From the time I was a sophomore in high school up until last fall, I counted calories in one form or another. It started with logging my daily Weight Watchers points, then switched to tracking calories in the Fitbit app to make sure I didn’t go too far over my daily target.
For years, I didn’t mind doing it. It felt good in a way, like I was in control. But over time it became exhausting. I couldn’t take more than a few bites of something without thinking about how I would quantify that later. All of the tedious recording and number-crunching started to suck the joy out of food.
And I realized I hadn’t been listening to my body, either. Sometimes I’d have extra calories left over for the day, so I’d grab a snack (or two) while I was watching TV, even when I was full. Other times, when I was legitimately hungry after dinner, I’d try not to eat anything else to avoid going over my allotment.
It was while reading the book “Body Love” by holistic nutritionist Kelly LeVeque a few months ago that I realized I finally wanted to quit counting calories. After so many years of doing it, I was hesitant to stop. But overall, I was fed up.
We’ve long been taught that counting (and cutting) calories is necessary if we want to be healthy and lose weight. And yes, the amount of calories we eat does matter in a general sense. But obsessing over that number at the expense of more important factors is probably a waste of your time.
“It’s good to know relative calories: This food is high, this food is low, for example, especially if you eat out in restaurants often,” registered dietitian Abby Langer told HuffPost. “But there are a lot of flaws with calorie counting as we know it.”
“And for some people, it works. But really, I don’t recommend it,” Langer continued. “We can get so involved in the numbers that we experience a disconnect between the food we eat and our hunger.”
When we’re so preoccupied with the quantity rather than the quality of the calories we consume, we miss the point. Not to mention that this seemingly “healthy” habit can take a toll on our mental health while doing little for our physical health in the long term.
HuffPost talked to registered dietitians, professors and other experts to figure out why we’re still so hung up on calories. Here’s what they want you to know.
Counting calories isn’t an exact science.
You’ve probably heard of the calories in/calories out model, which states that in order to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume. And while in theory that may be true, in reality, it’s overly simplistic.
For one, the model fails to take into account how the composition of those calories affects your body ― everything from your blood sugar levels to your insulin levels to your digestion, hunger hormones and future cravings.
“In the end, calories matter, but the amount of calories we eat — and burn — are both influenced long-term by the types of food we eat,” said cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “Our bodies are complex, and different foods create complex interactions with our bodies that can help or hinder weight control.”
For example, two fun-size bags of M&Ms and two hard-boiled eggs both contain about 140 calories. But the eggs have protein and healthy fat that will keep you full and are packed with nutrients that will nourish your body. The M&Ms, on the other hand, are nutritionally void. Plus, they’re high in sugar, which means they’ll spike and crash your blood sugar, leaving you reaching for yet another snack soon after.
“We can get so involved in the numbers that we experience a disconnect between the food we eat and our hunger.”
– Abby Langer, registered dietitian
What’s more, the tools we use to determine the number of calories we should eat to lose weight aren’t very precise. Many people rely on apps or widgets that ask you to plug in your age, gender, activity level, current weight and desired weight.
While these tools may give you a general ballpark figure, you’d need to know your resting metabolic rate (or “RMR,” the number of calories your body burns at rest) to get a more accurate number. And that would require doing a respiratory test called indirect calorimetry that’s not accessible to most people.
Figuring out how many calories are in the foods we eat isn’t an exact science, either. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows calories on nutrition labels to have a large margin of error — up to 20%. So that means that a 500-calorie muffin you ate for breakfast could really have been anywhere between 400 and 600 calories. When it comes to cooking meals at home, you’d need to measure every tablespoon and weigh every ounce of your ingredients to obtain a somewhat accurate calorie count — and that’s just not worth the effort for many people.
Counting calories can be bad for your health.
Carefully tracking calories can be a time-consuming, draining and quite possibly a waste of your time, but those aren’t the only pitfalls, experts say. Here are a few ways calorie-counting can wreck your relationship with your body:
It puts us in a restrictive diet mentality.
“Restriction leads to feelings of deprivation, which leads to feelings of desperation, which leads to binges or obsessive thoughts or cravings, which leads to feelings of guilt or shame, followed by more restriction and over and over,” she said. “This is completely normal and not caused by a lack of self-control or willpower — it’s because your body is sensing that restriction.”
You lose touch with your hunger cues.
When you’re laser-focused on hitting an arbitrary calorie number, it detaches you from your body’s internal cues of hunger, fullness and satisfaction.
“Our bodies know how much we need to eat each day if we tune in and pay attention,” Rumsey said. “Trusting your body means you don’t need to micromanage your caloric intake. Some days you will naturally need more food than others.”
“If we were to get out of our head and listen and connect to our body, we’d eat a lot differently.”
– Aaron Flores, registered dietitian
You might fixate on a number rather than on nutrition.
