Why Calorie Counting Sucks, and How to Move Away From It

I know, I know… counting calories is a very popular way of managing weight. It’s been touted as “the answer” to weight loss for probably decades! Many people want to be healthier, and for many people that involves weight loss. While it’s true that we need to take in less than we burn to lose weight, I’m here to tell you that you can do that without counting calories. Calorie counting sucks. It’s an exercise in frustration, stress, and unreliable results. It’s also something I’m willing to bet most of us wouldn’t wish for our children to copy from us. That’s a barometer by which I try to evaluate my own actions… would I want my son to do this? Our kids learn from everything we do. They’re watching. And if we want to raise happy and healthy eaters, we want them to learn a positive relationship with food, not one marred with micro-management.

Why we do it

Before we get started, I want you to know that I did the calorie counting things for a long time myself. When I first got interested in nutrition and health, I thought it was what I needed to do! Then, once I started, I couldn’t stop. I was so intensely focused on managing my calories, and I didn’t think I could be healthy without counting them. So I definitely speak from experience when I tell you that you might not even realize just how much it sucks.

As a recovering perfectionist, and former calorie counter, I believe counting is a way in which we try like hell to exert control. There are two underlying reasons that I think we want so badly to control our eating:

  1. We believe that we can’t be trusted. Or rather, we believe that we can’t trust our bodies to give us reliable signals to guide our eating in a way that won’t end with us gaining a ton of weight.
  2. Leaving it up to body signals feels like leaving it to chance, and we prefer to be more organized than that.

I get it. I totally get it. I consider myself to be a bit of a control freak about certain things. I am a planner by nature, and it feels good to me to feel like I have a plan in place to follow. It helps me to feel like I’m organized and that life isn’t quite so chaotic.

Being a planner and control freak totally works in other areas of life, right? So why not with food? If we can micro-manage our money, we tend to wind up staying on budget. It would seem to make sense then, that micro-managing calories would mean staying within a calorie budget too. If our goal is to lose weight, and we set the calorie budget to be a little less than our body burns, then the calories-in-calories-out equation will automatically mean that we lose weight! Easy peasy, right?

It’s not quite that simple, unfortunately.

Why calorie counting sucks, part 1: It’s not accurate

While the calories-in-calories-out equation does work, it is not as simple of an equation as it first appears. Here’s what we think it looks like:

Calories in > calories out = Weight gain

Calories in < calories out  = Weight loss

Calories in = calories out = Weight maintenance

That’s all true. BUT, “calories in” and “calories out” are not easy numbers to actually come by. So in reality, the equation looks like this:

Calories in  = the # we think we know +/- a big margin of error 

Calories out = the # we think we know +/- a big margin of error

So ?? – ?? = Who the heck knows?!

Wait, what? But there are calorie counts on packages, I can look up the calories in X grams of apple, and my Fitbit tells me how many calories I burned today, so obviously I know what my calories in and out are!

No, I’m sorry, you don’t.

I don’t say that to be a jerk, I promise. I say that because research has shown time and again that it’s true.(1-5) Plus, anyone who has actually counted calories and then been totally frustrated when the scale doesn’t do what it’s “supposed to do” will tell you that this is frustratingly true too.

Calories counts on packages are WRONG.

Calorie counts for X grams of Y food are IMPRECISE

Calorie estimates of what you burned are INACCURATE ESTIMATES!

No matter what equation or formula you use to estimate your calorie needs, it will only ever be the vaguest of guesses. Our needs change on a daily basis, so micromanaging the heck out of numbers that always change and aren’t even accurate is a waste of time! [bctt tweet=”Micromanaging numbers that always change and aren’t even accurate is a waste of time!” username=”raisingnutritn”]

Why calorie counting sucks, part 2: It’s miserable

Like I mentioned above, I counted calories for a long time. I’m not sure how long, but it was certainly well over a year, and probably more like a few years. It’s a time period I don’t think about much! I know first-hand how much of a HUGE time investment it is, and how much angst it creates.

  • I know how incredibly annoying it is to go out to a restaurant and feel intense anxiety because you just have no idea how many calories are in your meal. Either the restaurant doesn’t post the calorie info, or you know that the amount of butter your meal is swimming in means that the calorie count they DID post was dead wrong.
  • The annoyance of measuring out perfectly level tablespoons of peanut butter is something I’m unfortunately familiar with.
  • I remember the odd sense of satisfaction when inputting the day’s meals into your counting software of choice and finding that your calories were less than the budget, like YAY I did it!
  • And I know the sinking stomach feeling when you then realize you forgot to enter something from earlier in the day, and now you’re “over budget.”
  • I’ve had the experience of finishing my (calorie-budgeted) meal and still being hungry, but feeling like I “couldn’t” or wasn’t “allowed to” eat more. That feeling sucks!
  • I know the frustration that is counting all of the calories in every ingredient of a recipe, totaling it all up and dividing by the number of servings to find out how many calories are in each specific serving.
  • I’m also familiar with the frustration that then comes when your boyfriend, roommate, husband, or friend takes something bigger or smaller than a perfectly even serving size. Like “Nooooo, you just screwed up all my math!!!”

I’ve been there. I feel you. It SUCKS!

Calorie counting is miserable AND inaccurate. Learn how to move away from it and find peace with eating.

