Counting calories – do you need it?

It's that time of year – the start. You feel guilty but optimistic, and to go with your new gym regime you need a new diet, right? But which way do you turn? High carb, low carb, keto, fasting.... so many choices! Maybe you think you need to follow an extreme, maybe you don't. Maybe your favourite Insta-crush tracks every calorie of fat, carb and protein they eat – or maybe they eat clean. The point is – what's right for you?

Counting calories is proven to work, from a scientific standpoint. It has been proven time and again that if you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. This is known as the principle of Thermodynamics. In essence, it is very simple. If you put less fuel in your car than you use, your fuel level will lower over time. It is the same with the human body.

But, what are the psychological implications of counting calories? Is there a negative aspect, or maybe a positive one? Let's talk about both....

As a conscious male teen looking for any advantage in the gym, I would read about bodybuilders and their diets. It didn't take long until I was eating out of Tupperware and going into a panic about eating out, carefully choosing where I could eat and who I could eat with.

After a while, I discovered the food weighing, calorie counting collective who often went under the slogan 'If It Fits Your Macros' referring to meeting your daily macronutrient goals (weighing your food and counting protein, carbs and fat, calculated using various online sites dependent on your weight, age, activity level and goals). This is also known as 'flexible dieting' and the advantage of this is that for example, if you know you are going out to eat in the evening, and you plan on eating Steak and chips, you can calculate the number of calories in the meal and adjust the earlier part of your day to accommodate the meal. Let's say you have set your numbers up to eat 200g of carbs a day, and you work out that your evening meal will take up 100g of carbs from your daily allowance. You then know that you have 100g of carbs left to eat during the day. This means you can eat out with friends, eat a chocolate bar, and still be within your calorie goals for the day.

As great as this is, and as much as it really can promote 'flexible' dieting, there are pitfalls with this trend. It does allow you to eat a Snickers bar without freaking out, and you can avoid suffering the binge and purge mentality which often plagues many fitness fanatics who attempt to eat clean constantly, only to crumble on a Saturday when they find themselves with a tub of Ben and Jerry's while hammering the latest season of Sons of Anarchy. The guilt that follows the next day, and the countless hours on the treadmill is the reason that counting calories, and eating treats within your caloric goals can be an advantage, as you can eat the treats you like all while maintaining or losing weight and keeping a healthy, stable mindset.

But can this flexible-minded approach go too far? You only have to search through a hashtag like #iifym or #foodporn to see what can go wrong. It becomes easy to fall into a game of eating low-carb overpriced food, such as protein bars, or sugar-free chocolate just to keep your daily calories below your chosen threshold. These foods are often loaded with Polyols (alcohol sugars which pass through your body without being used as energy) and sweeteners, all of which there is very little scientific research for at the current time. Yes, you may be able to lose weight eating these things, but nobody really knows yet if these new age 'foods' are harmful to your body. What started out as fitness/health can easily spiral into an obsession with processed food, and before you know it you may not be following a healthy trend after all.

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Another consideration is what you do outside of 'fitness'. Are you a professional athlete? A student? Are you a lawyer working 60 hours a week (probably not, but maybe one day!)? This is important, the role model you follow may have completely different goals to you.

As a photographer/writer, I work at least 6 days a week, most of them away from home. For me personally, I eat unprocessed food during the week whenever possible, and if I am at a friends for dinner and a glass of red wine over the weekend and they bake a chocolate brownie for dessert, I have absolutely no problem enjoying it, because, well, I'm a photographer - not a model, an Olympic gymnast, or a professional footballer. It would be detrimental to my craft and my career to obsess about food from any standpoint, whether that's counting calories or only eating fresh food. I stay active and I feel healthy, I socialise with my friends and work contacts and that is enough for me.

This leads us back to the timeless idea of 'everything in moderation' and although it may not be fashionable, it seems to always be at the centre of a mentally and physically healthy approach. It all comes down to what is best for you, whether you only eat clean unprocessed food, you track calories, you fast, or follow any number of diets, if you can stick to a diet without it negatively affecting your life and the life of those around you, it is the right protocol for you.

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