To count calories or not to count calories?

counting calories

I think most of us have been there at some time another – religiously logging calories and measuring out food.

I know that I have and it gave me a false sense of control and achievement for quite some time. Before kids and a busy business, I seemed to find the time…

But eventually, it became exhausting and tedious, even obsessive.

I found that I couldn’t even eat a piece of fruit without wondering how I was going to make it fit.

I would also be left wondering what to eat when I had calories left over, whether I actually wanted it or not.

It soon dawned on me that I just wasn’t listening to my body. Whilst it did make me more aware of the nutrition content of certain foods initially, it led to an unhealthy compulsion to eat ‘clean’.

In fact, I was probably bordering on Orthorexia – a very serious concern.

We live in a world where we are told that counting calories is the only way to lose weight and achieve optimal health.  Whilst calories do matter, a pre-occupation with them quite often had the opposite effect over time.

This is because we become so concerned with ‘what’ we eat and forget about the ‘how’ and it is the ‘how’ that often needs addressing.

Yes, it is useful to have an awareness of the nutritional value of the food we eat and yes, counting calories CAN be useful for some IF done with the support of a nutrition coach.

But in my experience, people can’t do it long-term and are often wondering what to do once they stop.

Plus, you can never tell what long term impact it will have, as I explain in more detail below.

So, why should you NOT count calories?

The science

You are probably aware that in order to lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories than you burn.  Whilst this is true, it is a gross oversimplification.

It doesn’t take into account how the different calories affect you, how they impact your hunger and satiety.

It certainly doesn’t account for how much certain foods satisfy you emotionally which also has a huge part to play in how you manage your weight.

Our bodies are complex as is our relationship with food.

The tools that measure the calories in food are not precise either.  They use equipment that is not akin to how the human body works and therefore a 20% margin of error is allowed on all nutrition labeling.  This means that a 500 calorie sandwich could actually be somewhere between 400 and 600 calories.

Furthermore, the online calorie counter that you or your ‘coach’ is using is also likely to be considerably off the mark.  It may give you an average figure but not only is that likely to fluctuate day to day, but it also cannot give you a completely accurate figure of how many calories you burn at rest (your Resting Metabolic Rate).  This would need to be done with a respiratory test which most of us can’t have.

Your mental health 

Not only is counting calories time-consuming and potentially, a waste of time, it can also negatively impact your relationship with food AND your body.

First and foremost, it leads to calorie restriction which results in feelings of deprivation.  This can then often lead to binge eating and subsequent guilt and shame.  The cycle of restriction then begins again and so on.  This becomes a VERY unhealthy obsession and a chronic cycle to break. 

It is why people feel that every waking moment is consumed with thoughts about food.  Such disordered eating habits are even linked to depression and anxiety.

Living by external cues also causes a disconnection with our own internal hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues.

Our bodies are our best guide when it comes to knowing what, when, and how much to eat, you do not need an app to tell you.  Trusting your body is a much happier place to be than trying to micromanage your food intake.

One thing I often find with clients when they come to me is that they fixate on the calorie content of food rather than thinking about the nutritional value it offers.  

This leads to them excluding nutrient-dense food that will ultimately keep them fuller, more satisfied and energised.  You are struggling with energy levels and feeling ‘hangry’, this could be why.

I have even known people to choose highly processed foods over whole, natural foods that they actually prefer the taste off just to make the calories fit.  

Muller Lights and cardboard cereal bars spring to mind….

“But counting calories is the only way I have ever lost weight” I hear you cry!

In the short term, yes this might be so.  But trust me when I say that your body will fight back!  This is where the internal battle stems from – you are living by someone else’s rules.

With that said, it can be a very difficult habit to break because it isn’t just a matter of ditching the app on your phone.

It means reframing your thoughts about food and your beliefs about weight loss.

It means truly listening to your body and moving away from the idea that you need someone to ‘just tell you’ what to eat.

Diet culture traps us – it makes us believe that foods are either good or bad, that you need to be thinner to be accepted and happy.

If you want to learn more about that, watch my free video series here.

But the reality is that there are no easy answers or quick fixes but a good nutritionist can put YOU back in charge.

Have I convinced you to ditch the idea of counting calories yet?? 

If so, you are probably wondering what to focus on instead.  Read here to find out.