Why counting calories is not a good idea

Counting calories may seem like a straight-forward way to lose weight. However, it can miss out on the nuance of nutrition, and impact your relationship with food. It may suprise you but as a dietitian I don’t actually recommend my clients count calories or track their macros. Here is why…

Our bodies really are not as simple as calculators.

Online tools that work out a recommended calorie intake are based on arbitrary numbers and do not know your true metabolic rate, your daily activity levels, your stress levels, your health or any other factors that influence how many calories you need to live and thrive. Trying to stick to this arbitrary number also will of course, not take your hunger levels into account.  This could leave you feeling hungry and undernourished when you need energy! Your energy needs can vary, not just from the estimate from a calorie calculator, but even day-by-day. A calorie goal may be just about enough for one day, but not for the next.

Counting calories is not practical

It is impossible to track everything you eat exactly. You might eat out, be at a friends, be offered something or be making a meal from ingredients without nutrition labels. To be honest a lot of nutrition labels are not 100% accurate anyway, it is just a guide. So if you cannot track accurately this can lead to not wanting to take part in social situations or being consumed by the need to work out what you did eat. That takes more energy and effort than it is worth.

Moreover, the calorie content of a food doesn’t directly reflect the actual energy that our bodies extract from it. Therefore placing too much emphasis on the calories on a nutrition label might not be the best focus for your health. Things like processing, cooking method and even the type of food can impact this. A classic example is that our bodies process 100 kcal of corn on the cob differently to 100 kcal of corn tortilla chips. Think about what you see in the toilet bowl after eating sweetcorn! The same can be said for so many foods. We digest and absorb the energy and nutrients from all foods differently.

Food and nutrition is so much more than calories.

We get so much enjoyment and satisfaction from food . Not allowing yourself to eat a food because of the calories can lead to you craving it more! Our bodies need a range of nutritious foods and fun foods too. Lets not forget that including an ingredient that might increase calories could provide much more by way of nutrition, or make certain vitamins more bioavailable. Our foods are not individual elements but they all work together in our bodies and can impact one another.

The calories in a food only tells you about the energy content. It doesn’t tell you about the rest of the nutrition. Our bodes need vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and macronutrients. Some foods that are high in calories are also high in other nourishing nutrients, for example avocados.

Calorie counting can teach you to ignore your body.

If you only eat according to a calorie goal you may end up eating past hunger or ignoring hunger. This isnt what we want to be doing. The aim should be to retune into our bodies signals and start to let it teach us what it really needs. This can lead you to an unhealthy relationship with food. Your body is out to sabotage you, it wants you happy and healthy.

To summarise: calorie counting usually implies that calories are bad but this could not be further from the truth! Calories are essential to our bodies’ ability to function. Enjoyment is another key part of food, and this very much goes beyond calories. Placing too much emphasis on calories can result in feelings of fixation on achieving caloric goals. Instead, focus on including a variety of foods to support a balanced and enjoyable diet. 

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