Ask A Dietician: Why You Should 100% Stop Counting Calories
Kicking off our first "Ask A Dietician" column: Calories, non-animal proteins, and probiotics, oh my!
Alexandra Reed is not here for "diet culture." In fact, she wants you to go ahead and order the French fries instead of the salad once in awhile. The Memphis-raised, Massachusetts General Hospital-trained dietician and nutrition coach is certainly not a food cop—so much so that that's actually her Instagram handle.
What does that mean, exactly? "I hate diet culture. I advocate body confidence, health at every size, and no-bullshit nutrition philosophy. "
We're sold. Catch her smart advice in the first installment of "Ask A Dietician" below, and fill out this form if you have any questions you want answered in upcoming installments.
Can we talk about calories for a minute? Are we supposed to be keeping a ballpark number in our heads? And there’s that saying that “not all calories are created equal.” Is that true?
Ugh. Counting calories. First, let me give you the basic 411 on calories:
Calories are units of measure—just like inches, feet, pounds, or ounces. It measures what our bodies burn. Our bodies burn three things from food: fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
These numbers have no magical power, but diet culture grossly distorted the perception of calories. We don’t stigmatize inches and height like we do calories and weight.
But here’s the thing: It’s not realistic to say I need X number of calories in a day. Some days you are on your feet running around, stressed out, and burning more calories. Other days, you sit down at your desk at 8 am, and next thing you know it’s 3pm and you haven’t moved all day.
And if you have a wonky sleep schedule (all-nighters mixed with “catch up” sleep) your body will transition between energy conserving and burning in response to how much you’ve slept. So, many factors have a major influence on your energy consumption and expenditure, and there isn’t an app on this planet could keep up. (Sorry-not-sorry, My Fitness Pal.)
Not all calories are created equally. As I mentioned, calories are just numbers. But you have to ask: Where are they coming from? Is it from added sugar, fiber, or heart-healthy fats? You’ve probably heard the term “empty calories” used to describe foods in which their calories come from low nutritional sources (saturated fat and added sugar).
And as someone who has annointed herself as the opposite of a food cop, I say it’s a-OK to have empty calories every now and then. But really, your body appreciates calories from optimal sourceslike fibers, unsaturated fat and lean protein. Basically, you gotta put some nice fuel in to keep your body running better and longer.
At the end of the day, counting calories is just a distraction. The act disconnects us from listening to our bodies’ hunger and fullness cues, or evenpaying attention to the quality of the food we are consuming. (Check out this intuitive eating article for more info.)
I’m trying to eat more non-animal proteins, but I find nuts to be boring AF. Beans are OK, but not super exciting all the time. Do you have any suggestions as to where I can get more non-animal proteins?
-Not Nuts About Nuts
Hello, Not Nuts!
After a while, nuts can be about as interesting as the beat-up bowl they come in when you belly up to a dive bar. Thankfully, you have a ton of non-animal proteins to choose from. And regardless of whether you are vegetarian, omnivore, flexitarian, or vegan, it’s best to take in protein from a variety of foods.
Some hella high protein* foods are (and keep in mind 1 egg has 6 grams of protein):
● Quinoa: 1 cup cooked = 8 grams protein
● Lentils: 1 cup cooked = 18 grams protein
● Amaranth (super cool grain): 1 cup = 9 grams protein
● Spirulina (powder algae): 1 tablespoon = 4 grams protein
● Edamame: 1 cup cooked, shelled = 18 grams protein
● Fermented (Tempeh) and Non-fermented (Tofu) Soy: 3 ounces = 13-15 grams protein
● Chia Seeds: 1 oz / 2 tablespoons = 8 grams protein
● Hemp Seeds: 2 tablespoons = 5 grams protein
● Other Seeds (aka nuts lil’ cousins): ¼ cup = ~7 grams protein
● Nutritional Yeast (AKA nature’s parmesan): 3 tablespoon = 6 grams protein
● Chickpeas / Garbanzo Beans (the beans in hummus): ½ cup = 6 grams protein
*Nutrition information based on the USDA Nutrient Data Library.
I know I’m supposed to eat probiotic foods and all that, but I’m not about to eat a cup of sauerkraut every morning. Do probiotic pills work? And if so, are there any that you would recommend?
-Preoccupied With Probiotics
Probiotics are hot, hot, hot, in the world of research. It all has to due with the realization that the bacteria in our guts (our gut microbiome, as us industry folk say) may have a huge influence in our overall health.
There’s a lot of confusion with prebiotics and probiotics right now. So, let me fill you in.
Probiotics are the live bacteria like Bifidobacteria, and Lactobacillus Probiotics that may be helpful in improving immune function, protecting you against hostile bacteria and infections, and improving digestion and absorption of nutrients.
Prebiotics are carbohydrates—not bacteria—that feed the probiotics and help them flourish. When is food is fermented, like your not-so-favorite sauerkraut, it means it’s been allowed to sit and develop the good bacteria.
(FYI: There’s a misunderstanding that pickled foods are the same as fermented foods. However, only fermented foods have the beneficial bacteria-promoters. Just sayin’, since the culinary world is pickling everything right now. Which I love, but still. There’s a difference.)
In response to the efficacy of probiotic pills, that’s a tough one. They are supplements, which are regulated….kind of. Supplement manufacturers can claim to have of XYZ in a product, but unless it’s been verified and tested, you just don’t know if it’s true.
And unfortunately, not everyone is honest. I wish I could recommend a specific productm but I haven’t tested any probiotic pills lately to measure its bacterial content. So, I can’t vouch for any.
My recommendation to you? Food first. (What can I say? I’m a food pusher.) Besides pumping blood, our bodies’ main gig is to break down or digest foods for energy. Your body expects to get this from food. Taking pills sucks all the fun out of it for your body. Put your guts to work; trust me, your digestive system is a passionate workaholic just like you.
And no, you do not need to eat a cup of sauerkraut in the a.m. I’m sure your breath wouldn't make you many friends on your morning commute or in the office. But probiotics are a wonderful addition to your daily intake. Other less-stinky food options? Probiotic yogurt and kefir are wonderful source of probiotics. Kombucha is also a great source (but can get pretty expensive). And, surprisingly, dark chocolate (yes, we are #blessed).
Alexandra Reed is a registered dietician and nutrition coach.
Before making any changes to your diet or nutrition plan, be sure to personally consult with your doctor or a registered dietician/healthcare provider first.
Words: Alexandra Reed