It seems so simple. Treating food intake like a math equation, in vs. out, energy spent vs. energy consumed. It’s so easy you can do it with a pen and paper. Really, all you need to do is know the caloric content of every food you put into your mouth, know exactly how much you’re eating of that food, and log it. Oh, and don’t forget the part where you reach your allotted calories for the day and have to either a) workout more so that you can eat more, or, more likely, b) chug some water and go to sleep listening to the sound of your stomach growling.
While counting calories seems like such an easy solution when you want to lose weight, it can actually be counterproductive and incredibly frustrating. For instance, how can you really know exactly how many calories are in the foods you’re eating? The accuracy of food labels has been brought into question, and, when examined, found to often be incredibly inaccurate (1). But even if food labels could be trusted, measuring out every serving size or counting every almond you eat is a task most of us don’t have the time or energy for. Even the most obsessive dieter would find it exasperating, and keeping such a routine up long term is almost impossible. But even if we could keep it up, day in and day out, and even if we could trust food labels or abandon processed foods entirely, is calorie counting really healthy? Aside from the mental exhaustion and anxiety it brings, what is the effect on the human body?
It’s important to realize that in nature, a caloric deficit would only occur in a time of famine. And your body is designed to deal with those periods of famine by lowering your metabolism and going into starvation mode (2). This means that you will lose weight, but you will also lose muscle mass, and, when you inevitably have to up your calories to survive, those calories will be stored as fat. It’s your body’s way of preparing for the next famine, and it means you’ll end up more overweight than you were to begin with.
If you think that’s a little dramatic, and you’re not actually starving yourself, keep in mind that the typical recommendation for a calorie counter is to consume about 1200 calories per day. That’s about what a sedentary 3 year old needs to survive (3), and it’s bizarre that someone would even suggest that a grown adult should restrict their food intake to that level. Instead, the focus should be on getting enough calories. For girls, that means about 2,000 or more a day, and 2,400 or more for guys. And no, that doesn’t mean you have to count to make sure you’re getting enough. Simply listening to your body and eating to your appetite should put you in that range. This is often referred to as intuitive eating, and those who follow this lifestyle report a greater enjoyment of food, less anxiety about eating, and lower BMI’s (4).
Now, that doesn’t mean eating is a free for all. The focus should be on eating the right things as well. Ideally, that means little to no processed foods, oil, meat, or animal products. It means eating an abundance of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and starches and eating until you’re satisfied. When this is done, calorie counting is unnecessary. This is partly because these foods are much less calorie dense than the others, so you can eat a greater volume of them and be satisfied. It can also be attributed to the high fiber content of plant foods, which keeps you fuller for longer.
Additionally, it’s important to get real about what it means to “listen to your body.” This phrase does not mean that if you’re craving an entire pizza you should call your local pizza parlor and order a feast for one. Instead, it means evaluating that craving and trying to understand it. For example, ask yourself why you want to eat an entire pizza. Have you eaten enough today? Did something upsetting just happen in your life? Are you bored? How do you really feel? Once you’ve pinpointed the cause for the craving, fulfill it in a healthful way. Whether that means downing a bowl of beans and rice or calling a friend, you’ll thank yourself later. And once you’re doing this on a daily basis, you’ll find that you’re avoiding all of the frustration and starvation that comes with calorie counting. Because nobody has time for that.
Jumpertz, R., Venti, C. A., Duc, S. L., et al. (2013). Food label accuracy of common snack foods. Obesity: A Research Journal, 21(1), 164-169.
Pourhassan, M., Bosy-Westphal, A., Schautz, B., et al. (2014). Impact of body composition during weight change on resting energy expenditure and homeostasis model assessment index in overweight nonsmoking adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 99(4), 779-791.
United States Department of Agriculture. (2002). Estimated calorie needs per day by age, gender, and physical activity level. <https://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/usda_food_patterns/EstimatedCalorieNeedsPerDayTable.pdf>
Smith, T., Hawks, S. R. (2006). Intuitive eating, diet composition, and the meaning of food in healthy weight promotion. American Journal of Health Education, 37(3), 130-136