5 reasons to NOT count calories, from a dietitian

“Should I calorie count?” I get this question a lot, and the answer is always long-winded, so first, let me tell you a story.

I was once an avid calorie counter, and can still, to this day, eye-ball how many calories are in a specific dish. Let me tell you, even as a dietitian, this isn’t helpful.

After I graduated from my senior year of collegiate volleyball, I needed something to work towards and I wanted to lose weight. We no longer had 2 hours of practice, weights, or multiple games on the weekend, so basically I felt like I would be sitting around. If you know me, I have a hard time doing nothing, so, I downloaded an app, got a calorie count and was well on my way.

I diligently calorie counted for about 2 years, give or take.

I learned how to be frightened of eating things like pasta, salmon, butter, peanut butter, ice cream, pizza, tacos, and any sort of uncontrolled eating environment, either not-at-home meals or eating out. I learned what it felt like to be hungry, and to think about food way too much. I lost weight, and was terrified of gaining it back so I exercised to compensate. Spin + yoga on the weekends back-to-back after eating ice cream the night before, 90 minute HIIT workouts so that I could eat tacos, running when I knew my foot and Achilles couldn’t take it… you name it. It really sucked.

Strawberries from the farmer's market

I remember ordering child size burrito bowls because I knew how many calories were in it, even though I had run 8 miles prior. I remember only eating 1/2 of a personal size pizza, because I wasn’t sure how many calories were in it, and was terrified to be over that stupid number on my calorie tracker. I remember feeling bad that my mango put me x amount of calories over my limit. I remember making my own brownies, putting the recipe into an app to determine how many calories so that I could be certain to only have a very specific amount. I remember talking to a physician about training for a 1/2 marathon, with plantar fasciitis so bad I could barely walk, and telling her sure I eat enough when she asked (I thought I did, and she didn’t bother to ask further). I remember feeling uncontrolled around foods like tacos, ice cream, and chocolate because I wasn’t sure when I would allow myself to eat those foods again.

One day while eating salmon, and trying to determine how many calories were in it, I realized that this was ridiculous. Salmon? Are you f*ing kidding me? I love salmon. And I know logically that it is a healthful food. So I stopped. I didn’t have the guts to delete the app at that time, and I probably went back to it a couple more times briefly, but I knew that what I was doing wasn’t good for me. I ate the damn salmon.

This was a slow process. Like I said, to this day, I can eye-ball how many calories are in a food, and while I try not to think about it, I can still tell. By now, I have deleted all the calorie counting apps off my phone and I will never ever go back to it.

"At what point does the quest for more actually bring us less?"

As a dietitian, I have found that when talking to people with their experiences about calorie counting, they feel similarly. Not everyone, but many. I have heard that tracking calories causes stress, anxiety, and difficulty eating out in social situations. I’m told that it takes up a lot of time, and many people express feeling preoccupied with food and their body, or constantly thinking about food.

So – this is why I think you should NOT calorie count:

1. Counting relies completely on external validation, and doesn’t teach you anything about your body. 

Relying on this number doesn’t allow you to determine when you feel hungry or full. Figuring out hunger cues is extremely important when you are trying to get in touch with your body, and can help you stabilize and find your set-point weight. It doesn’t allow you to identify how certain foods make you feel, what foods you may actually desire, or what brings you satisfaction. All of which are extremely important in food decisions.

2. The amount of calories is NOT correct.

The amount of calories that the app gives you is probably incorrect. There are a variety of equations that can give you an estimation of your daily needs, but the apps usually base that on wether you want to lose weight “fast”, “slow” or “moderate”, which can give you a drastically too low of a number. It also bases the weight loss off of a certain calorie deficit to achieve a certain weight loss, another old and outdated practice. Additionally, the FDA allows calorie counts be off +/- 20% off. 20%! That is a huge flaw in itself.

3. Calorie counting may cause you to obsessively think about food, and puts you in the mindset of “good” and “bad” foods. 

Thinking about food day in and day out isn’t healthy. And putting foods into groups of “good” and “bad” sets you up for feelings of guilt and shame. Counting calories only further perpetuates that mindset. Food is just food; it’s neutral.

4. Calorie counts disregard the fact that so-called “healthy” foods are also high in calories.

If we are looking just at the nutritional value of foods, things like salmon, nuts, seeds, and avocados are naturally higher in calories (energy). However, these foods are extremely healthful! And there is not reason to avoid them, unless you actually dislike them.

5. Doesn’t take into account your calorie needs change day to day. 

Hunger levels naturally fluctuate each day. Things like physical activity, stress, sleep, what you ate the day before etc. can all impact how hungry or not hungry you may be. A day where you ran 8 miles will be different than when you sit on the couch all day. Remember – both require you to eat!

Tacos top view

So – those are my thoughts and my story behind it all. I will never suggest counting calories, but I will support you if that is something that you are in the midst of. Here are some things to consider if you are currently counting calories or have been thinking about doing so:

  • flexibility – can you be flexible within this eating pattern?
  • energy levels – do you have the energy to do the things you want and need to do? CALORIES = ENERGY
  • satisfaction – do you enjoy what you are eating?
  • stress – does this cause you stress?
  • variety – are you able to eat a wide variety of food groups?

Again, I am all for choosing nutritious foods, but I want you to enjoy what you are eating, feel satisfied, and more importantly, be able to think about things that are not related to food and exercise. Calorie counting is just another way that diet culture has us looped around its finger, and it’s time to tell society that we have better things to do than micromanage our food and appearance.

What are your thoughts? Have you had your own experience with this?

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xooxoxox,

Rose


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