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My beef with calories

"How many calories should I eat to lose X pounds?" "How many calories do you eat in a day?" "Set your calorie budget, and shed those pounds." "A calorie is a calorie, no matter what the source." Do these questions and statements sound familiar? We are a society of fast-tracked, goal-oriented, wired and tired individuals. We want quick answers and even faster results. We would follow a diet tomorrow for the weight that we needed to lose yesterday, but we are so distracted today that it is hard to keep track.

So, what do we do? We often plan and fail. Sometimes we take a step forward, and sometimes we take a step back. One of the reasons that diets do not succeed on a long-term basis is because diets are like applying makeup. Makeup helps you look good for a short time, but eventually you need to wash the makeup off, and then your real skin shows. Diets directed at short term gains produce short term results. Since our bodies have a significant amount of inertia, they ultimately revert to their original conditions if a healthy lifestyle is not maintained.

Similarly, counting calories is not very sustainable for many reasons. We have difficulty in tracking calories, despite the availability of smart phone apps. Not all products have accurate nutrition labels. Determining our caloric requirements on a day-to-day basis is almost impossible due to the significant fluctuations in our physical activity, stress, hormones, and body's metabolism. The negative or positive calorie carry-over effect from the previous day alters our caloric needs each day. Therefore, it is almost impossible for us to assess our calories and our needs. If we do not assess our calories and our needs accurately, our already high stress levels can increase, and high stress levels increase our susceptibility to weight gain.

Many centenarians follow a simple rule that is an alternative to dieting and calorie-counting: Eat until you are 80% full, and do not eat again until you are very hungry. You might think that such a rule would be ineffective because we do not have a fullness sensor in our stomachs that sends a signal when we are 80% full. Although we do not have such a device in our stomachs, we do have a hormone named Leptin which starts to rise as soon as we start eating, and which communicates with our brains. While our brains cannot inform us of our exact leptin levels, we can do some things to get an idea when we are becoming full. We can eat as slowly as possible. While most people have a lunch break that is one hour or shorter, we can still get nutritious food, chew fully, eat slowly, and question ourselves after each bite. “If I go to sleep after being this full, would I be able to sleep without waking up due to hunger pangs?” “Would I be able to sustain my energy level until the next meal?" When your answers to these questions are yes, you have eaten 80%, and you can stop eating at that time. Although we should not waste food, we do not have to finish all the food on our plates during a meal to achieve this goal. Therefore, instead of following a diet and counting calories, we can adopt a sustainable habit of eating nutritious foods, chewing fully, and following the 80% rule. This way, instead of having to apply makeup every day, you may be able to make your skin healthy, young, and glowing, which not only looks great, but also feels amazing.