As the anti-diet revolution continues, calorie counting has seen a rise in exposure.
It’s often hailed by personal trainers as the solution to fad diets that don’t work because it’s based on science, and the more you measure your food intake the more you can manage your weight loss.
And don’t get me wrong, calories absolutely count. I don’t disagree with that at all.
Having counted them for over 6 years myself I have a deep understanding of how it works, the benefits but also the potential pitfalls.
So what’s the problem with calorie counting? It works right?
Like any diet, calorie counting absolutely works as long as you’re following it. Calorie (or macro) counting tends to get a better reputation than other diets because it doesn’t introduce random arbitrary rules or cut out certain food groups.
However, it does give rise to a number of other behaviours which make success difficult. Or if you do get success, you end up negatively impacting your life to make it work around you.
First of all, what is calorie counting?
Calorie counting involves logging the calorie values of the food and drink you consume into an App. Popular ones include MyFitnesPal and Nutracheck. Usually, logging is done by weighing your food and selecting the corresponding option from the App’s database or scanning the barcode of pre-packaged foods.
The Apps will then give you a breakdown of the calories, proteins, fats, carbs and other nutrients you have consumed. You are then able to target your daily food intake to match calorie and macronutrient targets.
Why doesn’t calorie counting work long-term?
Below are some of the main reasons calorie counting isn’t the best way to lose weight long-term. Not all of them will apply to everyone, but the majority will.
Plus as I’ve talked about many times before, weight loss isn’t just about diet and exercise, but developing your mind too. You can read more about that here.
Here are the main downfalls of calorie counting:
Counting and weighing food with precision cultivates this feeling of being boxed in. It creates a very black-and-white / all-or-nothing mindset with your behaviour.
The less room for error you feel you have, the more your focus gets fixated on going wrong.
This can quickly be demonstrated with an analogy…
Imagine walking along a tightrope 30cm off the ground versus being suspended 100m up between two buildings. It’s the same task but your focus changes totally when you feel there’s no room for error. Instead of doing the task, you end up focusing and analysing everything that could go wrong.
This happens a lot with calorie counting. The overanalysing part of your brain is activated which causes a lot of chronic background stress. Also, aiming for a specific target can make you feel confined and if you go over you can often feel like you’ve failed.
This can then result in your brain negotiating with you saying things like “You’ve ruined the diet now, you may as well start again tomorrow” and then allowing yourself even more free rein over what you eat and making the most of your chance to eat more.
This is what I mean by very black and white. You’re either doing the diet perfectly or not at all…there’s nothing in between. No grey areas as I like to call them.
Obviously, inconsistent following of your diet isn’t going to get you consistent results.
2. Loss of Self-Trust
Anything that relieves your necessity to think is attractive as it makes things easier. Whether it’s a meal plan, having an advisor or using a calorie-counting App. The problem is that you end up not developing the skill of making decisions.
Your decisions are essentially outsourced to an App.
You lose the ability to create and structure healthy meals because the App is reassuring you that you’re hitting the “right” numbers all the time.
I remember the time I made a meal and the MyFitnessPal App was down for a few hours. The anxiety I felt because I couldn’t log my food was immense. I almost didn’t want to eat the meal because it wasn’t officially added to my allowance for the day. I could have been going over or even under my calorie allowance. And as crazy as it sounds, that was scary! Situations like this are when you realise you really aren’t in control.
3. Ignoring Hunger Signals
Using an App to hit calorie targets means that it doesn’t matter when you eat as long as you are hitting the numbers by the end of the day.
This can mean you end up eating when you’re not actually hungry. While this probably doesn’t have repercussions while closely sticking to calorie tracking, on days when you can’t track or if you go off it completely, then you’ve essentially trained yourself to eat when not hungry.
Then if you’re not actually tracking the food you consume, you could end up eating a lot more than you wanted to or expected to.
If we link this back to the all-or-nothing mindset I mentioned earlier, then you can hopefully see how going over your calorie target and giving yourself the rest of the day off can often result in heavy overeating.
4. Not Enjoying The Food
When you are following your calories closely you can often end up not enjoying the food you’re eating.
Firstly because the focus is more on how much you’re eating rather than what you’re eating.
Secondly, because you will often end up eating lower calorie versions, or specific “diet” foods so you can eat more. You have to be careful doing this as it’s basically manipulating your food intake to normalise or get away with emotional eating.
I used to do this a lot, especially with ice cream. The lower-calorie version allowed me to eat the whole tub. However it just wasn’t as good as the normal version so although I thought I was satisfied, I wasn’t. Hence probably the reason why I had to eat the whole tub of it.
There were also whole types of meals that I would avoid because they wouldn’t allow me to fit so much junk into my day as well. For example, I missed out on delicious carb-heavy Italian food a lot because I knew I wouldn’t be able to fit my ice cream as well.
