You’ve heard it before – calories in, calories out. So, it just seems logical that in order to understand what you are taking in, you must count the calories! Then, if you know the calories out (by using some handy dandy calculator you found on the internet, an app, a magazine, a piece of gym equipment, or from your friend – each of which will be different than the other), you can control your intake, consume less calories than you burn, be in a deficit and lose weight! Sounds simple enough, but if you are reading this, chances are that this approach has not worked for you over the long term. Calorie counting on its own is not “bad”, but there are some important reasons to consider when trying to decide if this is something you want to do for yourself.
I’ve compiled 10 reasons to stop counting calories based upon my own experience after years of counting calories and now years of not counting calories. This also incorporates experience working with many clients from all over the world and my time in therapy – where I was first challenged to give up the calculator.
- Figuring out your personal baseline is hard. When you decide to count calories how do you even know how many calories you burn in a day? A quick internet search reveals no shortage of calculators to determine your own personal number. I just input my data into the top three calorie calculators and received three incredibly different results – with over 1,000 calories per day difference between the high and low amount! It seems like every women’s health, fitness or cooking magazine talks about a range right around 1,500 calories – so maybe that’s the magic number? Or ask 5 friends – they will each tell you something different. Download a calorie counting app to your phone and again you will have different numbers. You could pay money to have your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) tested, but that result would be specific to that day. How can you even know what number to aim for? We haven’t even started yet and already the logic of this approach is questionable.
- Your needs change daily. Somehow you weed through all of the inconsistencies and you pick a number. Many people pick ONE number, above which they will not go. Or they pick a range that has maybe 150-200 calories between the low and the high. Some take an approach of a floor and a ceiling – don’t eat less than x or more than y calories. This approach doesn’t work either! Your caloric needs vary from day to day, depending on a wide variety of factors, not the least of which is your immune system, stress, activity level, hormones, healing from an injury and more. There is no magic number that works consistently from day to day. By sticking to a number or a range, you might be eating way more than your body needs on some days and way less than it needs on others. Chances are, if you are counting calories, you have some days where you just aren’t very hungry but you eat anyway because you don’t want to waste your muscles, or lower your metabolism, or you have those days where you are hungrier than normal, but you don’t dare eat more than your allowance or you will gain weight. You allow an arbitrary number to decide how much you should or shouldn’t eat that day, which brings me to my next point.
- You are disconnecting from your body. When you are focused more on hitting your calorie range in a day you naturally disconnect from your body’s cues. I can remember so many times being legitimately hungry, but already being at my upper calorie limit, so I wouldn’t allow myself to eat anymore food. I was scared to eat more than that random number because according to the magazine with all of the fit and healthy women in it, I shouldn’t need to eat more than that. If I could just eat that amount of calories on a daily basis, I might look like them. I didn’t learn how to listen to my body. I knew what hunger felt like, but I also knew what time I could eat, what foods I could eat at that time, and my spreadsheets and apps told me when it was enough. Once I stopped counting calories I discovered that my body was a much better indicator of when and how much to eat than a random number from a magazine or an app. When you are tied to a number you are not connecting to your body. When you expect your body to fit into a range the same way every day you don’t allow for variation. Learning how to hone in to your individual body and your responses to hunger and satiety is more powerful and effective than any app or calorie calculator on the market. This process takes time, but it is absolutely possible to eat according to your body’s cues, rather than an assigned range or number of points.
- You make choices based on the fewest number of calories, not what you really want to eat. Chances are, if you are reading this, you have made many choices on what to eat based upon the lowest number of calories. Especially if you are trying to maintain a low level of calorie intake. I can remember hearing about the “free foods” – foods that didn’t have enough calories to “count” or that took more calories to eat them than to digest them. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I certainly ate a lot of celery during that time! I do think awareness of what is in your food is important. And now that calorie counts are being posted in a lot of places, it’s not a bad thing to make a decision from an informed place, SO LONG AS you actually like and ENJOY the foods you are choosing. If you are not enjoying your food, AND you are eating fewer calories than your body really needs, binge eating is a likely result.
