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3 Reasons to Stop Calorie Counting

Hi there! I’m Rachael, Columbia, SC private practice dietitian, food/wellness blogger at Avocado A Day, and one of the two other dietitians launching Joyful Eating, Nourished Life, the 6 week online intuitive eating program, with Anne. Leading up to the start of our first group, we’ll be visiting each other’s blogs and sharing a bit about the principles behind Joyful Eating. First up, we’re talking calorie counting – and sharing 3 reasons to consider not doing it.

3 reasons to stop calorie counting

3 Reasons to Stop Calorie Counting
by: Rachael Hartley, RD

Back when I was an undergrad student in nutrition, we were assigned a project to track our intake for a week using an online nutrition database, compare it to the food pyramid and our estimated calorie needs and report back. The main thing I learned that week: Calorie counting turns me into a literal crazy person.

My second day of counting was college football game day. If you live in the South, you know that means – lots of tailgate food and lots of beer. When I tallied it up the next morning, I was appalled. Five thousand calories. According to my calculations, I needed somewhere around 2,200 calories a day (although my experience since indicates I need quite a bit more). But at the time, I was basically freaking out over the fact that I had eaten two days worth of calories in a single day. What was I to do to get my average intake back to that healthy range? Starve myself and eat only a 1,000 calories for two days? Well, why not try? That went about as well as you might expect. I’m sure I ate something like light yogurt for breakfast and a salad for lunch. Absolutely famished by afternoon, my night ended with an uncontrollable binge on (being in college) ramen noodles, microwave mac and cheese and (probably my roommate’s) ice cream bars.

By the end of the week, I was a sobbing, hangry, bloated hot mess who had even more of a perceived calorie excess to make up for. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so out of control with my own eating. I wondered: if I can’t manage my own eating, how was I supposed to be a successful dietitian? In the years since, thankfully I’ve discovered that while calories certainly count, you don’t have to count them. And actually, you probably shouldn’t count them, because while calorie counting might seem like a rational way to manage weight, it’s got its fair share of issues.

Here are three of those main issues:

Calorie counts aren’t accurate.

Calorie counting is thought of as this very precise science, but as it turns out, calculating calorie needs and calorie counts of food is much less accurate than you’d think. Online calorie calculators use one of a few different mathematical formulas to estimate your needs, but as all dietitians know, none are very accurate. Sure, height, weight, age and sex impact your metabolism, but so does genetics, body composition, gut bacteria, medications, health conditions and composition of your diet. Even indirect calorimetry, considered the “gold standard” of measuring metabolism, has its faults. Your metabolism can change daily based on stress level, sleep, hydration, where you are in your monthly cycle, and so on.

Counting calories in food isn’t very accurate either. Did you know calorie counts on labels can vary by 50%? That’s because food companies can use different methods to measure calories in their product. Online databases can be even less accurate, as people enter their own data or may have different definitions of “medium” or “average” or “1 serving.”

Calories aren’t equal.

A calorie isn’t a calorie. Mathematically speaking, yes, they are all equal, but how our body uses them? Now that’s different. Calories coming from processed foods, especially simple carbohydrates, are easier to break down so your body absorbs more calories from it. I see this frequently with clients who say they’ve cut calories, yet are gaining weight. In an attempt to limit calories, they turn to low calorie diet food and as a result, are hungrier yet absorbing more calories.

Calorie counting sucks the joy out of eating.

Seriously, do you really want to pull out a calculator every time you sit down at the table? Me either. Calorie counting (or for that matter, fat or carb or sugar counting) takes the joy out of eating and distracts from what truly matters – the internal cues your body sends to guide you towards the types and amount of food that makes you feel best. With calorie counting, you’re stuck in a never-ending cycle of trying to balance calories in and calories out. How exhausting!

That’s why in our Joyful Eating program, we’re teaching non-diet approaches to eating and strategies to get back in tune with your body so you put joy back on the dinner table, where it belongs!

avocado a day nutrition

In week one of our program you’ll be starting a food journal of a different kind. Our Joyful Journal helps you identify the triggers, mindsets, and emotions behind your unwanted eating concerns, no math involved! Eating is highly personal and there’s no one size fits all approach – we’ll guide you to figuring out your individual needs and what food makes you feel best.

Are you ready to discover joyful eating and pave the way to a life well nourished? If so, head over to our Joyful Eating website to learn more and sign up for our first group starting in June!