Another thing I remember is that if I knew I had calories left after a meal, I wouldn’t be focused on enjoying that meal but thinking about what I could say afterwards instead.
All these things are elements of disordered eating, but at the time, I thought I was doing well and looking after my health.
5. Eating Similar Things to Make Dieting Easier
Another behaviour I see with calorie counting is eating similar meals to make it easier to incorporate.
‘Cos let’s face it, for most of us calorie counting turns into a chore after a while, or sometimes just isn’t even possible with some meals.
Because of this, it’s common to eat similar meals every day to avoid having to calculate the macros of new meals.
This can make your diet end up boring, which while you may not notice it at the time, can make rebound behaviours worse if they do happen. For example, if you are out with friends and can’t count the calories, you end up overeating more than you would have otherwise.
6. It’s Stressful Counting and Weighing Everything
While it may not seem so at first, counting and weighing everything you eat and the overthinking it causes adds a lot of extra background stress to your day. And when you’re probably already quite stressed and overwhelmed from other parts of your life, this extra stress can push you over the edge.
You may just decide that you can’t be bothered with your diet for the rest of the day (all-or-nothing mindset), end up emotionally eating to relieve the stress, or both.
7. Life Revolves Around Thinking and Planning Food
One thing I always found when I calorie counted was that I was always thinking about food in some form.
Most people tell me that their daily thinking involves considering breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, things they can have, things they can’t have. Things they are not sure about. Things they decide to have and then regret. The weekend. Holidays. Events. What if someone invites them out? What if they get offered something they feel they shouldn’t have? What if this, what if that? Etc etc…
That’s a lot of thinking! And utterly exhausting!
Because I used to emotionally eat as well, a lot of my thoughts focused on what I would binge on later. This took my focus off the present moment and actually enjoying life.
8. Over-exercising to Earn More Calories
Calorie-counting Apps like My Fitness Pal give you extra food allowance if you link your movement and exercise to it.
While this is valuable to understand how energy balance works and can promote doing healthy movement, this can be taken to the extreme as it can promote over-exercising to gain a larger calorie allowance.
This is one of the strategies that I used to use to build up extra calories over the day to be able to binge more at night.
It’s important to see exercise and movement as positive things rather than use it to reduce the effects of other unhealthy behaviours.
9. When You Can’t Count Calories
There are instances when you can’t count calories. You’re not always going to know what’s in your food.
You may be invited to a friend’s house and it’s socially unacceptable to count calories – not that they would know the calorie count of their meal anyway.
It may be at a restaurant – the calories can be 20% out.
Or even just a bit of something someone gives you.
It’s just a fact that there are times you just aren’t going to know the calorie content of your food.
So what happens in these scenarios?
Sometimes I see people rejecting invites to social invitations.
Or sometimes they go and take their own food!
Sometimes it’s treated as a day off the diet and the all-or-nothing / black-and-white mindset comes in and you end up overeating because of all the behaviours I’ve mentioned above – ignoring hunger signals, not trusting yourself, being bored with eating the same foods every day etc…
One way I found to relieve the anxiety of not being able to count calories was to give myself permission to have the day off from doing it. This solves that problem but then has the repercussions of having no boundaries and allowing yourself to overeat.
10. Calorie Counting Link to Eating Disorders
Lastly, there is loads of research linking calorie counting to eating disorders including binge eating. The main links seem to be closely tracking food and the resulting negative feelings that result which could then feed back into the need for a release through binges.
A Note on Personality Type
There are certain personality types that are able to super focus on something and push through while being able to cope with the stress.
I did this for a number of years and thought everything was fine – I felt it was working for me and it kind of was.
What I didn’t realise was what I was missing out on in life.
When you have something that might be working for you it’s hard to change it even if you get extra benefits for the fear that the change might not work.
What I mean here is that if you’ve used calorie counting to lose weight, you’re definitely going to attribute massive positive feelings to it and defend it with your life – why wouldn’t you as the positive repercussions are probably huge! You put up with the effort it takes and the stress it causes because of the weight it’s probably helped you lose weight.
At the same time, you maybe don’t realise yet or just ignore the fulfilment and happiness you’re missing out on in life because of the way it controls your life and changes your behaviours.
You get by in life and are reasonably happy and no one really notices any problems with you, but a lot of your energy is being wasted and you’re dragging yourself through rather than flowing effortlessly while focusing on savouring each moment to the max.
Freeing Yourself To Live Life
Finally, when it comes to giving up calorie counting, most people I speak to tell me they are scared to do it. It’s anxiety-inducing as they feel they are being less precise and have less control.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. You’re actually gaining back control by taking away the precision, learning to listen to hunger cues and making your own decisions around food.
While stepping into the unknown might feel scary, the changes and benefits it brings to your life are huge.
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