Calorie counting isn’t necessary to eat healthy
Calorie counting is often touted as a “fool-proof” way to eat healthier and lose weight. It sounds so easy, right? Just simply eat less than you burn, and BOOM! Weight loss. Many of my own clients have calorie counted in the past as a way to “get their weight under control,” but come to me confused about why it doesn’t seem to work for them, no matter how hard they try. Sound familiar?!
Although calorie counting is often cited as the best way to manage your weight, there are 7 key reasons why counting calories may not be the most effective tool for you to reach your health and wellness goals.
1. Weight management isn’t as simple as calories in, calories out
Calorie usage by the body is complicated and differs from person to person. Factors like your metabolism (or the rate at which you burn energy), your activity level, your hormones, and your digestion will impact how the calories you eat affect your weight. In fact, repeated dieting attempts (like calorie counting) can blunt your metabolism and make you more resistant to weight loss over time. This could explain why counting calories worked in your 20’s, but no longer yields the same results in your 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, or beyond.
2. Nutrition labels aren’t as accurate as you think
Calorie counting requires you to use the information provided on nutrition labels to tally your calorie consumption in a day. However, calorie information on a label is just an estimation. By law, food manufacturers are allowed up to 20% error in reporting calorie counts in food. It’s also worth noting that some people are more effective at digesting and absorbing calories than others—meaning I might eat a 500 calorie meal and absorb 480 calories from it, whereas you might eat that same meal and only absorb 420 calories from it. Knowing this makes keeping a strict calorie goal that you never go over by even one calorie seems…not so helpful.
3. Calorie counting is time consuming and unsustainable
Counting calories requires a lot of measuring, weighing, and meticulously portioning every food that you eat. And this is just for the foods that come with calorie information readily available! Many foods come without nutrition labels, like foods cooked by a friend, foods prepared at a restaurant, or foods offered at a party. Many of my clients cite feeling overwhelmed by calorie counting, stating that it just isn’t sustainable for them, or their families, in the long term.
4. Some days you’re just hungrier than others
Calorie counting assumes you will need to eat the same number of calories every day. But there is a ton of variation in the amount of energy we need in a day, and your appetite will not always be the same. Relying on a number to dictate what and how much you eat in a day ignores the important cues your body may be sending you about hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Repeatedly ignoring your body’s hunger cues will eventually lead to strong cravings and a desire to overeat.
5. Calorie counting can’t account for different types of hunger
Did you know that there are four different types of hunger?! Physical hunger is the one we most often think of, or the hunger we feel as a rumbling in our empty stomachs. But there is also emotional hunger, taste hunger, and practical hunger. When calorie counting, you may not always be able to plan for all the types of hunger you will feel in a day, leaving you feeling deprived or hangry as a result.
6. Eating low calorie isn’t the same as eating healthy
Healthy eating is consistent, adequate, balanced, and includes variety, i.e. eating regular meals that include protein, carbs, and fats, and foods with lots of different vitamins and minerals. Calorie counting doesn’t technically require any of these! If your calorie counting diet requires you to skip meals and snacks, ignore your hunger cues, cut out entire food groups, or eat the same low-nutrient foods every day, It’s. Not. Healthy. Period.
7. Calorie counting can lead to disordered eating
Calorie counting creates a lot of unnecessary rules around food (ex: “I can only eat this if I cut out that” or “I have to burn that snack off at the gym to meet my calorie goal”). It can be all too easy to let these food rules take over your life. Many of my clients who have tried calorie counting feel as though tracking everything they ate damaged their relationship with their body and with food. Over one third of all dieters will develop disordered eating, and a quarter of those dieters will develop an eating disorder.
So what can I do if calorie counting doesn’t work for me?
Delete calorie counting apps from your phone or smartwatch
Apps that track your calories and exercise for the day have become very popular and can be a constant reminder to check nutrition labels and limit your intake. These apps fail to create a healthy mindset around food and exercise for most people. The first step to no longer counting calories is to delete the apps on your phone or smartwatch that encourage you to monitor every bite of food you eat or every calorie burned with exercise.
Establish regular meal times throughout the day
Calorie counting places little emphasis on when you eat your allotted calorie amount, but let’s not forget that your body functions best when it is fueled consistently throughout the day. Instead of fixating on how many calories you are eating, shift your focus instead to ensuring your body is getting enough fuel at regular and predictable intervals. Plan meals and snacks so you are never going longer than 4 hours without eating.
Eat enough according to your hunger and fullness cues
Relying on calorie counting to determine how much you eat at meals ignores your body’s natural ability to communicate how much you need. Consider using hunger and fullness to dictate how much you need to eat. Consider adequacy by thinking about how long a meal or snack will fill you up. Ideally a meal will keep you full and satisfied for 3-4 hours, while a snack will fill you up for 1-2 hours. The goal is to enter meals moderately hungry (not ravenous!) and leave meals comfortably full (not stuffed!).
Focus on achieving satisfaction with meals
Different foods play different roles when creating fullness and satisfaction at meals– something that can get overlooked if all you’re counting is calories. Carbohydrate foods, especially those high in fiber, promote fullness and provide long lasting energy. Protein foods are slower to digest and help meals stick with you longer. Fat-containing foods promote satiety by carrying flavor and adding texture. Create satisfaction through balance at meals by incorporating foods from each food group.
Consider taste preferences instead of total calories
Calorie counting may have encouraged you to limit certain foods you really enjoy for the sake of reaching a calorie goal. This often backfires in the long term as cravings and the urge to overeat are a direct result of restriction and deprivation. Adding a greater variety of foods you really enjoy helps lessen cravings and overeating over time. Instead of using calories to determine what foods you choose, try asking yourself “Is this a food I really enjoy?” and “Has it been a long time since I’ve given myself permission to eat this?”
Abolish rules around “good” foods and “bad” foods
If you really want to eat healthier, it’s important to understand that ALL foods can fit in a healthy diet. There are no “good” foods or “bad” foods. Rules around food, and the guilt and shame they often inspire, get in the way of tapping into your natural hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues, and keep you reliant on calorie information to make food choices. Challenge your food rules by giving yourself permission to eat all foods and reminding yourself that all foods can fit in a healthy diet.
Ready to leave calorie counting behind?
You don’t need calorie counting to eat healthier. If you’re ready to get back in touch with your body’s cues for hunger, fullness and satisfaction, I recommend starting by reading our blog about intuitive eating. Some of my favorite intuitive eating resources are the Intuitive Eating Workbook and our very own Guide to Gentle Nutrition.
This blog was thoughtfully updated April 7, 2023.
Whether you are a novice in the kitchen, or a seasoned chef, Dietitian Klara will work with you to help you reach your nutrition goals. Co-author of Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating, Cooking with Diabetes and Cooking with Food Sensitivities Guide.