The 6 Surprising Drawbacks of Calorie Counting

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As a Registered Dietitian, before anyone starts calorie counting to assist in weight loss, I want to make sure they understand the whole picture. This article should give you a little insight into counting calories as a beneficial long-term weight loss tool.

The principles of energy balance work:

  • Take in more calories/energy than you expend, you gain weight.
  • Take in fewer calories/energy than you expend, you lose weight.

Counting calories as a way to know and control your energy intake, no matter your goals, might not get you very far. And here’s why.

#1 – We do not truly know how many calories we need

In order to accurately count calories for weight loss, you need to know your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or how many calories your body burns each day to stay alive and keep all your systems functioning. Unless you’ve done indirect calorimetry, which I can almost guarantee you haven’t, you are using arbitrary numbers. Indirect calorimetry is the “gold standard” of determining how many calories you use per day, but like anything else, it does have its flaws. At World Health, we do have access to an InBody machine (uses bioelectrical impedance analysis) which can measure BMR. Like indirect calorimetry, it too has its flaws. It is better than getting an approximate number of calories via equations and apps, but even if the “gold standard” can be wrong, why let some equation or app determine what you should eat?

#2 – We don’t absorb all of the calories we consume

Let’s say that you know exactly how many calories you need to eat per day for weight loss. That’s amazing, but you’re not out of the woods due to what our body absorbs.

We used to think that since 3,500 calories equal a pound, every time you eat 3,500 extra calories beyond what your body needs, you end up gaining that weight. Now we know better. Not all calories are equal like we thought.

Everything from how your food is processed to how much fibre it contains determines how many calories you’re absorbing from it. For example, cooking your food generally increases the number of calories available for absorption.

Further, chopping or blending your food also increases calories absorbed. Even the bacteria in your gut may play a part in how you digest food and how many calories you derive from it.

Overall, calorie absorption is a complex business that’s years beyond any calorie-counting app on the market.

#3 – Calorie counts on food packages are not necessarily accurate

Even if you know how many calories you need and how many you’re absorbing, you’re not done! Even the way that numbers are calculated on food labels is surprisingly inaccurate. The calorie counts on food labels and in databases are averages. The true calorie content of what you’re eating is often significantly higher or lower.

Also, food companies may use any of five different methods to estimate calories. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration allows up to 20 percent margin of error in the numbers on nutrition labels you likely rely on to count many of your calories. That means the 250-calorie snack you’re eating might actually have 200 calories, or 300. 

#4 – Counting calories can encourage you to ignore your hunger cues

Focusing entirely on calories, instead of the quality of the food you’re eating and how you actually feel before eating (hungry, bored, stressed, etc.), can weaken those precious hunger cues. Whether you’re eating just because you “have calories left,” even though you’re not truly hungry, or you’re not eating because you’ve “gone over” your calorie allotment for the day, but you’re actually still hungry, you’re doing the same thing…ignoring what your body is trying to tell you. Trust your body, because it knows what it needs a lot more than some random number or tracker. 

#5 – Calorie counting adds to the misconception you can “work off” the food you eat

Calorie-counting apps give the impression that you can exercise yourself “back into the green.” You are allowed to go over your “calorie allowance” again and again because you can burn it off. Surprise! Your body doesn’t burn off food calorie-for-calorie like that.

Where your calories come from is the important part of determining whether your body is tempted to store them as fat, use them for energy, or apply them to some other mechanism in the body.

Plus, if you do routinely overindulge then try to work it off in the gym, you’ll be exercising for a very long time, depending on the size of the junky meals you’ve eaten. This, in turn, may cause you to become hungrier and eat more. And the cycle continues.

#6 – People aren’t great at eyeballing portion sizes

Research shows the people are generally terrible at estimating caloric intake. Even trained nutritionists underestimate calories in meals by an average of 30 percent.

Here’s a visual guide to see how you may be in portioning your food:


Bottom Line

Do not get me wrong, I do believe that there is value in recording the foods you’ve eaten. It helps you understand what you’re consuming, where your calories are coming from, and to offer accountability. It’s also important to know relative calories (e.g., cake: high calories, broccoli: low calories).

Of course, calories do count, since they’re what you consume at the end of the day. But counting calories can be time-consuming at best, and a dangerous practice at worst. It gets you focusing on numbers instead of enjoying the food you’re eating.

Further, weight loss is so much more than calories. It encompasses exercise, how you sleep, how stressed you are, and health issues that you may be out of your control, like hormonal changes. That’s why if losing weight is your goal, it’s important to acknowledge how individual a process it is and figure out how to do it in a way that’s healthy for you. If calorie counting helps, then all the power to you! But make sure your goals are realistic for your body as well as the amount of time and energy you have to devote to the process.

So, if counting calories for the rest of your life is not for you, try this instead:

  • Eat mostly fresh, whole foods when you’re grocery shopping, and think of it as eating food, not calories.
  • Try as hard as you can to look at your diet as a whole. That means focusing on healthy items like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein.
  • Eat mindfully – slow down, eat until you’re satisfied, and give deprivation a pass.

If you eat a balanced diet most of the time (I say a good 80%), your body will most likely respond by finding its balance—no calorie counting required.

Article written by Courtney Chisholm, Registered Dietitian at World Health Calgary Place

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