Comments

  1. 1
    http://Christina says

    I think its different for everyone. I’ve been following macro counting for over a year and lost 15 lb in the first 15 weeks. Now I’m working on recomposition. But I don’t have any triggering tendencies and I don’t sweat the small stuff – like PMS days lol.

    I just think its hard to make blanket statements about any program since the everyone responds so differently. I tend to like the structure of macro counting and its become second nature. I don’t feel pressured to log foods right away. The main burden is in the beginning when you’re learning about the food you’re logging. And ultimately, you just need to be balanced about it and not let it consume you.

    • 2

      Love what you said about being balanced and not letting it consume you – that’s what we’re going for, too, and love hearing you’ve already found that! :) Thanks for reading!

    • 3

      Hi Christina! Thanks for your insight – absolutely agree with you and Anne that it’s all about being balanced! So glad you found something that works for you, because that’s really what we’re going for in our program, helping people figure out a way to manage their eating in a way that feels balanced, sane and realistic. Unfortunately, in our practice we’ve seen SO many people where calorie counting and other numbers based diets have led to yo-yo dieting, disordered eating, etc. So we created this program to show a different way! Best wishes and thanks again for reading!

  2. 4

    So exciting! I don’t use calorie counts with my clients either! I have a whole series about how calorie counting turned against me when before I was a DIetitian : weight gain, misery, hormone problems etc!

  3. 5
    http://Laura says

    This is an awfully judgmental blog post…calorie counting is the worst FOR YOU may be a more accurate title. Many people have a lot of success with it, and personally I find it freeing to plan out my food for the day. There’s no stress about it for me. If I go over my calories, I move on and make better choices tomorrow. You guys found ONE WAY to interact with food that works for you. It’s not the only right way out there.

    • 6

      Hi Laura! Just popping in here to say thank you for sharing this feedback! You’re right — I updated the title and made a couple light edits to the intro because I know Rachael’s intention to this post was to be tongue in cheek, and we certainly don’t want that to be misread as judgement. Different things work for everyone and if you’ve found a way to make calorie counting work in a stress free way for you, that’s great! This post was just supposed to give everyone a little food for thought – that’s all. Thanks for reading!

    • 7

      Hi Laura! Yes, absolutely meant to be tongue in cheek and not at all judgmental. I hate that it made you feel that way! I fully support anything that helps you feel happy, healthy and as you mentioned, free. If calorie awareness does that for you, I think that’s great! We just want to show there’s another way for those who feel crazy around food after counting :) Thanks for reading!

  4. 8
    http://Holley says

    Oh my gosh. As a dietetic intern reading this, I actually heard myself say “OMG this is fantastic!!” And then I laughed… Fantastic… Fannetastic haha! Seriously though, in school and at internship spots I always find myself thinking “man I’m learning all this stuff but I really don’t think I want to preach it all because I don’t believe in it!” I’m happy other RDs feel the same way!

  5. 10
    http://Monica says

    I find this very interesting, but as someone that has lost 100 pounds+ through calorie counting and journaling and has kept it off for 10 years I tend to disagree that it does not work for everyone. I think that a food diary and calorie counting is a good checks and balance system and I think that the National Weight and control registry agrees. While I don’t agree with starving or being inflexible or limiting your food choices I do think calorie counting has its place.

    • 11

      For most of my clients, I use non-numbers based methods of meal planning, but for others who are more numbers oriented, we’ll discuss being ‘calorie aware’. Huge fan of keeping food diaries and journaling – in fact, that’s one of the first activities we’re doing with Joyful Eating because as you pointed out, it’s such a great way to build accountability and do some detective work :)

  6. 12
    http://Heather says

    For me, calorie counting “works” in that, when I journal and meticulously count, I will lose weight while counting. However, as Anne mentioned in another post, I have an on/off mentality because of it. When I’m counting, I eat healthier foods, lots of veggies and fruit, etc. When I’m not counting, I tend to have a much more caviler attitude and eat a lot of junk. I, for one, am intrigued by this “non-diet” approach to eating. I have about 60 lbs to lose – could I do it with a non-diet? It goes against everything I’ve ever known…

    • 13

      Hi Heather! That on/off mentality is precisely why we veer away from calorie or other counting methods for weight loss – it triggers that all or nothing mentality in SO many people. I know the idea of a non-diet approach is really scary. As you mentioned, it goes against everything most of us grew up being told. One of the statistics I find most telling is that 95% of people who lose weight through dieting and restriction gain it back in 5 years. Of course there’s that 5% who can do it, but that’s a small minority. I hope you’ll check out our Joyful Eating program – sounds like you’d really benefit! If anything, highly encourage reading Intuitive Eating :) Best wishes and thanks for your comment!

