Today’s topic in this Real Health January series is counting calories. Specifically whether counting calories for weight loss is a good idea!
What is counting calories for weight loss?
I’m sure most people these days are aware of the idea of calorie counting. You might be familiar with calorie counting apps like My Fitness Pal and Chronometer. But to quickly cover the basics, a calorie is a unit of energy commonly used to describe the amount of energy in a food. This energy comes from three macro-nutrient groups:
- Carbohydrates (4 calories per gram)
- Proteins (4 calories per gram)
- Fats (9 calories per gram)
You can find the amount of calories (kcal) on the nutrition label of most foods. Usually the label will also have the guideline daily amount for a typical adult, like the one below.
There are many “macro calculator” websites, for example those by IIFYM and Precision Nutrition. You input your age, gender, height, current weight and how much weight you want to lose. The calculator will tell you how many calories and macros you should aim to eat per day to reach your weight loss goals. You can then track the calories in the food that you eat using an app like My Fitness Pal. You stay in the recommended ranges to see the weight loss results you want. Sounds simple. But is counting calories for weight loss a good idea? And is there another way?
The benefits of counting calories for weight loss
It is true that calorie counting has been linked with successful weight loss in multiple scientific studies. In order to lose weight, you need to be in an energy deficit. This means you need to burn more calories than you take in through food). Counting calories for weight loss can be a good way to make sure you are doing this.
Calorie counting can be a helpful tool for anyone who has absolutely no idea how much they should be eating. It can help you to become familiar with the portion sizes you need to eat to lose weight and be healthy. Over time counting calories can be a good way to learn more about the nutritional values of different foods. You might also understand which foods are more satisfying for the amount of calories they supply. For example, a 500ml bottle of coke which doesn’t fill you up at all has more calories than the bowl of porridge shown above!
There is also a concept called “if it fits your macros” in the fitness world. This is an approach where you eat whatever you like and still reach your weight loss goals, as long as you eat within the recommended calories and macro-nutrient ranges. This makes the calorie counting approach very appealing to anyone who doesn’t want to give up treats. Or doesn’t want any specific rules regarding the foods they can eat.
It allows for flexibility in the types of foods you eat. For some people this is a very freeing approach to weight loss. It is similar to the idea of Weight Watchers or Slimming World where every food has a points value. In this case you don’t count calories, rather you have a points allowance for the day. But this is just a simplified version of counting calories for weight loss.
The problems with counting calories for weight loss
Even though counting calories for weight loss can be successful, personally it’s not a method I recommend. This is for several reasons:
1. My training is in public health nutrition so for me, health always comes above weight loss with my clients. Counting calories focuses only on the amount of energy in foods and doesn’t consider the nutritional value. As well as calories and macro-nutrients, we need micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals to maintain strong healthy body. This includes a well functioning metabolism and immune system, strong bones and teeth and healthy skin, hair and nails. It’s better to eat a higher number of calories in whole foods than it is to eat a low number of calories in processed junk foods. You could eat 1000 calories a day in only chocolate cake and lose weight. But that wouldn’t be healthy or sustainable in the long term!
2. Calorie counting apps and nutrition labels are not 100% accurate. The information is based on laboratory tests that have an accuracy of +/- 10%. So even if you count calories to precisely 2000 per day, in reality you could be eating anywhere from 1800 to 2200 calories. This is a huge range and could have a massive impact on your goals! The same goes for calorie and macro-nutrient calculators, they aren’t tailored to your individual body. Instead, they are based on averages and statistics. So just because a calculator tells you to eat 1500 calories per day to lose 2lbs per week, it doesn’t mean that will happen for you. This can be pretty frustrating and take the attention away from any progress you have made.
3. Counting calories for weight loss is a very rigid approach. Usually you will aim for the same calorie target each day. This doesn’t fit with the constantly changing, flexible way our bodies work! Your calorie needs can change from day to day depending on many factors. Things like your activity, your sleep and your stress levels affect your energy needs each day. For women, our calorie needs can also shift cyclically with our hormonal rhythms (see my posts on how to eat with your cycle). Counting calories encourages us to over ride our natural hunger cues. This can lead to eating when you’re not hungry just because you “have calories left”. Or on the other hand, not going to bed hungry because you already “ate your calories for the day”.
4. Counting calories and macros can easily become an addictive or obsessive behaviour. Research has linked use of calorie counting apps and fitness trackers with the onset and maintenance of disordered eating behaviours. Whilst it might seem harmless, and it can be if it is a short term measure to learn about nutrition, tracking food and counting calories. Calorie counting for weight loss is a slippery slope and can become compulsive and controlling. As I shared recently in my post on letting go of the over-controller, it’s much better for our overall health to be flexible. You want to be intuitive and nurturing rather than rigid and focused on numbers.
Alternatives to counting calories for weight loss
So, maybe you’ve decided counting calories for weight loss isn’t for you but you still want to lose weight. What are your options? I’m not going to tell you that you can eat as much as you like of whatever you want and still lose weight because that’s not realistic. Unless you are a competitive athlete who needs ridiculous amounts of calories to fuel yourself..
But you don’t have to rely on calorie counting apps either to reach your goals. One option is intuitive eating. I can write a whole separate post on this! But the basic idea is really tuning into your body’s hunger and fullness signals and cravings and learning to eat mindfully. Often we eat whilst on the computer or on the go without really paying attention to our food. Or we eat for emotional reasons or boredom rather than true hunger. Learning to eat intuitively helps to improve your relationship with food. It enables you to enjoy a wide range of foods without following specific diet rules.
The alternative to counting calories for weight loss and intuitive eating is to follow a restricted diet. By this I mean any diet which limits the types of foods you eat. Ever wondered why there are sooo many different diet books out there all claiming to offer you the solution to your weight loss woes? Well that’s because there is no one true diet to follow that is perfect for all humans. These diets work because by limiting the types of foods you eat. Therefore, they automatically limit the amount of calories you consume. Some examples:
- Whole foods or Paleo diet (limits processed foods)
- Keto or Atkins diet (limits carbohydrates)
- Vegan or plant-based diet (limits animal products)
- Starch solution (limits fats)
Honestly I think all of these diets can work. If you experiment and find one that suits your tastes and lifestyle you can find weight loss success. I think it’s much better to let go of dogma and realise that we are all different. I always say, listening to your body and working with it rather than against it is much more likely to lead you to health and happiness. Rather than constantly fighting and controlling yourself with force.
Today’s challenge: Reflect on your experience with calorie counting
Your challenge for today is to reflect on your experience with calorie counting. How did it make you feel? Did it make you focus more on food or give you food freedom? Have you tried counting calories for weight loss? What worked and what didn’t?
Over to you…
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