- Deprivation leads to binge eating. Binge eating can stem from a variety of things, but one very common trait is deprivation. Your body can only maintain on reduced amounts of food for so long. Your body has basic minimum needs and if they are deprived, your body will seek to get those needs in any way that it can. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment was a clinical study performed in 1944-1945 to determine the physiological effects of severe and prolonged dietary restriction. Among the conclusions from the study was the confirmation that prolonged semi-starvation leads to increases in depression, emotional distress, preoccupation with food, decline in concentration, and more. And here’s the kicker – the semi-starvation level of calories for these individuals was more than one of the calorie calculators told me I should eat to lose weight! Deprivation can come in flavor and enjoyment as well, not just caloric deprivation. There are biological and psychological reasons to enjoy our food and eat enough to sustain and maintain our health and emotional well-being. Not meeting these needs can lead to binge eating.
- Fear of foods where you can’t calculate the calories. I have worked with many women who wouldn’t eat something where they couldn’t calculate the number of calories in an item – perhaps because someone else cooked it, or it was in a recipe with a lot of other ingredients so it was too hard to determine. This leads to a different type of deprivation. Depriving yourself of new experiences, new foods, new flavors or new recipes. It often leads to isolation and not going out to eat where you don’t know the exact content and calories of what is served. This type of isolation and deprivation can also lead to binge eating, depression and frustration.
- It’s tedious. When you first start counting calories it can be very time consuming. Trying to figure out what you are eating, how much, looking up values, etc. Apps have come a long way to make this easier, but it still takes time and effort. And when you have a situation as described above where you are eating out at a restaurant or a friend’s house, you can guess, or take the time to try to calculate it out with more detail (warning – see #8 below!). I have had many meals where I was so caught up in calculating the calories and writing them down that I didn’t even get to experience the meal itself and enjoy the flavors and the company. It takes up a lot of mental space.
- Counting calories is highly inaccurate. So you go through the process to determine your number, you start counting calories, you take the time to input your favorite meals and recipes and now you should be all set, right? Wrong! Unless you are only eating at home and weighing everything you eat, your calorie counts are likely to be inaccurate anyway. Even if you somehow found the magic “range” that works for you every day of the year, the calories you are counting probably aren’t accurate anyway. Serving sizes, recipes, meals eaten out and more can all have an impact on varying calorie counts. And let’s say you do weigh everything and only eat at home – you are likely to fall into deprivation – and see #5. It’s all a trap – a vicious cycle that takes up valuable time and mental space.
- Guilt and shame when you eat over your allowance. So you have your magic number, you try to stay under it, but you end up eating more. Maybe because you were so hungry you couldn’t stand it, maybe because you ate some unplanned food or snacks, but now you are beyond your magic number – your “safe zone”. Many people use this range to determine if they were “good” for the day. If you eat within your calorie allowance you did well, and if you went over, then you failed. That sense of failure leads to feelings of guilt and shame. And the guilt and shame often lead to the “screw it” mentality, which often looks like large quantities of food because you have to start over again tomorrow. If you didn’t have an arbitrary number telling you if you were good or bad, there would be less likelihood for guilt and shame for following your body’s cues for hunger and satiety.
- Too many rules can lead to rebellion. Sometimes rules can be helpful, but sometimes we create rules that don’t need to be there. Rules that actually do more harm than good. I believe that counting calories and trying to stay within an arbitrary range without listening to the wisdom of your body is not helpful for most people. When you have rules, it can be useful to examine what happens if you break the rule? For example, what happens if you eat more calories than you are allowing yourself? What thoughts do you have about breaking that rule and what does that lead to (see #9 above). And what’s really interesting is that the rule you establish with the calorie range is likely arbitrary, inaccurate and not helpful! You create a rule for yourself that is really hard to follow, and if you can manage to follow it takes you further away from connection with yourself.
So what is the takeaway? Counting calories is not helpful. I will share in another blog post my thoughts on what IS helpful – tuning into your own body, learning your personal signals for hunger and satiety, knowing how foods feel in your body and how to choose the right foods for you – not some fad diet or the co-worker who lost 30 pounds. You are your own best guide through every aspect of life. We spend so much time tuning out from ourselves and trying to see what works for everyone else. Take the time instead so see what works for YOU. Experiment, try new things, let your body be your guide. This can take time, and working with a coach, nutritionist, or therapist on these items can be very beneficial.
How do you feel about counting calories? How do you decide what and how much to eat? I would love to hear what approach you use and if it is working for you.