There are many pros and cons of calorie counting. If you're a long time reader, you know I'm a calorie counter. In fact, I lost 80 pounds calorie counting and it's a habit I follow to this day. Tracking what I eat and how much I eat gives me accountability and helps me plan my macronutrients according to my goals.
Calories are probably one of the most mis-understood pieces of nutritional information. I often see clients focus on a number, not realizing there's much more to consider when calorie counting. Some even abuse calorie counting by eating too few calories, which is dangerous and why they stop losing weight on low calorie diets. Whether your goal is losing weight, weight management, improving health, or reaching fitness goals, here's the pros and cons of calorie counting to consider.
What Is A Calorie?
A calorie represents the amount of energy in a food represented in its serving size. For example, 1/2 cup of Gluten Free rolled oats is 150 calories. What makes up the 150 calories is a summation of the protein, carbohydrates and fat in it. Protein, carbohydrates and fat are macronutrients. Protein and fat have 9 calories per gram and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram. Considering macronutrients is important when calorie counting. More on this below.
Pros Of Calorie Counting
Calorie counting is a great tool to help people understand how much food they're eating. It teaches them about the density of foods and the overall quantity of food they're eating daily compared to the recommended amounts.
When I began calorie counting, I was startled by the amount of food I was grossly overeating. I think, in general, most Americans could benefit from counting calories to understand how much they are eating. 67% of Americans are overweight and restaurant portions are 2-3 times what they should be. Having a general awareness of how many calories foods have, can help people put boundaries on what and how much they eat.
Calorie counting teaches portion control. Once you learn how much you're eating on a day to day basis, you begin to learn what portion you should be eating. This is particularly helpful for those who have a tendency to overeat. Most people don't overeat vegetables, fruits or protein so this mostly applies to carbohydrates and fat. Two foods people abuse most. Knowing the proper portion of brown rice as an example, and how many calories it has in it can be enough to motivate someone to eat a smaller amount at one sitting.
Calorie counting also helps people learn how to make healthy swaps. For example, I quickly learned that two ounces of pasta (which is basically nothing) was 200 calories and that I could swap that for spiralized zucchini or sweet potato for a fraction of the calories. Making healthy swaps like this, not only adds density to your meals but also keeps you feeling fuller longer. Not to mention you're getting beneficial nutrients from adding plant-based foods to your diet which are shown to be disease preventing.
Cons Of Calorie Counting
Calories on food labels are not accurate. The FDA allows a discrepancy on food labels up to 20% either way. That means if a label states there's 200 calories per serving, it might be 240 calories or 160 calories. What's more discerning, is the FDA does no monitoring of food labels to ensure calories meet the degree of error. It's an honor system with food companies and manufacturers to be honest about what they claim on their nutritional labels. Studies show on average a 10% discrepancy in the calories displayed on foods and those displayed in restaurants. (1) (2)
Calories in apps like My Fitness Pal and LoseIT are not correct either. These apps have large databases of foods and nutritional info, but depending on who input the information and what brand they were using these numbers can vary greatly. That why I scan my foods in from the food label. Even then, it's only an approximation.
The biggest issue with counting calories is that people don't consider macronutrients. Carbohydrates, protein and fat are essential in the diet. Balancing them ensures you get the right amount of eat one in your diet and doing so helps you manage your weight. Often people who are calorie counting, only focus on the calorie number. Technically, you could fill that calorie number with French fries, ice cream, chips, or any other low calorie nutrient deficient crap; however, this will lead to poor energy and and potential deficiencies.
A few examples why balancing macronutrients is important.
In the 80's when the high carb craze was high, people began eating processed carbohydrates based on the recommendations from the AHA. As a result, obesity, diabetes and heart disease rose. During that time, my Dad had a heart attack. I remember the doctor telling us to cut fat and protein from our diet and to eat high carbs. Guess what happened? I gained a ton of weight. Yes, low fat diets do lead to weight gain.
The problem when you eat too many carbohydrates? Your body begins to release more insulin, which means your body is more likely to store more fat, and your body only uses the energy it gets from the carbohydrates you're eating instead of breaking down fat stores to use as energy. You need carbohydrates in your diet, but they need to be eaten responsibly and in the right amounts.
Another example of why macronutrients balancing is important are low carb diets. When people are eating low carb, high protein diets like Atkins and Keto, the body can begin to breakdown protein using the same metabolic process it uses to breakdown carbs turning it into glucose instead of storing it as amino acids. Basically, the body treats too much protein as if it were carbohydrates. A reason why I don't believe low carb or Keto diets are sustainable long term. You need protein, but in the right amount.
Fat is another macronutrient that needs to be balanced. Often people who are calorie counting will drastically reduce their fat intake because they still fear fat from what happened in the 80's. Fat is a necessary component for the production of hormones in the body. I've spoken countless times about how important hormone health is to weight management. Good hormones equals stable energy, stable insulin increased mental focus and better ability to manage weight when eating in the proper amounts. Each macronutrient serves a specific purpose in the body. People who count calories often miss this.
Another issue with calorie counting is people don't listen to their bodies. Sometimes people restrict their food intake when they're hungry because it doesn't fit into their calorie number, or they starve themselves saving up their calories for later in the day. The body can have different calorie needs day to day as well as expenditure. It's not like you're body always needs 1800 calories. Some days it might be 2000, others 1600. Those hunger signals are important to listen to otherwise it can cause metabolic stress on the body which disrupts hormones and causes your body to go into fight or flight mode.
Should You Count Calories?
If you are going to count calories, balance the macronutrients. Often, you will hear people talk about counting macros. This is similar to counting calories, but different in that the focus is on meeting the % of each macronutrient. You still work within a boundary of a calorie number, but counting macros ensures you get the right balance of each macronutrient.
For example, your macro breakdown might be 40 C/40 P/20 F. If your goal is 1600 calories, then that means 640 calories are carbohydrates, 640 calories are protein and 320 calories are fat. This gives people better direction on what they should be eating to their calories vs. filling a calorie number with any food.
How To Calculate Macronutrients
Not sure how to calculate your macronutrients or how to go start any of this? Here's a few ways I can help.
One On One Nutritional Counseling
I do one-on-one nutritional counseling and after an initial health assessment, can provide you with the appropriate amount of calories you should be eating based on your goals and the macronutrients you should target. We also work together to define goals, identify easy ways to incorporate new habits, discuss meals and snacks, and healthy food swaps. Nutrition counseling is done over the phone for 50 minutes.
Skinny Fitalicious Meal Plans
Skinny Fitalicious Meal Plans are an online portal where you get 5 days of meals and snacks each week. Standard meal plans are gluten free, range 1600-1800 in calories and are balanced in macronutrients. The meal plans do all the work for you so you don't have to count calories or macros. All you do is EAT! These online meal plans also serve as templates so you can learn as you eat them each week and use them to plan your own meals in the future! What do you have to lose? No pun intended. I only have a few spots left open on Skinny Fitalicious Meal Plans so sign up now if you want to secure your spot!