A common fear that people have with counting calories for weight loss is getting sick of eating the same foods, over and over again. We hate eating the same thing everyday and we think we’re just going to lose our minds if we do it. Wouldn’t it be nice to have unlimited options? You don’t have to limit yourself!
Does Calorie Counting Work for Weight Loss?
Calorie counting — while an effective tool — isn’t the best approach to weight loss for everyone. Learn about the pros and cons so you can determine whether calorie counting is right for you.
Many people desire to lose weight, whether for reasons related to appearance, health, mood, energy, or something different.
One popular tool for weight loss is calorie counting.
Calorie counting is based on the concept of calories in versus calories out — if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight.
While an effective approach for weight loss, tracking calories is an imperfect science, and it isn’t always necessary to achieve lasting weight loss.
While hotly debated, weight loss comes down to energy balance.
When talking about energy balance,here are two sides to the equation — calorie (or energy) intake and expenditure
The intake side consists of all the calories you consume from foods and beverages.
The expenditure side (consisting of three different components) is a bit more complicated.
The three components of energy expenditure include
- Resting energy expenditure (REE). This represents the number of calories your body burns at rest and comprises about two-thirds of energy expenditure.
- Thermic effect of food (TEE). This refers to the calories you need to digest and process food. Protein requires the most energy to digest, followed by carbs and fats.
- Activity energy expenditure (AEE). This is the calories you burn during sport-like exercise and nonexercise-related activities like yard work, walking to work, or fidgeting.
To lose weight, you must reach and maintain a calorie deficit, which means you consume fewer calories than your body expends each day.
You can create a calorie deficit by decreasing your calorie intake, increasing your calorie expenditure through exercise, or a combination of the two.
However, if you had to choose between diet or exercise alone, research suggests that it’s much more effective and sustainable to create a calorie deficit through diet, since not everyone has the motivation or time to burn enough calories with exercise daily
To lose weight, you must consistently eat fewer calories than your body needs to support normal bodily functions, digest and absorb food, and support physical activity.
Counting calories or keeping a food journal is an evidence-based self-monitoring technique that can help with weight loss in several ways.
It Allows You to Learn About Food
Doing so allows you to identify how different foods fit into your daily calorie budget and why limiting certain ones is necessary to stay within this budget and keep your hunger under control.
For example, foods rich in calories like pizza, ice cream, and fried foods can take up a large portion of your budget, and they may not do much to keep you satiated or full.
Conversely, foods low in calories but rich in nutrients like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins consume less of your calorie budget and contain nutrients beneficial for weight loss, like fiber and protein.
It Allows Reflection and Correction
Being able to reflect on past behaviors or habits allows you to identify how they pushed you closer or further from your goals.
If you haven’t been losing weight at the pace you would like or have been on a weight-loss plateau for some time, you can reflect to identify potential reasons for those issues and develop a plan to correct them.
Tracking calories and keeping a food journal also allows you to identify instances where you may have exceeded your calorie goal and what factors led you to do so.
For example, you might notice that you’re hungrier the day after a poor night’s sleep and that led to you eating more calories.
Or you might notice that you crave and have a difficult time saying no to sweets when you’re stressed.
Without calorie counting and food journaling, it can be difficult to identify these relationships that may be sabotaging your weight-loss efforts and, therefore, impossible to correct or at least work to improve on
It Provides Structure
Classes, routines, and habits provide structure to our lives, helping provide a sense of security.
Calorie counting is no different — it can provide reassurance that you’re in control and on the right track to meet your weight-loss goal.
The structure calorie counting provides can be particularly important for when you first embark on your weight-loss journey and when you are close to meeting your weight-loss goal.
Counting calories allows you to learn how different foods fit within your calorie budget, allows you to reflect on your eating habits and identify factors that may be limiting your results, and provides some structure.
While a useful tool for weight loss, calorie counting is not for everyone.
May Encourage Disordered Eating
Calorie counting may lead to disordered eating habits in certain people.
Disordered eating shares some of the same behaviors as an eating disorder, but they are not the same — an eating disorder is a much more serious illness.