If you’re counting calories, you might end up excluding certain nutrient-dense foods from your diet just because they’re higher in calories: think avocados, salmon, olive oil, walnuts or chia seeds. Instead, you might go for something with less nutritional value ― like, say, an 100-calorie pack of crackers ― just because it will help you stay under your allotment for the day.
“From a health perspective, it is better to focus on the quality of the diet ― e.g. avoiding ultra-processed foods and eating adequate amounts of produce,” said Arya Sharma, professor of medicine at the University of Alberta and scientific director of Obesity Canada.
You may develop an unhealthy preoccupation with food.
For some, counting calories (or any other eating plan that requires strict adherence) can lead to an obsession with food, which can result in disordered eating habits and increase anxiety and depression, Sharma said.
If you have a medical condition that requires a specific diet, it should be monitored by a health professional, such as a registered dietitian, he added.
You may be able to lose weight this way, but keeping it off will be a challenge.
Indeed, restricting calories may yield weight loss in the short term, but for many people, it’s not sustainable. In an analysis of 29 long-term weight loss studies, researchers found that more than 80% of lost weight was regained after five years. And it’s not because of a lack of effort or willpower.
“Eventually the body begins to fight back, activating multiple overlapping mechanisms for preventing weight loss that were developed in our evolutionary past when food was scarce,” Mozaffarian said.
Counting calories is a hard habit to break.
Even as health experts have begun promoting less restrictive food philosophies (like practicing intuitive eating or aiming for more nutrient-dense foods), many people are still hung up on counting calories. Why is it so hard to quit?
For one, counting calories gives us the illusion of control over one aspect of our lives ― our weight, Rumsey said. In reality, the fixation on calories ends up controlling us: our thoughts, our actions and emotions. And it’s worth noting that weight is also determined by factors that are outside of our control, such as genetics, certain health conditions or medication side effects.
“The only way to stop this cycle is by getting rid of all restrictions around food and to stop calorie counting,” she said. “Many people have a hard time doing this because it is completely counterintuitive to what diet culture and our society teaches us: That if we don’t ‘control’ what we eat, then we’ll go off the rails, when in fact the opposite is true.”
“Trusting your body means you don’t need to micromanage your caloric intake.”
– Alissa Rumsey, registered dietitian and intuitive eating coach
Nutrition can be complicated, which leaves us desperate for easy answers and quick fixes. Diet culture takes advantage of this by oversimplifying the complexity of eating: It tells us this food group is bad, this food groups is good, eat this many calories and you’ll be thinner, happier and more worthy of love — and we internalize those messages. So when the diet fails, we end up blaming ourselves, said Aaron Flores, a registered dietitian and host of the “Dietitians Unplugged” podcast.
“When we restrict to X calories a day, we are likely not getting enough [food],” he said. “When we struggle with that body feeling, we assume our body is broken ― that it needs too much because the book or the doctor or the dietitian told me I should only need X per day. We fear truly listening to our body, so we want someone else to tell us what to do and how much to eat.”
Here’s what to focus on instead.
Instead of adding up the number of calories (which, I’ll admit, I’m still tempted to do sometimes), I pay more attention to how balanced and nourishing my meals are. I aim for protein, healthy fat, fiber and greens/vegetables — or what LeVeque has dubbed the “Fab 4” at every meal. I gravitate toward foods that I know energize and satiate me.
Below, experts share some practical tips for healthier eating that you can incorporate into your own life:
Think about how what you eat makes you feel.
Is it satisfying? Enjoyable to eat? Does it keep you full until lunch or does it leave you wanting a snack after an hour?
“For example, does the meal gives you sustained energy or do you have an energy crash?” Rumsey said.
Tune in to what your body actually wants.
Intuitive eating encourages us to get back in touch with our body’s own signals that tell us what to eat and when rather than relying on external cues like strict diet rules.
“Diet culture has disconnected us from our bodies and the wisdom that lies within it,” Flores said. “If we were to get out of our head, and listen and connect to our body, we’d eat a lot differently.”
Eat more plants and whole foods.
Fill up on foods containing fiber, healthy fats and phytonutrients “like fruits, nuts, beans, virgin plant oils, non-starchy veggies, minimally processed whole grains, and fish, as well as yogurt with live probiotics,” Mozaffarian said.
Cheese, eggs, poultry and unprocessed red meat can be eaten in moderation, he added.
Eat fewer processed foods.
It’s best to minimize your intake of ultra-processed foods such as chips, candy, soda and packaged snack cakes — basically anything containing ingredients like artificial flavors, hydrogenated oils and emulsifiers.
“I recommend focusing on a few key healthy foods to add to your diet and a few unhealthy foods to drop, and building from there,” Mozaffarian said.
Take a break from those nightly takeout orders: Studies have shown that home cooking is linked with a healthier overall diet. Take-out and restaurant meals are often high in sugar, sodium and unhealthy fat — not to mention the portion sizes can be excessive. When you’re preparing your own food, however, you’re in charge of the ingredients that go into each meal to assure they align with your health goals.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.