oats nutrition label

Real health #5 Is counting calories for weight loss a good idea?

Today’s topic in this Real Health January series is counting your calories, specifically whether counting calories to lose weight is a good strategy. I’m sure most people these days are aware of the idea of calorie counting and 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 and proteins which have 4 calories per gram and fats which have 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 recommended guideline daily amount for a typical adult, like the one below for porridge oats.

There are many “macro calculator” websites where you input your age, gender, height, current weight and how much weight you want to lose and it will tell you how many calories you should aim to eat per day to reach your weight loss goals. You can then count calories in the food that you eat and try to stay in the recommended range. Sounds simple. But is counting calories to lose weight 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 (i.e. burning more calories than you take in through food) and counting your calories 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 to become familiar with the portion sizes they need to eat to lose weight. Over time counting calories can be a good way to learn more about the nutritional values of different foods and 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 which means that you can 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 and other foods they like or follow any specific diet rules. It allows for flexibility in the types of foods you eat which for some people is a very freeing approach to weight loss. This is similar to the idea of Weight Watchers or Slimming World where every food has a points value and you can eat whatever you like as long as you stay within your points allowance for the day.

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 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 including 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% which means that if you count calories to precisely 2000 per day, in reality you could be eating anywhere from 1800 to 2200 calories which 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 but 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 which can be pretty frustrating.

3. Counting calories for weight loss is a very rigid approach. Usually you will aim for the same calorie target each day which 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 including how much activity you did, how much sleep you got or how much stress you are under. 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 and can lead to eating when you’re not hungry just because you “have calories left” or not going to bed hungry because you “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 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 and intuitive rather than rigid and focused on numbers.

Alternatives to counting calories for weight loss

So if you’ve decided counting your calories 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 that of 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 and be able to enjoy a wide range of foods without following specific diet rules.

The alternative to calories counting 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, 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 and if you experiment and find one that suits your tastes and lifestyle you can find weight loss success. Personally I have always leaned towards intuitive eating and a more plant-based diet as it suits my tastes and ethical values but for someone who really craves animal-based foods and prefers to eat smaller portions, they are unlikely to last long on a diet that focuses on high volume plant-based foods. I think it’s much better to let go of dogma and realise that we are all different. As 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 than constantly fighting and controlling yourself with force.

Your challenge for today is to reflect on diets or weight loss methods you have tried in the past. What worked and what didn’t? Think about what might be the best approach for you and your specific preferences, tastes and lifestyle.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your experience with counting calories and whether you think it’s a good way to lose weight.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January blog series, like this post and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested!
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me for information on the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.

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2 thoughts on “Real health #5 Is counting calories for weight loss a good idea?

  1. PaleoMarine says:

    I tried counting calories for year to control my weight. I went from an overweight 215 lbs to a morbidly obese 328 lbs before I found Whole30 and Paleo. I now am a very fit 185 lbs (having gone down to 170 lbs before weightlifting) and serving in the Army National Guard. I commend those who have been successful with calorie counting, but I was not one of them. Paleo definitely works for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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