie counting is that it does not take into account the quality of the calories you are consuming. Many foods that are nutritious, such as olive oil and almond butter, are high in calories and fat. However, it is the type of fat that matters!

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Unsaturated fats like those found in nuts and olive oil help lower triglycerides, cholesterol and inflammation in the body, while also helping to increase your good cholesterol (HDL). Carbohydrates, protein and fat all play an important role in our health and should be looked at for the quality of nutrients they provide us, not the quantity of calories.

3. Calories In Doesn’t Equal Calories Out?

I know, this one might come as a surprise. This is what everyone taught us for such a long time. But, there is actually a lot more that impacts our weight than just the food we eat. Stress, sleep, hormones, movement, hydration, whether or not you have had a bowel movement, the list goes on! Therefore, we can’t expect to control our weight by controlling our calories.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we should just forget calories and eat whatever. Good nutrition includes balance carbs, protein, fat, veggies, and fun foods in moderation. But sticking to an exact number may not be the answer we are looking for.

So what can I do if calorie counting doesn’t work?

Think about your stomach as a gas tank. When you reach ¼ tank you may be thinking, “Hmm, I need to stop for gas sometime soon.” But maybe you ignore that thought, and you keep driving. Suddenly, your gas light comes on. Maybe you continue to ignore it. Until you realize you have 1 mile left of gas, and you   need to stop to fill up your tank at the closest gas station. However, this gas station is about 30 cents more expensive than any other gas station in town. But you don’t have a choice right? You need gas to keep your car running!

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Relating this back to food, if you acknowledge your hunger cues when you start to become hungry (say when you are at 1/4 tank), you will have time to make mindful choices. That means that if you choose to have pasta for lunch, you can enjoy it mindfully with some protein and a side of veggies. If you wait to eat until you are starving or “hangry,” you will eat whatever is most convenient. And a lot of the time,  this food is likely not a very nutritious choice. And we aren’t even able to enjoy the food since we are so hungry! We are more focused on getting the fuel we need.

Trusting Your Body

Your body knows when it is hungry, full, emotional, stressed, etc. Listening to signals from your body is key to becoming a competent eater. You can trust your body to tell you when, and how much, to eat. When you start to listen to your body’s signals of hunger and fullness, you will find that your weight will maintain within a set range. This is referred to as your “set-point.” Fad diets have encouraged us to ignore the natural mechanisms in our body that signal us to eat, but your body will maintain a healthy weight itself when you listen and respond to the signals it gives.

Do you need help meeting your nutrition goals without calorie counting? Our nutrition professionals can help! Click here or call 301-474-2499 to set up your appointment today. 

Contributions to this blog by Julia Dugas, Dietetic Intern, University of Maryland.

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