One question I get asked most often now that I’m studying nutrition is whether or not I think counting calories “works.” To be honest, whether or not I think counting calories is a good idea is going to completely depend on the person and their goals. I do think there are circumstances when it can be beneficial (i.e. counting calories to lose weight) but then I also think there are times when it can be problematic which I'll address in this post.
Let's be clear before I start that I am talking about generally healthy individuals, not those facing disease and/or those who would need very specific diets. Let’s dive in, shall we?
BENEFITS OF COUNTING CALORIES
Counting calories to lose weight. If you are overweight and looking to simply shed pounds, then counting calories can help you do that. Basically, if you consume less calories than you burn, you will lose weight. It really is that simple. By utilizing basic tools (and the advice of a Registered Dietitian) you can find a good starting point for a daily caloric intake suitable for your body type and activity level. I’d recommend calorie tracking by logging what you eat in a typical day (without any changes to diet) to determine how far off you are. Then, decide what things you might be able to cut out entirely or sub in something healthier to reduce intake. For example, if you typically drink a soda with lunch, try swapping it for water or unsweetened iced tea to reduce calories and added sugar.
It promotes awareness and portion control. A lot of individuals are not aware of how many calories they should be consuming let alone how many they actually are consuming. There are a lot of factors at play but proper food portions has a lot to do with it. In the United States especially, portion sizes have grown exponentially in recent history. That NYC bagel you just ate isn’t necessarily one serving size just because it is one bagel. It also can be hard to understand just how many almonds are in 1 ounce or what 4 ounces of meat looks like. When you count calories, you have to keep track of how big your portions are (which can be really hard at first) but it does force you to see exactly how much you are consuming. Knowledge is power, people, so the more you understand about how much you are eating vs. how much you need to be eating, the better off you will be on your health journey.
Simply counting calories overlooks the necessity of a varied and balanced diet. Someone might eat 1600 calories worth of ice cream every day and still lose weight, assuming they are expending more than 1600 calories per day. Unfortunately, though delicious, ice cream doesn’t hold all the proper nutrients to lead a healthy life. It is recommended that individuals eat a varied diet, which means eating many different types of foods across food groups (i.e. whole grains, lean meats, fruits, veggies) on a regular basis and a balanced diet meaning one that consists of the proper proportions of nutrients to promote health and growth. Eating both a varied and balanced diet offers a better chance of absorbing all of the vital nutrients your body needs to function to its optimal ability. Simply counting calories won’t do that for you.
You might start to ignore your body’s hunger and fullness signals. Your body is programmed to send signals to your brain when you’re hungry or thirsty or full. For the majority of us, we either do now or have spent some time ignoring those signals - counting calories can perpetuate those habits. It can be much more beneficial to learn to listen to our bodies and embrace signs of hunger or fullness as opposed to worrying too much about a specific calorie count for that meal, day, etc. If we have a keen awareness of what our body is telling us and we listen, it is much harder to over (or under) eat.
There is a fine line between a healthy mentality and an unhealthy obsession. This one can be tricky. If you have an obsessive personality, then counting calories can be a slippery slope into disordered eating. It is important to remember that the numbers you put into any calorie tracker app are just estimates and guidelines to aid you in eating well. If you focus too much on the absolutes, then you’ll get stuck obsessing over that extra bite of ice cream you might have had or that it says you had 2% more carbs than your goal that day. This will only perpetuate ignoring hunger/fullness signals and can direct focus away from how your body feels.
I’m not trying to say counting calories is “good” and “works” or is “bad” and “doesn’t work” – I’m simply trying to convey that the circumstances are going to be different for everyone. Blanketed terms or diets or number of calories to be consumed per day can be problematic because everyone’s body is unique. My best advice is to listen to your body (do I sound like a broken record yet?). By doing so, you’ll know exactly when and how much food you need. Let me tell you, this comes with practice and it might sound a little easier than it is (or it might sound super hard too). Like I said, for a lot of us we’ve spent time ignoring those signals and it can be confusing to decipher what our body is telling us at first. For some, that might mean enlisting the help of a professional to understand your exact needs. Over time, you’ll learn, but of course it is okay if you need help. Soon enough (or in a million years depending on which day you ask me), I’ll be one of those certified individuals who can help!