Stuck on calorie counting as a way to manage your weight? Sharing reasons why counting calories doesn’t work and how to transition away from calorie counts.
The only thing that counting calories achieves effectively…is making you feel miserable and anxious.
There was a time when I thought calories mattered. A time when I believed in the calories in versus calories out equation. I think that most of us (dietitians included!) have fallen pray to the promise of an equation and numbers game equaling weight loss. I was never an avid calorie counter but there was a time when I was committed to counting points (yup, thanks Weight Watchers). And looking back, I can see how detrimental this was. For one, I was 12 or 13 years old at the time and an obsession with trying to stay under a certain point number for the day ended up developing into a full blown eating disorder. What started out in my head as an innocent health challenge quickly took a turn for the worst.
I would imagine for many that counting calories starts out rather innocently too but focusing on numbers like calories is a form of dieting and we know from my recent blog post why diets don’t work. But today we are focusing specifically on why counting calories don’t work. So many of my clients believe that counting calories is going to help them lose weight or at least maintain their weight and avoid weight gain, and so I figured it was time do debunk this outside of my client sessions.
WHAT ARE CALORIES?
Calories are not evil. Calories are not something to avoid. A calorie is simply a unit of measurement. A calorie measures how much energy we are getting from a food. And last time I checked energy is a good thing, especially how busy our society is today. Another way to think of energy is fuel. Now imagine you were going to the gas station to fill up your car and that station attendant said okay, we’ve got two different types of fuel here. We’ve got one fuel that is very low energy and another type of fuel that is high energy, which gas would you choose for your car? THE HIGH ENERGY ONE! Because the low energy fuel is only going to get your car a few miles down the road, while the high energy fuel is going to help your car run a lot longer. Would you be scared of the high energy fuel? Would you deem the high energy fuel as evil? Would you think that the high energy fuel was going to wreak havoc on the health of your car? So why is it that we label calories as bad? It’s the same thing as energy and fuel for our bodies. I don’t know about you but given my busy work schedule, I’m over here like, more energy please!! The last thing I’d want to do was give my body less energy than it needs for the day to run efficiently. Can we stop looking at calories as bad and something to restrict and start viewing them as necessary fuel and energy for our bodies to thrive?
WHY CALORIES IN, CALORIES OUT IS OUTDATED
It makes sense when you punch it into a computer. Ok, calorie tracker app, here’s all my calorie intake for the day and here’s my calorie expenditure, did I meet my calorie goal for weight loss? It spits out a number that you compare to another number (your goal) that was also likely calculated by a computer. Computers follow these sort of equations well. They are number machines. The problem here is this: OUR BODIES ARE NOT COMPUTERS. Our bodies are not robots. Our bodies do not require precision and mathematical equations to thrive. Our bodies like averages. They like knowing that over the course of a week or a month that you ate a variety of different foods and nutrients. They are not responding to some daily mathematical equation. The other problem with following an equation that you’ve deemed to be precise is that it’s not as precise as you think. That calorie goal you estimated online based on your age, height, weight and activity level? That’s an estimate. The calories you see listed on nutrition facts labels? Estimates. Food companies are allowed to have up to 20% variation in the numbers they report on their labels versus actual values. Twenty percent. So much for that precise equation. But that’s all good because our bodies don’t care about precision anyways. Unless of course, you are a robot from the future who has time traveled back to present day. In which case, I’d love to meet you.
ALL CALORIES ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL
We used to think a calorie is a calorie. Today, we know that’s not the case. Imagine you had the choice of 200 calories of a slice of cake and 200 calories of nuts. Both calorically equivalent but are they going to give you the same thing? Some weight loss/diet enthusiasts might say yes, a calorie is a calorie. But quite frankly, that’s bullshit because cake and nuts are not nutritionally equivalent and they will probably make you feel differently too. I’m not saying that one is better than the other but they are not the same, despite their calories matching. For instance, the nuts provide carbs, fiber, protein, fat and vitamins and minerals while the cake provides carbs and fat, not to mention the satisfaction and pleasure you might receive from the cake. So if you’re choosing a lower-calorie option, that doesn’t mean you’re choosing the best option for your health and your satiety. Like those 100 calorie packs? They might suppress your hunger for 0.2 seconds. And what nutrition are you getting from them? I doubt you’re getting any protein or fiber or fat, aka the three essential macronutrients that we need to stay satiated, energized and well. Try not to judge a food by its calorie count. Calories are just one teeny tiny piece of the pie when it comes to the value of that food. When you reduce food to its calorie count, you miss out on the beauty, joy and satisfaction of that food.
