Is Calorie Counting Bad? Is Calorie Counting Intuitive Eating?Jun 29, 2022
Have you ever wondered whether all calorie counting is bad? Is all calorie counting ‘diet culture’? Can calorie counting ever be helpful?
Let’s get into it…
WHAT IS CALORIE COUNTING?
First off - to be clear, what is calorie counting?
It’s the act of tracking the calories that you’ve consumed in a day whether that’s through an app or calorie calculator like MyFitnessPal, or even just rough calculations in your head.
Calorie counting can also look like counting the calories ‘burned’ during exercise and then doing the net calculation of calories burned minus calories consumed (more on the energy balance equation here). Obviously if you’re looking for a calorie deficit you’d want to consume less calories than you’re burning.
WHY WOULD YOU TRACK CALORIES?
- Self-monitoring has been linked to greater fat loss results in studies. In an evaluation of self-monitoring of an 18-week standard behavioural weight loss program, individuals who consistently kept food records had a mean loss of approximately 15 kg, while those who did not self-monitor gained an average of about 4 kg.
- It's hard to guess the amount of protein or calories in food - research shows that we often underestimate our food intake by up to 30-50%!
IS CALORIE COUNTING BAD?
Let’s get straight to the point: Is calorie counting bad?
Inherently, there’s nothing necessarily bad about calorie counting. It’s not morally wrong to find out how many calories you’re consuming daily. It’s not hurting anyone else. But the question is…
IS CALORIE COUNTING HURTING YOU?
Theoretically, calorie counting doesn’t seem bad - it’s just a simple calculation of how much you’re eating/using per day. A very neutral act.
The problem usually arises when we use calorie counting long-term.
The average person just won’t stick to it for long. That goes for everyone from elite athletes to 60-year old grandparents. They don’t want to bother with calorie math or meticulously tracking everything they eat.
And research shows that even people who like this method tend to stop using it over time. One likely reason: It can take the joy out of eating.
For example, you might be so worried about hitting your macros you struggle to find pleasure in the social aspects of eating. (Like sharing a good meal with family and friends.)
What’s more, for some people, this type of food tracking may actually be unhealthy. Preliminary evidence suggests associations between calorie and macro tracking apps and three types of disordered eating:
- Binge eating: the overwhelming urge to consume as much food as possible, as fast as possible
- Cognitive dietary restraint: feeling like you’re constantly making an effort to limit what you eat
- Moralising food: labelling what you eat as “good” and “bad” and attaching your self-worth to your food choices
Some or all of those might be familiar to you! We obviously don’t want to go back to any of that.
Those at highest risk: People who tend to be overly self-critical, are prone to disordered eating, or have had an eating disorder in the past.
That’s why we usually recommend you count calories and macros for only short periods of time.
Remember: A tool is only as good as the job it does. So, if:
- macro counting truly works for you;
- you genuinely enjoy it;
- you find it empowering and interesting; and
- you’re meeting your goals with it easily and productively…
…then, by all means, keep doing it.
If, on the other hand:
- macro counting makes you feel confused, anxious, distracted, distressed, or any other negative emotion;
- you find it onerous, time-consuming, and effortful;
- you’re putting a lot of attention towards it, creating an imbalanced life;
- you’re spending more time on it than actually doing the things that help you reach your goal…
… then consider stopping calorie counting.
CAN TRACKING CALORIES EVER BE GOOD?
Short term, tracking calories can definitely be helpful to get your bearings and educate yourself on food. I’ve had people message me saying it was actually life-saving in helping them lose weight that they really needed to lose.
- You can calorie count for the short-term to get a rough idea of food nutrients - I’ve done this with macros and now roughly know the amount of each I eat. And that’s the goal - we don’t need these external tracking methods forever - it’s like training wheels on a bike. They’ll come off soon!
Ultimately YOU KNOW YOU BEST. If you notice it getting obsessive or critical. If you're aiming for perfection and guilty if you miss it, then you know what to do - dial back on it and get rid of completely if can. I've got a pod episode on how to stop calorie counting if it feels so tough to let go of.
WHAT IF YOU'RE USING CALORIE COUNTING TO EAT MORE
I actually had someone DM me recently asking if it was ok to calorie count: they were using it to make are eat MORE food. I said - I’m not dogmatic about it and you don’t need to be either. It’s not 'good' or 'bad'. It’s what you make of it. It’s your intention and energy behind it. She clearly was using it in a calm way that was helpful for her. Of course if it ever became obsessive - she knows what to do.
Calorie counting can literally be life-saving in cases of those who need to gain weight and ensure they're eating more food and not lying to themselves about their calorie count.
Now I know some people are of the thought that it’s just completely not intuitive eating at all. A few decades ago people wouldn’t have known what a calorie was, let alone how much exactly was in everything! But somehow people managed. People listened to fullness and hunger cues. So why do we need it now?
Well we don’t NEED it - many people still don’t use it. But in my mind intuitive eating is the end goal - it can take practice, nutritional education to get there. As mentioned, to me calorie counting are the training wheels that you might want for a while. Remember, we also live in a totally different nutritional landscape vs. 100 years ago.
We have so many foods that seem low volume, that don’t fill us up that much but are super high calorie. We have foods that are so calorie dense and chemically designed to be addictive that it fools our body and mind into thinking we can eat tons of it and it’s not a lot of food. So for some, tracking calories can be helpful to understand what’s in certain foods calorie-wise.
To each their own. You know you best!
After reading this, if you know your calorie counting is obsessive and harmful for you - get help letting go it and healing your food relationship with the 30 Day Reboot course.
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