When you decide to make healthy lifestyle changes, people are often ready to offer their advice on what changes you should make. But beware—some of the most common advice can actually end up doing you more harm than good. In part one of this series, I shared my thoughts on the “everything in moderation” mentality and cleansing/detox/fasting programs. In part two, I break down two more common lifestyle habits that simply don’t work.
3. Counting Calories (and the “Calories In vs. Calories Out” Myth)
Food is not our enemy, and we do not need to protect ourselves from its dangers by tracking every scrap of it. To do so is to disconnect ourselves from the value of food in the worst possible way. It treats food like nothing more than fuel and that is just the incorrect view of food. We are meant to enjoy food and we are meant to eat healthy food. These two are not mutually exclusive. Counting calories is tedious, time-consuming and a sure-fire way to never enjoy eating. “But don’t I need to make sure I don’t eat more than I burn?” No. And it is impossible to measure accurately even if you did need to do this.
The laws of thermodynamics make the premise that “calories in vs. calories out” look true to people who don’t understand thermodynamics in biology. The problem is that we humans are self-aware. This seemingly small psychological truth has massive implications for our biology. In 2011, Yale University demonstrated that your belief about the healthfulness (or lack of it) of a food affected your body’s hormonal response to that food. Groups of people all fed the same amount of calories (actually, the exact same food), had significantly altered appetite-hormone responses due to what they read on fake food labels the researchers had made up. The “healthy/low-calorie” version left subjects hungry sooner after eating than the “unhealthy/high-calorie” version.
This would be impossible in the simplistic worldview of the energy balance equation where “a calorie is a calorie.” If you believe you ate something healthy, you will get hungry again sooner. When we study thermodynamics in nature and in the physics lab, this doesn’t happen. We humans are unique in our ability to consciously contemplate our world and the food we eat. And our thoughts about what we eat can affect our body’s reaction to it.
It can be helpful to track what you eat to look for patterns of habits, but it is futile to track calories. Always choose real, quality foods first. This will give your body accurate chemical signals. It is apparent that 100 calories of sugar does not have the same affect on the body as 100 calories of broccoli so why do we continue to promote this flawed idea that it’s all about calories when it is really all about quality?
4. Weighing Yourself Every Day
Because this is often a standard recommendation of people who have successfully kept weight off, it might seem like an odd choice for a lifestyle habit that doesn’t work. But while it might work for a short period of time in the very early stages of behavior change, it tends to backfire beyond that time period. People who weigh themselves daily after keeping weight off rarely achieve high levels of health, because they are stuck in a flawed mindset about weight.
I once worked with a client who started at 380 pounds. She wasn’t weighing herself daily, but regularly. One day, after making progress for years, she was very troubled at the start of one of our sessions. She was concerned because she had stopped losing weight. She was “stuck” at 165 pounds. At 5’10”, she was fitter than a lot of people. Furthermore, some of her weight was excess skin from when she was much heavier. She had overly obsessed and focused on “weight loss” for so long that she had no ability to have another measurement of progress.
If you have kids, you don’t measure their height every day. You don’t really need to track the daily fluctuations in your retirement plan. The value of weight as a measure of health is limited. To be sure, at 380 pounds, some weight needs to come off—that amount of weight is never healthy and obesity always promotes disease in a body. A daily change to weight just does not have a major implication on the direction of your health. The emotional reaction to the daily measurement, however, is often very significant. An emotional high or a low that has no real significance physically is of little value in developing a healthy mindset.
The other major problem is that weighing yourself daily disconnects you from how you physically feel on a daily basis. And this is essential for making permanent lifestyle change. In the 15 years I’ve been a fitness professional, every person I’ve ever worked with who has a weight-loss goal is really seeking a better experience in their body. The exact form of that experience differs from one person to the next. But a number on a scale is not the real motivator—even if it appears an individual is heavily focused on it.
When you know what the real motivator is—I call it the “emotional relevance” of health—then that can provide lasting motivation. A number goal can never provide lasting motivation, especially when a challenge to your schedule strikes. Daily weigh-ins overemphasize the importance of something that just doesn’t matter all that much, especially when you’ve arrived at a healthier place, much like the client I mentioned earlier. Do you feel a little better than you did yesterday? That would be a much better question to ask yourself on a daily basis.
A permanent shift toward a healthy lifestyle is only possible when we stop beating ourselves up—mentally and physically—and cease using ineffective, flawed, simplistic approaches to health. I want everyone to live the best life they can live, and the only way to do that is turn away from destructive practices, even if they are popular. Many of the lifestyle habits mentioned in this blog series are popular because they appear easy or are highly profitable to those who sell them. Popular isn’t the same as healthy or effective.