The expectation (and sometimes fear) of counting calories nearly always comes up in conversation with a new client or someone inquiring about working with me. Most are surprised when I say I do not require diligent food tracking and calorie counting, and then shocked to discover I won’t be giving them a food plan. My explanation on the food plan comes another day, but here are the reasons why I discourage calorie counting:
1) It disconnects you from your food.
When you are focused on a number, you are not focused on the food in front of you and how it makes you feel. You are not focusing on your body’s hunger and satiation cues, and you are not appreciating your meals for the nourishment they provide, but rather as a numerical means to an end (“I am sick to death of carrots, but they are low in calories and filling…”).
When clients stop counting calories and focus on what kinds of foods nourish their bodies, they develop a more respectful appreciation for their meals and a friendlier relationship with their body because it isn’t about their appetite vs. the external limitation of calories. They understand that certain foods feel really good and other foods aren’t as satisfying beyond first bite and end up gravitating to the foods which support their body. Ironically, this often leads to a natural reduction in calories without having to track them.
2) It encourages and triggers disordered eating, making you obsessive and cranky.
The calories in/calories out model is too simplistic. When we exclusively focus on calories, it is often to the detriment of quality. It is also very easy to start bargaining when cravings hit. The temptation to “exercise to earn your food” or eat nothing but salad and ice chips before a holiday dinner are not healthy habits, yet these are the kind of behaviors that are very common among calorie counters. If something unexpected happens (a co-worker surprises you with a birthday cupcake, for instance) and you reach your calorie allotment before dinner, what are you tempted to do? Deny your body’s cues and starve, or go to the gym as ‘penance’. Food and calories are not the enemy, but living by the iron rod of that external number can make you feel like they are.
3) Calorie Counting is a very limited teaching tool.
At Vibrance Nutrition and Fitness, we focus on quality over quantity. 500 calories of pastries and 500 calories of pot roast have very different effects upon the body, but if you were be focusing on calories, it wouldn’t make a difference. The truth is, in regards to what one eats, quality trumps quantity. Calorie counting can bring a level of awareness to your meals (for instance, realizing how many calories that half jar of peanuts has), but it won’t teach you about which foods will make you feel satisfied or how to combat cravings.
4) It isn’t even very accurate.
Food labels can be wrong, metabolic calculators are estimates, the Fitbit you are wearing is not precise, and if you are eating something someone made by hand all bets are off! The most precise way to measure calories is to live in a laboratory and only eat deconstructed meals where all ingredients are weighed. Alternatively, you can rely upon packaged foods as the easiest way to count calories, but consuming high quantities of packaged foods is partly responsible for the healthcare crisis we have in this country, so that’s not the answer, either. Even if you managed to have precise tracking of input, your daily activity, hormone fluctuations, and even the temperature outside influence how many calories you burn in a day, so precise output outside a temperature controlled laboratory is impossible (and even in lab, there’s room for error).
5) You have better things to do with your time.
Focusing on the habits of health and vitality and tapping into your body’s messages rather than tuning it out in favor of a somewhat arbitrary number is the key to lasting health and lasting results.
The reality is most people can have the health and body they want without counting calories. Athletes trying to shed weight for an event (wrestlers, body builders) may benefit from counting calories, and if you’ve met one, you know what it takes to achieve that. If you are looking to live longer, healthier, and feel good in your clothing, that level of deciduous tracking is unnecessary. By focusing on appetite, the root cause of your cravings, the quality of the food on your plate and shifting the ingredients to be aligned with your goals, you can have the results you want. Isn’t that great news?
I only recommend calorie counting in very specific situations:
1) If a weight-loss client reaches a stubborn plateau this can be a good self-check to ensure that one isn’t letting little things sneak in, causing results to stagnate. Tracking food (and calories) rules out the mindless bites of your child’s plate or Costco samples that can boost intake enough to reach a plateau. It can also determine if there is a shift in macronutrients (carbs, fats, protein) that may need to occur to bring someone out of plateau. Calorie counting can be a tool to level up awareness and is easier to implement first before ruling out other issues like hormone imbalances.
2) If someone is shifting into an intense level of athletics (ie – training for a marathon) calorie counting can help make sure this person is getting *enough* food. Female athletes often underestimate how much food they actually need to fuel their sport, and this can be a way to make sure she is not unknowingly under eating. When women train hard and under eat they are at high risk of all sorts of health challenges from resulting hormone imbalances. Because we are so indoctrinated into diet culture, many women are afraid to fuel their bodies in this way or are simply unaccustomed to consuming the amount of calories their sport demands.
What are your thoughts on calorie counting? Do you find it a helpful tool or an annoyance? Does it mess with yoru mind a bit or is it just “recording numbers” for you?