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So, dear friends, I commiserate with you. Realizing after all that time and energy was spent that it was spent on numbers that would never be accurate anyway feels like adding insult to injury. It’s like a little light bulb goes off with “I’ve been wasting time and energy this whole time?” There’s a part of you that already knew this deep down. Every time you stepped on the scale and expected to see the 2 pounds of loss that you’d calculated out, but instead found the same or higher weight, you knew. But it still is hard to hear, I know.

Why to move away from it

You’ve been gathering proof all along that this strategy doesn’t actually work. Sure, it can for a time. Of course it can. Even with all the uncertainty in calorie counts, you’re bound to still get it pretty close from time to time. The times that it works out make us feel like all the angst is worth it.

But is it really?

  • Is the gamble of getting your calorie counts right worth the time it takes to count every calorie?
  • Is it worth the frustration to you AND your family as you make decisions based solely on how many calories are in your meals?
  • Is the feeling that you get when the scale disappoints you once again worth the few times that it does line up with what you expect?
  • Is the example you’re setting for your kids one that you WANT to set?

What if I told you that you could get all the benefits of planning and control without driving yourself totally bonkers? Would that sound like something that might interest you?

It’s possible. I do it, and our clients do it. It just takes a little bit of something called TRUST.

How to start

I know, it feels totally foreign to actually listen to the signals your body sends you. You’ve been relying on numbers for so long that you’re sure your body can’t be trusted. I promise you, it can. It still has the wisdom it was born with – the ability to provide you with hunger and fullness cues in a way that guides you to eat the right amount.

But how do you start to pay attention to your body’s hunger and fullness signals when they feel totally foreign to you?

Like any change, we babystep into it.

If you want to go cold-turkey and just ditch the counting all-together, that’s awesome! But if you’re not quite ready to let go that much, that’s okay too. You can start to tune in and listen while you’re still counting, like the counting is a backup plan instead of the main event.

Alternatively, you could start with not counting the calories for one meal, or just not counting certain parts of the meal, like the veggies. You don’t even need to start with a whole day. Just go one meal without counting the calories, or some of the calories. See how it goes. Tune in and listen to how your body feels before, during, and after. It may be a new experience, but I bet it’ll be a pretty fun and interesting one!

Step 1: Plan

You can still be a planner. I most certainly am! Plan out your meals. Your history of calorie counting will actually come in handy at first. Through all your counting experience, you’ve likely become rather familiar with various serving sizes and roughly how many calories are in them. Start there and use what you know as your guide when planning out your meals.

Step 2: Tune in before the meal: Listen for hunger

The next step is to wait until you’re physically hungry to eat that meal. Start to tune in and pay attention to that feeling. What does it feel like? Can you describe it? You don’t have to sit with that feeling a long time, but you can start to get reacquainted. Once you’ve tuned in to that feeling a bit, eat that lovely meal you planned out.

Step 3: Tune in during the meal

As you’re eating, take a pause mid-way through. Tune in. How do you feel? Are you still hungry? Maybe you’re not hungry anymore, but you’re also not yet satisfied. Whatever you feel, just make a mental note.

Step 4: Tune in after the meal

When you finish, tune in again. Was what you served enough? Are you still hungry? Or maybe you’re too full? Or maybe just right and totally comfortable? Make a mental note (or even an actual written one!) of how you felt after the meal. This info can guide you in your future meal prep.

If it wasn’t enough, you know you’ll need a little more next time. If it was too much, you can serve yourself a bit less next time. And if it was just right, give yourself a well-deserved high five!

I find that tuning into hunger is easier than tuning in and finding the best point at which to end a meal. Don’t fret too much about any of it. The biggest take-away here is just to start listening in to your body’s signals. Once you start listening, you can then start to let those signals guide your actions.

The ultimate goal is to learn to eat in response to hunger, and stop eating in response to being satisfied. Want to know a secret? I STILL have times when I miss the “satisfied” signal and end up overeating. Guess what? That’s normal! Like anything else in life, this is simply a skill. One that we get an almost endless amount of times to practice. And thankfully, we don’t have to do it perfectly!

Leave the stress behind

I am so glad I moved away from the stress of calorie-counting. I didn’t realize how stressful it was while I was doing it, but in hindsight, I was a mess. It took being free of that stress to even notice it had been there.

If calorie counting is working wonders for you right now and you’re reading this thinking “No way, lady, I’m keeping my calorie counts thankyouverymuch!” Then, by all means, please do what feels right to you! I’ll just encourage you to keep an open mind. You may be more stressed out about it than you realize (I was). And I would love for everyone to take steps away from things that are stressing us unnecessarily.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends! I think we all know someone stuck in a calorie-counting rut (it is still New Years Resolution season after all!). And of course, if you feel like you’d need or want some more personalized help putting the counting behind you, check out our coaching details. We help clients with this all the time!

Want to read more? Georgie Fear has a wonderful post on her blog that is well researched and includes a few more ways you can move away from counting calories. Give it a read HERE if you’re interested!

Sources:

  1. Food label accuracy of common snack foods. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23505182
  2. Comparison of predictive equations and measured resting energy expenditure among obese youth attending a pediatric healthy weight clinic: one size does not fit all. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23921297
  3. The Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Reduced-Energy, Commercially Prepared Foods https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2838242/
  4. Calorie Estimation in Adults Differing in Body Weight Class and Weight Loss Status https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26469988
  5. Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Restaurant Foods https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4363942/

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