HOW TO STOP CALORIE COUNTING
First, make sure you are getting ENOUGH energy. So many clients I see who are restricting their calories, are actually putting their bodies into starvation mode, which you can learn more about my blog post on why diets don’t work. Then, rather than jumping from counting calories straight to intuitive eating, which may feel like a big leap, implement some gentle structure around your eating. I like to use the guideline of 3’s, meaning you aim for 3 meals and 3 snacks, every 3 hours and aim for all 3 macronutrients at each meal. It’s not a rigid rule you have to follow 100% of the time but it may help you to transition from one type of rigid structure to another that has more room for flexibility. And eventually, you can start incorporating the principles of intuitive eating like choosing foods that are satisfying, listening to your hunger/fullness cues, and letting go of the food police. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight and it’s completely normal for it to feel overwhelming (especially if you’ve been calorie counting for years!) but there are plenty of registered dietitians out there who specialize in intuitive eating (including myself!) who can help support you on your journey.
What other reasons would you add to this list of why calorie counting doesn’t work?
I think the type of food that enters the body contributes to different body hormones responses either in a good healthy way or other way more than the effect of number of calorie by itself
I’ve been counting calories for 6 months and lost almost 50 pounds. I don’t know why you have to turn weight loss into a guessing game, it lets me know why my weight is doing but it’s doing so I can stop blaming myself. I’ve done what you’re saying in the past and it’s only made me gain.
Hi Tallia, I’m glad to hear that you’ve found something that’s working for you. I’m not here to invalidate your lived experience. I’m commenting on the research and my clinical experience that shows that calorie counting can work for weight loss short-term but in the long-term (5+ years), most folks wind up gaining the weight back.
I’ve been counting calories for 10 years now. Even making sure I get a balance of macronutrients. I’ve been eating about 12-1500 calories daily for that long and I still weigh 210 pounds. Never lost hardly anything. If I eat more than that I gain. Counting calories doesn’t help me at all. The only time I successfully lost a significant amount of weight was when I focused on eating clean.
Thanks for sharing, Stacey! If you’ve never explored intuitive eating, I encourage you to check out my Beginner’s Guide. No calorie counting there! https://karalydon.com/health-wellness/beginners-guide-intuitive-eating/
Is intuitive eating a good approach for women that are 50 and over ?
Because what might have worked for weight loss in the 20’s,30’s and 40’s but not work bring the same results at 50 when you start entering or are menopausal.
Hi Dana – absolutely! I have an Intuitive Eating overview coming up on the blog next week, which breaks down how and why intuitive eating is for every person and every body, and provides detailed information on how to get started, as well as the principles involved. Let me know if you find it helpful!
I think that a heathy lifestyle and the steps that get you there are a personal choice. I disagree that counting calories is only successful for the short term. I was a Whole Foods- plants based vegan for years and lost nothing because I wasn’t counting the calories. I also was a south beach dieter in college who didn’t count calories, lost a ton of weight and then also a gallbladder because of the inordinate amount of cholesterol I consumed going low carb for so many years. Counting calories has not made me stray away from a healthy Whole Foods mentality but it has made me 1) accountable, 2) feel more in control and 3) educated me on portion sizes and healthier swaps. I have been down many roads with my diet (not a dieting diet but my way of eating) and I have found that the accountability associated with calorie counting has really worked for me. It’s a personal thing which I why I think it can be damaging to make calorie counting “bad”. If it works for you, whatever “it” is and you are happy with it then carry on!
Hi Meaghan – thanks for sharing your opinion! I’m glad this is working for you and you are happy doing it. I’m not here to invalidate your personal experience. My stance is coming from working with hundreds of clients for whom calorie counting was detrimental, leading to food preoccupation, severe guilt, shame, and anxiety around food.
Hi Kara, I enjoy your blogs and recipe ideas but found the use of the word “unethical” in the sentence with prescribing calorie counting or dieting for weight loss a bit harsh. Of course, you are saying this from a very personal standpoint, so I hope you are not implying that professionals who use these techniques (at least as a jumpstart) are not unethical. I have found that there is a wide variety of needs and what works for some may not work for others and some people do need a reference point of recommended calories and/or macronutrients and/or a suggested “diet” to get started and then certainly a transition to mindful eating of a wide variety of foods (including some treats) for long term sustainability is a great goal.
