Is it truly necessary to count your calories? If you’re doing it to be healthy, here’s why it actually detracts from your body’s health.
BY: ROSE MATTSON, MS, RD
“Should I calorie count?”
As a dietitian, I get this question a lot. 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, eyeball how many calories are in a specific dish.
Let me tell you, even as a dietitian, this isn’t helpful.
At one point in my life, I downloaded an app, got a calorie count, and diligently counted for about 2 years in hopes of instilling a more healthy lifestyle.
During this time, 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, but I was terrified of gaining it back so I exercised to compensate.
Life really sucked.
Then one day while I was trying to determine how many calories were in my salmon, I realized how ridiculous it all sounded. Salmon? Are you kidding me? I love salmon. And I knew logically that it is a healthful food. So I stopped. While 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 salmon.
It was a slow process, but the calorie-counting apps eventually came off my phone. And I have found when talking to people with their experiences about calorie counting, they feel similarly.
Not everyone, but many. They share how tracking calories caused stress, anxiety, and difficulty eating out in social situations. It would take up so much time, and many people felt preoccupied with food and their body.
If that story didn’t do it for you, here are 5 reasons why calories don’t need to be counted.
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 an app gives you is probably incorrect. There are a variety of equations that can give you an estimation of your daily needs. 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. 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 categorizing foods as “good” and “bad” sets you up for feelings of guilt and shame. Counting calories only further perpetuates that mindset. Remember, 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 so there is no reason to avoid them, unless you actually dislike them (or are allergic).
5. It doesn’t take into account that your needs change day-to-day.
Hunger levels naturally fluctuate each day. Things like physical activity, stress, sleep, what you ate the day before – they 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!
So what can you do instead of count calories? Consider the following questions to ask yourself when you’re looking at new ways to eat:
- 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?
- 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?
Ultimately, it’s all about choosing nutritious foods that allow you to enjoy what you are eating, feel satisfied, and more importantly, doesn’t keep you preoccupied with food and exercise. Calorie counting is just another way that diet culture has us looped around its finger, and it’s time to tell the world that we have better things to do than micromanage our food and appearance.
Stop counting, and don’t let life pass you by.
Adapted from the original article.
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Rose Mattson, MS, RD is a private practice dietitian who runs a Salt Lake City-based nutrition practice, through which she sees clients both locally and virtually. Specializing in Intuitive Eating, sports nutrition, and digestive disorders, Rose’s mission is to help people find satisfaction and joy in eating all foods, without unnecessary restriction or deprivation. When she’s not working, you can find her outside in the mountains, at the local farmer’s market, or scoping out the most delicious meals in the area.