Why I Don't Believe In Calorie Counting, According to a Dietitian
Save the math equations for another time. Here are four reasons why I don't love counting calories.
Calorie counting as a way to lose weight has been around for awhile. It makes sense, at first glance. If you're in a calorie deficit, aka burning more calories than you take in, you'll probably drop a few pounds. But in real life, it does get a little more complicated than that. Here, I break down why it's not my go-to recommendation to have people start counting calories, plus what to do instead.
1. All food has calories
What I mean by that, is that if all you focused on was calories, you could consume nothing but jelly beans and ice cream and bacon as long as it was within your calorie targets. Most people don't do that, but it's easy to lose sight of other important nutrients when calories are your main focus. Broccoli is low in calories, yes, but also loaded with important vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. There are so many other important nutrients to consider when making food choices. Protein, fiber and fat help keep you full. Most of us eat too much added sugar and not enough fruits and vegetables.
Instead of focusing on the negative, and trying to eat the least amount of calories, I like to focus on what the food is adding to my diet. Leafy greens for some color, fiber and nutrition. Fruit and nuts for a powerful snack combo. Yogurt for protein and probiotics. Choosing better-for-you options might mean adding walnuts to your oatmeal to help balance out the carbohydrates and give you satisfying healthy fats. If you only cared about calories, you might skip the walnuts, but end up feeling hungry just a little while later.
2. Our bodies are not machines
Some days you might need more energy (food), some days you might need less. A calorie is energy (if you want to get really technical, the calories listed on foods are actually kilocalories, or the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by one degree Celsius).
There are so many factors that impact our energy needs. A workout, stress, sleep, illness, temperature—the list goes on and on. Even if you have an idea of how many calories your body needs, it's fluid. You will need different amounts of foods on different days and only allowing yourself to stick to one calorie level may be too restrictive.
3. Calorie counts are only an estimate
Whether you look at calorie counts on food packages or use an app to track your intake, you're at best only getting an estimate. The FDA allows for a 20% margin of error on calories reported on nutrition labels, so if your crackers say they contain 100 calories they might have 120 calories or they might have 80 calories (or somewhere in between). Plus, most of us are estimating how much we are eating—even people who measure their food are usually off. FYI, calorie counts on cardio equipment, like treadmills and bikes, are usually off too. It's not that you can't get a rough idea of the calories you're eating, but I've seen people stress out over 20 extra calories here or there and there's no need.
4. You're less likely to listen to your body
It can be hard to only eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full, but counting calories makes it harder. When we follow strict numbers and rules, it forces us to eat by external rules, rather than our internal cues. I think it's important to try and listen to your body when it's telling you it's hungry. It's why I recommend adding healthy fats, protein and fiber to meals and snacks to help keep you full (instead of always trying to eat the lowest amount of calories). It takes a while to start listening to your body and real life means sometimes you're running around when you get hungry or want to enjoy a delicious meal (and maybe feel a bit overstuffed). While, it's not perfect, trying to listen to your body can help you eat what you need (and it's one of the principles of intuitive eating, which is a great way to break up with dieting).
You may find it helpful to track your intake and stick to a certain number of calories. But instead of measuring and tracking, I prefer eating mostly nourishing foods—plenty of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats and protein with some treats mixed in (I eat dessert every day). And if you're stressing about calories, I encourage you to let go of that stress and enjoy what's on your plate. Need more inspiration? Here are seven ways to eat healthier without counting calories.