Counting calories isn’t necessary to eat healthy
Are you tired of spending hours a day meticulously measuring and counting calories in your meals only to feel hungry, deprived, and ready to binge by bedtime? Are you frustrated that calorie counting only seems to result in short term weight loss, but is never sustainable in the long term? It may surprise you to learn that calorie counting isn’t necessary to eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight. Read on to learn how to stop counting calories and why it’s better for your health if you do!
Why you should stop counting calories
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, and your digestion and absorption of nutrients will impact how calories are used in your body. And while there are ways to estimate how many calories you need in a day, this information is largely unhelpful for weight management in a practical sense (keep reading below).
Nutrition labels are not 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– meaning a food that states it contains 200 calories per serving could contain anywhere from 160 to 240 calories.
Calorie calculations take up a lot of brain space
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. Measuring, counting, researching, tallying– this all takes up a lot of your precious time and energy that could be better spent focusing on other things that bring you joy and fulfillment.
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 (see above), 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.
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. Over one third of all dieters will develop disordered eating, and a quarter of those dieters will develop an eating disorder.
How to stop counting calories in 6 easy steps
Delete calorie tracking 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 eatings 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
By calorie counting you may have established rules around certain foods, labeling some foods as “good” or “bad” depending on how many calories they contain. It’s important to remember that there are no “good” foods or “bad” foods, and that all foods are morally neutral. 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.
But what about my weight?
Not only does your body already know what it’s healthiest weight is (no scale or calorie counting required), but it can achieve and maintain it all on its own without your direct intervention. Your healthiest weight is the weight your body naturally maintains in the absence of calorie counting, dieting, and disordered eating.
You body knows its healthiest weight from information stored in your DNA. We call that weight your set point weight, which you can read more about here. Author Lindo Bacon also explains more about weight science in their book Body Respect.
One of the first steps you can take to achieve your set point weight is stop calorie counting and start intuitive eating. You can learn more about intuitive eating here.
Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Kristin specializes in eating disorders and intuitive eating, and is an advocate for weight-inclusive care for all her clients.