Disordered eating refers to a variety of unhealthy eating behaviors, which may include food restriction, binge eating, or a rigid approach to eating, such as only eating certain foods or refusing to eat outside of one’s own home.
While calorie counting itself isn’t a sign of disordered eating, it can lead to the behavior in people with depression-related symptoms and body dissatisfaction
As such, if you have a mental illness or persistent negative thoughts and feelings about your body, calorie counting may not be the best approach to weight loss.
Can Be Boring and Time-Consuming
Calorie counting isn’t all that exciting and requires a time commitment.
These factors can prevent people from trying calorie counting in the first place or cause others to give up on calorie counting shortly after starting.
While the monotony and time commitment of calorie counting are factors to consider, the development of mobile apps has made it easier than ever to track.
It’s Not Exact
Calorie counting is not an exact science.
The calorie number you see on food packages aren’t always accurate — there may be more or fewer calories in the product than what the label says
In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows for a 20% margin of error for calories
Even if the calorie number was accurate, cooking or mechanically altering the food changes the number of calories available for digestion, and food labels don’t usually reflect that
Human error also makes calorie counting an inexact science. People aren’t always the best at measuring portions, making it easy to accidentally consume more calories than intended.
How Calorie Counting Is Sabotaging Your Weight Loss
Calories in, calories out. The saying is painted on the Pinterest boards of health enthusiasts, raved over by fitness models, and even preached by some nutritionists. But recent studies suggest that this method of dieting could be making people less healthy in the long run.
The premise of calorie counting is that based on your weight, height, and activity level, there is a magic number of calories that is optimal for your daily consumption. Those who wished to regulate their calories would theoretically limit their intake to that calculated number (numbers that may be more difficult to find once Obamacare ends).
There have been multiple apps, websites, and programs based solely on the practice of calorie counting for weight loss. MyFitnessPal, VeryWell Calorie Counter, and Lose It! are a few well-known examples. Despite the many articles presenting evidence that all calories are not created equal, the proliferation of calorie counting has gotten out of hand.
Even if calorie counts were accurate, evidence suggests it still isn’t a good idea. In essence, calorie counting is a strict version of dieting: the body’s natural signals of hunger and fullness are thrown to the wayside in favor of a predetermined number.
Many who count calories have reported going to bed hungry, obsessing over their calorie counting app, and becoming frustrated when their weight stalled at a higher number than expected. When it comes down to it, calorie counting is often an attempt to control the body and adhere to a weight loss diet.
The science tells us that weight loss diets don’t work. One study showed that 90 to 95 percent of weight loss diets result in any weight lost while dieting simply being regained in the following years. You don’t have to be a health enthusiast to see this effect in real time; there’s a reason your friends’ conversations so often revolve around attempted but failed weight loss attempts. If dieting worked, it would be easy. If dieting worked, people wouldn’t need consumptive programs like Weight Watchers or “going low-carb.”
In an attempt to understand the widespread failure of diets, another group of experts convened to evaluate the effects of calorie restriction on the body. Their investigation revealed that “one-third to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets.” So, in essence, weight loss attempts were actually counterproductive.
Like nutrition expert Jonathan Bailor, author of The Calorie Myth, told Prevention, “counting calories leads to failure 95.4 percent of the time — and often leaves people fatter.”
The specific reasons for this failure of dieting are a little less clear, but research suggests that it has to do with the body’s fear response to starvation. According to Traci Mann, a professor of psychology who has studied nutrition for over 25 years, “After you diet, so many biological changes happen in your body that it becomes practically impossible to keep the weight off.”
To summarize her explanation, the three changes that occur are reactions from the body to try and escape the state of deprivation:
- Your brain has a heightened neurological excitement to food.
- You undergo hormonal changes that send your brain more hunger signals than it was receiving before the diet.
- Your metabolism slows down to conserve energy.
There has been no reliable evidence published to support that dieting improves any aspect of health or wellness. To the contrary, however, studies have revealed some adverse health effects of dieting, including irreversible effects on metabolism and mental health.
By restricting your body to a calorie number, you could be condemning yourself to future weight gain alongside negative effects on your health.
It’s time to put down the calculator and leave diets in the dust — they’re not doing our health or our waistlines any favors.