      • 14
        http://Heather says

        I have signed up for Joyful Eating and that book has been on my radar, I just need to put down my fluff reading for a few days and read it!

        I know I’ve gained and lost and gained the same 40+ lbs several times. It’s frustrating. This concept is scary, but not any more so than failing at yet another “diet” plan.

  7. 15
    http://Britt says

    Very good read. I totally see (and have been there) where calorie counting can make you absolutely nuts. Some days, you are just MORE hungry than others and limiting yourself doesn’t feel right, or good. I’ve also been there where I’ve restricted my calories TOO much; I think that tends to be the most common issue.

    While I do calorie/macro track through MyFitnessPal, I don’t try to be exact every single day, and if I’m still hungry, I eat more. Personally, I like the accountability of seeing what I’ve eaten and looking it over to think, maybe that snack wasn’t fulfilling enough; if I’m hungrier next time, have peanut butter with the apple; things like that. But everyone’s different and everyone is on a different journey with food!

    • 16

      I love that you use calorie counting as a way to do detective work around cravings/satisfaction — that’s one of the things we talk about and suggest doing (just without the calorie/portion focus) in our program!

  8. 17
    http://April says

    Love this post!!!!

  9. 19

    I love this post! As a dietetics student, we have had numerous calorie counting assignments and I have even tracked macros to ensure my protein was high enough for muscle building. All of the tracking really turns me into a crazy person. I start to be consumed with tracking thoughts, when I get to eat next, if the foods I eat will fit into my macros. I’ve learned that every day of eating is different for me and it is best if I listen to my body. Some days I am starving and some days I am not. It’s best for my physical and mental health if I just listen to my body and eat intuitively!

    • 20

      Although I somewhat see the value of doing these assignments, I REALLY wish nutrition programs would stop or at least give a sample diet instead of a real one! Was chatting with a friend recently and she told me how her ED was triggered after a similar assignment. That broke my heart and actually reminded me of the story I shared in the beginning. Thanks for your comment Chelsea!

  10. 21
    http://Hellen says

    With all respect,,every persone is an individual matter,approche,Cellular Nutrition is the most important above all,,How much Nutrition your body use from all your food/ day,,every body has different needs.

    If a body can burn 1600 cal/ day,,another one 1800 or 2000 depend of what kinde of active life,,anyway,,there is %80 Nutrition and %20 Sport,,,Hard work,,right!
    Thanks for your ingormation,,have a great time in Florida,enjoy wedding!
    Hellen

  11. 22
    http://Beth says

    I enjoy calorie counting because it reminds me to think mindfully about what I am eating. Is this really worth x amount of calories considering how long it took me to work off x calories at the gym. I have my days when I won’t deprive myself, where I will go over and under depending on what I am doing and feeling, and overall I find it interesting. I can see how it could become obsessive but for me I find it really enjoyable.

  12. 23
    http://tara says

    Love both your blogs!

    I like that you touch on the inaccuracy and inconsistency of calorie data. This si something that rarely gets mentioned.

    My concern with intuitive eating, is that I understand it can help with weight maintenance but what about weight loss, especially when we only have 10 pounds to lose. Do our bodies not try to stay at maintenance, therefore, our hunger signals would reflect this and by following an intuitive eating style, we would maintain our current weight.

    Would be great to get some insight on this since I am very interested in this program :)

    Thanks,
    Tara

    • 24

      Hi Tara! Great question and one that we hear quite frequently. First off, I’ll say that intuitive eating isn’t a weight loss diet. It’s really impossible to predict how your body would respond with it without knowing you and your eating habits (and even then it would be hard because no one can really predict your personal healthy weight!). If you’re above what we like to call your ‘happy weight’ you’ll likely lose weight. However if you’ve been severely restricting calories to get to where you’re at right now, you might even gain weight with intuitive eating. But in the end, you’ll still be healthy and not obsess around food all the time!

