The clean-eating trend shows no signs of stopping, and while I’m thrilled that people are focusing on choosing more unprocessed (or lightly-processed) foods, I’m a little worried about a message I keep hearing in those circles: that calories don’t matter.
I’m definitely not an advocate for obsessively tracking calories. And I like the intentions behind the sentiment, which is to focus on food, not numbers. But I just can’t get on board with the notion that calories don’t count when you’re eating “clean”.
Because they do matter. I’ve experienced it firsthand, once gaining the Freshman 20 after two semesters of dining hall waffles and 3am pizza, and again around age 40 when I decided to focus on buying mostly whole foods and making things from scratch. After a few months of eating homemade nut butters, from-scratch granola bars, and real butter on everything, I gained weight. I was eating “cleaner” for sure, but simply eating too much. And as I get older and adjust to a slowing metabolism, calories matter even more—that goes for the healthy stuff too, such as:
Coconut oil: So many clean eating recipes call for it, often in large amounts, and a lot of people like the flavor. Though there are some possible benefits of coconut oil, as with all oils, it’s easy to take in a lot of calories without realizing it (in coconut oil’s case, about 240 for two tablespoons).
Smoothies: They’re an easy way to get fruit and veggie servings. Some fruit is fine, but try and tip the balance towards lots of veggies, which are still satisfying and vitamin-packed, but lower in calories.
Granola: This cereal may have a health halo, but keep in mind that the typical serving size of granola is tiny—only about a quarter-cup. Good to know when you’re pouring a bowl of it.
Nut butters: Nuts and nut butters are so good for us, especially for heart health. And they’re delicious! But rich in calories. So, go ahead and spread nut butters on things like toast and apple slices—but be careful about eating it by the spoonful out of the jar.
Energy bars: Convenient and perfect in a pinch, bars can save the day. And I see lots of recipes on Pinterest for from-scratch versions. But even if they’re made with wholesome ingredients, just know that some of them can have hundreds of calories a pop.
Dried fruit: A quarter-cup of dried cherries has the same calories as a cup and a half of fresh. Eating a small handful of dried fruit with some nuts may help you feel fuller, thanks to extra fiber and protein.
My message here is NOT to stop eating these foods. I actually have many of these foods every single day. In fact, the world would be a healthier place if people ate more of these kinds of foods. The message is to be aware. Calorie-dense foods tend to be filling, but you have to pay attention to your body’s cues, particularly signs of fullness. Eating slowly and focusing on what you’re eating (versus scarfing down a bar while driving) can help you know when you’re satisfied.
And if you do overeat now and again—whether with these foods or barbecue potato chips straight from the family-size bag—don’t beat yourself up. It only means you’re human.