Hi Tiana, I’m glad you enjoy reading my blog posts and recipes – thanks for being here! I’m sorry you found the verbiage used a bit harsh. That is my personal and professional opinion that has taken years in the making to evolve. I too once prescribed diets and calorie counts for weight loss so I’m not here to judge any professional who is still using these tactics. That is essentially what we are taught in traditional academia so of course that is the strategy the majority of providers utilize. But I also think it’s important as professionals to question our methodology and challenge our biases. It’s not easy work and IMO it’s essential. Also if what you are doing is working for you and your clients, good for you! I’m not here to judge. 🙂
Of course calorie counting works! I’ve beem doing it for 3 weeks and have lost 8 pounds. It’s great to be eating the right amount of food each day. I’m discovering which foods are really worth eating for the amount of calories involved. It’s actually fun & easy. I’m not nervous or deprived. I wish I had started this long ago!!
Hi Jackie – I’m really happy to hear that this is working for you. I don’t argue that intentional weight loss attempts like counting calories work in the short-term – they most definitely do! What I am talking about is that these types of efforts are not sustainable in the long-term and research shows that 95% of people who diet and lose weight will end up regaining the weight in the long-term. I know you’ve been doing this for 3 weeks now. I’d be curious to hear about your experience with this in one year or five years.
Calorie counting worked for me. Been doing it now for 15 months and I’ve lost 85 pounds. You have to make sure you keep track of your macronutrients. Make sure you’re getting enough of each, each day. But calorie-counting definitely does work!
This author is helping you take the easy path to a belly…
Hi Carl – I’m glad that you found something that is working for you. I agree that diets and calorie or macro counting can work in the short-term for weight loss but research shows us that it does not work for long-term weight loss maintenance. The majority of people will regain the weight by the 6 year follow-up mark and up to 2/3 will put on more weight than they lost. Not to mention the percent of the population who starts dieting or calorie counting and ends up with an eating disorder. These are the reasons I find it is unethical to prescribe calorie counting or dieting for weight loss.
This makes so much sense! I always think about it, but never took the time to put down in words, but you did it so well! Gonna share this with my friends for sure, thank you!
In the past, I’ve found the counting calories worked but only in the short-term. The problem for me was that it became obsessive quickly. It also ended up creating a focus on always choosing the lowest calorie foods, even if they were poorer nutritionally and weren’t satisfying.
That being said, I’ve seen some people be extremely successful with counting calories. I imagine that it partly depends on the person and the way that they tick.
Hi Vince, Thank you for sharing! I’ve found that most dieting behaviors work short-term as well but they’re not sustainable. And such a good point that the lowest calorie foods often aren’t the most nutritious or satisfying.
It took me a VERY long time to understand this and now try to help educate others struggling with the very same, whenever I can!
Yes! It does take a long time to unlearn these things! Thanks for sharing, Christina!
Such a great post – thank you Kara.
I’m new to all this. Maturing gracefully 🙂 and having just had my second child…my body has changed. Losing a few pounds does not come as easy. So I did something I never do this winter and signed on with some friends to compete in a friendly “biggest loser” competition.
Mostly, in my mind it was to get me motivated and accountable to getting back into a regular exercise routine. That did work, so I’m grateful for that accountability aspect.
But I also downloaded a calorie tracking app on my phone (which I actually deleted last night – yeah! Ha). At first, it was fun and helped me be accountable to making smarter food choices. But then it caused stress. And then another thing that started happening was I found that when I had “done good” throughout the day, it prompted me to almost give myself a prize since I had extra calories left – that I otherwise might not even have had the desire to eat if that makes sense? It all started to feel a bit weird and just not me. So these posts have been timely, I am grateful for them.
Thank you so much for sharing this, Jen. And you’re not alone in calorie tracking apps causing stress and anxiety and food preoccupation. And I always use that example with Weight Watchers points (but it’s the same with calories) that if you have points (or calories) leftover, you’ll be more inclined to eat even if your body is telling you it’s satisfied. It definitely interferes with tuning into our internal cues. So happy these posts have been timely for you.