  13. 25
    http://katie says

    You do not absorb more calories from processed food. That is complete nonsense.

    • 26

      Perhaps a better way of stating it is that your body absorbs less calories from unprocessed foods. There’s been some interesting research looking at various whole foods, especially those high in fiber and fats (nuts are a biggie) showing the body takes in less calories from them than previously thought. I used to think the same about calories being calories! When you start to think about human digestion and all it’s intricacies vs. the different methods for measuring calories in food in labs, that discrepancy definitely makes sense.

  14. 27

    A few years ago I got in to the whole calorie counting thing and I got so worried about every little thing I was eating and worried when something was homemade and I couldnt know the exact amount of calories in something. Once I ate real food, stayed active, and stopped counting I lost 15 pounds! I’ve since learned what balance means for me and I can enjoy food rather than obsess over it! Love this post!

  15. 28
    http://Ashley%20V says

    A commenter above mentioned something I wanted to ask as well. I need to lose about 15 pounds, and I just don’t know how to do it without some kind of counting involved. I eat very healthy foods and am active. I track my meals just so I can be mindful, but I’m not losing weight. I spent about a day or two counting calories recently because I heard a co-worker mention that she eats 1,000 a day (I nearly fell off my chair because that is clearly not enough for a grown woman), and I wanted to compare because I figured I was probably double that. ;) It was an insane amount of work, and I stopped after two days. I’m just not sure how to lose weight without cutting certain things out of my diet completely or who knows what…

    • 29

      Hi Ashley! Yikes, 1,000 calories is definitely not enough. That breaks my heart to hear. So, as I mentioned to the other commenter, intuitive eating isn’t a weight loss plan, although many people do lose weight with it, some may gain, especially if they’ve been overrestricting. However, diets, cutting calories/foods, despite the short term results, aren’t helpful for weight loss either – studies show 95% of dieters regain weight and I think it’s somewhere around 30% gain back more than they originally lost! With intuitive eating, you’ll find your “happy weight” and be able to sustain it! Hope you’ll be able to join us for Joyful Eating!

  16. 30
    http://Roadrunner says

    Thought-provoking post — and thought-provoking comments! Well done by all…

  17. 31
    http://Rosamund says

    Really great post! I needed to hear it. Calorie counting can be helpful at first. I began using myfitnesspal nearly 4 years ago and it was really eyeopening to learn how many calories were in some of my favorite foods, and got me to think about portion control. Unfortunately it got really addicting and three years later I was obsessed with entering everything I ate into that stupid counter. Really does ruin a meal when you are sitting there with your phone searching for things mundane things like 1/2 cup of chopped cucumber! Not to mention sometimes I was hungry but wouldn’t eat because I had already used up too many calories, or I would eat when I wasn’t really hungry because I had extra for the day. Intuitive eating has helped me get over it, and I think this article raises some great points! Sometimes I feel myself slipping back to that counting point and reading this article was a good reminder of why not to.

  18. 33
    http://Cindy says

    Such an informed post. I was wondering about this program when Anne mentioned it recently. Not mentioned was the post menopausal woman. Can intuitive eating work for this group? I am a runner/daily workout gal and find it difficult to eat/maintain my weight at times. I am forever trying to locate out ” there” programs that speak to my age group. I was wondering if this program speaks to heart rate training/resistance training and food intake. I as well would like to know if enrolled in the program your direction food intake /prep has when one has a spouse who is on a ” special -needs ” diet. This is the trickiest for me. Thanks so much. Also price? I could not find the price of the program.

    • 34

      Hi Cindy! This program can certainly work for menopausal women. Since the program is about getting in tune with your own body and what you personally need, it can work for any population. We won’t be talking specific nutrition requirements in terms of anything calorie related, but again guiding everyone as they work to develop healthier, happier relationships with food through eating intuitively and mindfully. We spend one week of the program on easy food prep and how to build a satisfying meal, and I think the content could easily be modified based on special needs. We’ll share price once the program is available for purchase — should be the first week of May! Please make sure you are on the email list (sign up at JoyfulEatingProgram.com) if you’d like to be notified when sign ups open. Thanks for your interest!

  19. 35

    “A calorie isn’t a calorie” So true. Personally I do not believe in calorie counting for that reason alone. However, I am a believer when it comes to food journaling. You can uncover a lot by writing everything down especially food sensitivities.

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