The Foodie Dietitian Blog

Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Work for Weight Loss

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’m a nutrition coach and yoga teacher helping people to learn to love food again. I love cooking, taking pictures of my food and traveling around the world. Follow my blog for delicious, seasonal vegetarian recipes and simple strategies to bring more yoga and mindfulness into your life. And check out my e-book to learn how to improve your health through nutrition and yoga. Show me what deliciousness you make! Tag me @karalydonRD on Instagram.

Comments

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

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