Should You Be Counting Calories?

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Going on a diet of 1200 calories a day has long been spouted as the only way to lose weight. Calorie counting can be complicated and exhausting. It works for some people but for others it’s a dangerous game, plus it can be hard to stay consistent. If counting calories works for you then great! However, if you are one of those thousands of people who start counting calories on January first and give up before the month is even over, I’m with you. Here are some reasons counting calories may not be for you.

Everything you eat has calories, that’s kind of the point. Your body needs calories for fuel! Calories are not the enemy! However, if you are eating more calories than your body can use or too many empty calories then yes you will likely gain weight. It’s no secret that there is currently an obesity crisis (especially in America). We do need to change the way we eat but counting calories is not a new fad and it hasn’t solved the problem. The following are the reasons I no longer count calories. Please note: I am not a medical professional and these are my personal opinions. Please consult your doctor before making any major diet changes.

Counting Every Calorie Can Be Tedious and Overwhelming
Measuring, weighing, counting each piece… This is not my idea of a good time! A few days of logging or journaling every bite we take isn’t too bad. The longer we go, the busier life gets and the more unexpected changes in our life can make counting calories feel like a second job. Not to mention, I have a toddler and when she insists on force feeding me goldfish, the first thought I would have is “do I need to log those 3 crackers”? What about food you didn’t make yourself? How do you accurately count calories when you don’t know what is in the food you are eating? The stress and time commitment of counting calories was a big turn off for me.

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Underestimating Calories Makes It All Pointless:
Most people drastically underestimate how many calories they are actually eating. Almost no one is eating the recommended serving sizes. Let me give you a couple examples. While on my calorie counting journey I added in one serving of wine as an evening treat. I was feeling very proud of myself as it fit perfectly in my allotted calorie budget for the day. Until my husband asked one simple question, “How much is one serving” I looked it up and found out it was 5 ounces of the white wine I was about to drink. I shrugged and looking at my glass tried to convince myself that it looked like about 5 ounces… My husband was on a mission though and pulled out the measuring tool he uses for his whiskey. The little more than half a glass I had poured myself came out to 12 ounces, which blew my calorie budget out of the water. Another example is the difference between the recommended 1 cup of pasta vs the bowl of pasta we actually eat. 1 cup of food looks pitiful in standard American dishware. Most people skip the measuring and estimate (incorrectly) what they think a serving looks like. The problem with this is if you are underestimating (or flat out fibbing) on your calorie count then what’s the point?

Making Low Calorie Choices Over Healthy Choices
The types of food you eat are much more important than the number of calories you consume. For example, avocados and nuts are nutrient-rich superfoods yet high in calories. Rice cakes and iceberg lettuce, on the other hand, provide little to no nutritional value but have very few calories. Counting calories can open your eyes to how much you are eating and can help you face the poor food choices you are making, but don’t trade nutrition for low calorie. You can stay within your 1200 calorie budget eating nothing but junk or blow your budget eating well balanced nutritious foods. Which do you think is worse?

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Counting too Closely Runs the Risk of Obsession
I am self aware enough to know that I have a slightly obsessive personality. Anyone can fall victim to obsessive behaviors if you push a habit too far. Constantly thinking about calories and exercise can lead to eating disorders. It’s important to focus on how your body feels, in addition to your calorie count, to create a healthy lifestyle. Logging, journaling, counting, measuring, weighing (yourself and your food) can lead to the process taking over your life and your everyday thoughts. Counting calories is especially dangerous for someone who has a history of eating disorders. It is far more important to work on building a healthy relationship with food than trying to control every aspect of it. Everyone and everything must eat or we die. Instead of boxing ourselves into “how low can you go” I challenge you to try a different perspective. Every time we enjoy a meal, we are promoting life.

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Distorted Portion Sizes
Most of us can’t tell what 4 oz of meat or 2 oz of pasta looks like. Like I said above, if like most people you estimate your portion size it may look on paper like you are eating low calorie, while in reality you have eaten three times that much. Calorie counting can help you learn how much you should be eating and can even help you adjust to that change. But in the end you need to learn to listen to your body for for information. Learn how to spot genuine signs of hunger vs false alarms. Learn how to slow down and notice when you are satisfied and stop eating. Forget what your parents told you as a kid, you DO NOT have to eat everything on your plate! You should practice mindfulness while you are eating so your body can tell you when to stop. If eating out, take the leftovers home. If eating at home save the leftovers for another day. Condition your body to eat a more reasonable amount of food and then listen to what it is telling you.

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Your Diet Doesn’t Have to Be Boring
Remember that iceberg lettuce and rice cakes I mentioned earlier? Does the thought of that get your mouth watering? Does it get you excited? Probably not… Healthy food is NOT boring if you put some thought into it. Nature has provided incredible flavor and delectable delights for our enjoyment! One google search can open a world of healthy foods you can really get excited about. If you focus more or balance and nutrition than on calories you will have no limit to what you can create. Also, re-evaluate what you think is healthy! It feels like everywhere I look there is a new diet enemy popping up. “Don’t eat this” and “Don’t eat that”, what are we left with? I love food! I refuse to live on a diet of celery and cucumber water. On the other hand, I don’t want to live on donuts and potato chips either. The best advice I have ever received is incredibly simple. Eat as many real, whole foods as possible and limit heavily processed foods. It really is that simple.

Going Over Your Calorie Budget Inspires guilt
Counting calories can be encouraging and helpful sometimes but it can also lead to guilt and shame and low self esteem. Did you go hundreds of calories over budget? Did you cave and eat a donut? Is depriving yourself of all of the foods you love turning out to be harder than expected? That is exactly why I feel calorie counting should be a loose guideline if used at all. You should be striving to make healthy choices but do you really want to live a life without cake EVER? Reduce the unhealthy food choices but treat yourself from time to time. Depriving yourself of things you love is not going to stick long term. If you make poor choices one day, make better choices the next time you make a meal. Life is not a destination, it’s a journey! The ups and down of life and the struggle to make healthy life choices will always be a moment by moment choice.

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Counting calories for a period of time can be useful for many people, especially if they have no idea if they are eating an appropriate amount of food per day. However, in the long-term, steps should be taken to move away from tracking and rely on making healthy choices and listening to your body instead. Just because calories matter, it doesn’t mean you have to count them.

If you take anything away from what I have said here today, I hope it’s this:
Every time we enjoy a meal we are promoting life.
Food should be an exciting, delicious and life affirming adventure! Many get so distracted with trying to lose weight that we forget that. If we are thoughtful about what we eat we can be healthy and excited at the same time!

2 thoughts on “Should You Be Counting Calories?

  1. In the past year and a half I lost 15 kilos and I’m maintaining my weight. What’s worked for me is to eat three relatively healthy meals a day, go cold turkey on snacks and spending half an hour in the gym. I don’t count calories. 🤭

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