For years, people have relied on counting calories to help them meet weight-loss or nutrition goals. It’s a method that’s stayed with us because it’s simple. All you need is a number: the number of calories you’re “allowed” to take in that will keep you on the path of weight loss or weight maintenance.
However, meticulously tracking everything you eat can be tedious, which is one of the reasons people stop counting calories. Plus, it can take over your life, to the point where all foods become a component of an endless math equation rather than something enjoyable or life sustaining.
And then there’s the ever-present question: does counting calories actually work? Some swear by it, others say there are better ways. Science supports the latter—because not all calories are created equal. 150 calories in doughnut form will affect you differently than 150 calories of Greek yogurt.
Calorie count is just that: a number. What really matters is insulin, and how what we eat affects our blood sugar.
Why insulin matters
Insulin is a hormone our body naturally produces. Whenever we eat food, our blood sugar rises. Depending on our age, genetics, body fat, activity level, and gut microbiome, the food we eat will influence our blood sugar differently. Insulin is an important hormonal signal that allows our cells to increase glucose absorption (to take up glucose from the bloodstream) after we eat a meal.
The modern diet is designed to spike insulin and keep it elevated. A typical day for a lot of people includes sugary cereal for breakfast, frequent snacks throughout the day, and a high-carb lunch and dinner accompanied by a sugary drink. With this type of food constantly circulating through our system, insulin levels never have a chance to go down. Instead, the pancreas is constantly working to produce insulin to help keep our blood sugar stable.
Over time, the body adapts to this state and becomes less sensitive to the effects of insulin. Which means that even higher levels of insulin will be required to maintain our blood sugar. This is called insulin resistance, something that affects as many as 40 percent of adults.
Insulin resistance can cause a variety of symptoms, including:
Increased body fat
Reduced ability to burn fat for fuel
These symptoms are your body’s way of signaling to you that something needs to change, which is why it’s so important to monitor what you’re eating rather than the calories you’re accumulating. Especially your carbohydrate intake.
Count this, not that
Instead of counting calories, our focus should be on what’s actually inside the food we eat. It involves a little more effort than simply looking at the calorie number, but it’ll be more than worth your while.
Here are two easy ways to track the right metrics in your daily eating habits.
1. Prioritize protein. Protein and fat don’t spike blood sugar the way carbohydrates do. They also help you feel fuller for longer, reducing the cravings for snacks you don’t need. So make sure you’re getting the recommended amount of protein each day.
The amount of protein you need varies depending on your weight. Use this simple formula to determine how many grams of protein you should be targeting each day:
Your weight (in pounds) divided by 20, then multiplied by 7 = grams of protein you need each day
For example, if you weigh 170 pounds, you would need about 60 grams of protein a day.
2. Eat whole foods with fiber. Scientific studies have shown the beneficial effects of dietary fiber on insulin sensitivity and supporting healthy glycemic levels. Fiber is found in many fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Many processed foods are stripped of their fiber to make them more shelf stable and palatable, so your best source of fiber will be in the whole-foods section of the store.
Other ways to help keep insulin levels in check
Focusing on the food you eat is arguably the best way to manage your weight and support healthy insulin levels. But there are other things you can do as well:
Exercise regularly (at least 30 minutes a day / five days a week)
Get at least seven hours of sleep a night
Eat your meals slowly to help prevent overeating
Try intermittent fasting—longer breaks without food can help improve insulin sensitivity