Want to lose weight? Here’s why counting calories won’t help.
Weight loss and calorie intake are two topics we often hear paired together. The common weight loss equation we know is that eating fewer calories will help us beat the bulge. But according to experts, there are several reasons why you should stop counting calories right now.
We spoke with four registered nutrition specialists to find out why calorie counting is an ineffective weight loss strategy, and what you should be doing instead.
1. Counting calories creates a diet mentality that doesn’t work
There’s usually only one reason we count calories, and that is to lose weight. But according to Suzanne Fisher, Registered Dietitian and Licensed Nutritionist, “calorie counting elicits the connotation of ‘dieting.’ And we all know diets don’t work. If they did there wouldn’t be an obesity epidemic.”
The truth is, a diet mentality instantly sets us up for failure. “Regardless of how generous a calorie level may be, the moment it is set in stone, it feels like scarcity,” says Adina Pearson, Registered Dietitian. “Suddenly you’re up against a wall, a limit. Whether or not you’d be satisfied with that quantity of food, it feels like not enough. This can get people stuck in a cycle of feeling either guilt or scarcity.”
2. Counting calories distracts you from what you should be focusing on
“Many of us grew up with a pocket size calorie counting book that traveled with us everywhere. And while knowing approximate calorie content of food is important, it does not show us the whole picture,” says Fisher. “Food is not solely comprised of calories. Food is made up of fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamin, minerals and phytonutrients — all of which are essential for good health and disease prevention.”
The key is to take the focus away from calories towards the nutritional benefits of food, which opens up a whole new world of options to find true health. A much better course of action is to concentrate on eating nutrient dense foods, along with watching portion size.
3. Calorie counting causes a tendency to consume empty calories
When the focus is shifted only to calorie counting, accounting for the quality of the food you eat may get forgotten. You may end up consuming a diet filled with empty calories and this can have detrimental health effects.
“For example, calories-wise a diet soda is equivalent to water. However, the effects of diet soda versus water on metabolism are obviously very different,” says Colette Micko, Registered Dietitian. “While water is an essential nutrient to life, research suggests the intake of artificial sweeteners, such as those in diet soda, have a negative effect on a person’s gut health and increase cravings for sweet foods.”
There are many processed foods that are promoted as ‘diet’ products and present themselves as seemingly ‘healthy’ foods. But these aren’t the types of foods that will help you on your weight loss journey.
Instead of focusing solely on calories, it’s better to get in the habit of reading nutrition labels, paying attention to the ingredients in the food you eat and questioning whether the foods you’re eating are really healthy foods.
If you’re trying to lose weight, stay away from processed foods and “eat a diet rich in whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, and lean means,” says Micko. “If people focus on consuming more ‘real’ food, they don’t have as much difficulty regulating portion sizes.”
4. Counting calories creates a mind-body disconnect
“Our bodies are made with a pretty sophisticated system of self-regulation that works behind the scenes to push us toward getting enough to eat,” says Pearson. “Calorie counting bypasses this and teaches us to disconnect from our bodies, get into our heads and look externally.”
Micko agrees: “Focusing on counting calories distracts us from intuitively listening to our body’s natural hunger and fullness cues.” The mind-body disconnect that occurs can lead people to eat when they are not hungry, simply because they’re trying to meet daily calorie goals. And it can also lead to the opposite, where a person remains hungry. This can in turn slow down their metabolic rate so they don’t lose weight.
According to Pearson, a much better approach is to reconnect with the body and track one’s hunger and fullness. “The key is to get feedback on how eating various foods and meals make you feel,” she says. “If you eat a breakfast that leaves you famished in an hour or two, that’s a great message from your body that you might need to eat more, add something, or swap one food for another to keep your energy up until lunch.”
“You might also track feelings and emotions, or appetite and satisfaction. Or you might make note of the times you eat, perhaps how often you eat while multitasking. Practice tuning in and being attentive when you eat — not attentive in the sense of ‘careful’, but attentive in the sense of ‘present and aware’ of your physical and emotional sensations as you eat,” adds Pearson.
“Another important aspect of reconnecting is to practice eating mindfully, without distraction,” says Micko. “Put down your cell phone and turn off computers and TVs during meal time. Bring your focus back to the enjoyment of eating, while becoming more in tune with your natural hunger and fullness cues.”
5. Counting calories leads to eating disorders
One unfortunate consequence of having a mind-body disconnect is it can lead to long term eating disorders. These disorders may not be obvious to the person experiencing them but can, and do, turn into serious lifetime issues. Yo yo dieting, binge eating, self obsession, and compulsive behaviors are all examples of this.
“Eating is a biopsychosocial process and hyperfocusing on calories doesn’t work for the vast majority of people beyond the short term,” says Pearson. “Long term calorie counting puts many at risk for developing maladaptive eating behaviors. For the vulnerable who are genetically predisposed, it can be the very trigger that contributes to the start of a full blown eating disorder.”
Calorie counting can lead to eating disorders, as there can be a tendency to become hyper focused on food. The negative psychological effect of constantly having to calculate how much one ‘should’ or ‘should not’ eat – it’s just not healthy thinking or behavior.
“Life is too short to let a calculator dictate your eating,” says Pearson. “If you find yourself fighting your calorie limit, then it’s time to stop counting calories!”
6. Counting calories fails to address the core issue
If you want to lose weight and you’re simply focusing on counting calories, you’ve been misled and misinformed from the outset. “What controls your metabolism and whether or not your body is breaking down either fats, carbs or proteins are HORMONES,” says Dr. Len Lopez, Certified Clinical Nutritionist, Strength and Conditioning Coach and Chiropractic Sports Physician.
The reality is, “some hormones trigger your body to burn fats, some tell your body to store fat, others tell your body to burn carbs and proteins,” says Dr. Lopez. “While diet and exercise are important equations in weight loss, they are not nearly as prominent as people think. And one critical area that gets overlooked is STRESS.”
To understand the connection, Dr. Lopez explains that two key hormones are produced in response to diet — insulin and glucagon. Insulin triggers fat storage, whereas glucagon serves to regulate blood glucose levels in the body, and varies depending on what we eat.
In terms of exercise, your body can be conditioned to burn either carbs/lean muscle, or stored body fat. This process involves triggering hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone. And burning stored body fat is obviously what you want to occur.
The connection between stress and your ability to burn muscle or fat involves two more hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. These are catabolic hormones, which means they ‘eat away’ your body. But they don’t eat away the fat you want melted away. When these two hormones are signaled under stress, it tells your metabolism to burn carbs and lean muscle — the exact opposite of what you want!
So another important aspect of weight loss is getting stress under control. “You can burn calories all day long, but if you’re burning calories from the breakdown of carbs and lean muscle, instead of fats, you will always struggle with your weight, fatigue, cravings, mood swings, and more,” adds Dr. Lopez.
“The human body is much more complex than most people realize,” says Micko. “Our body is not a simple math equation of calories in, calories out. The food we eat is one important aspect. But we also need to consider genetics, hormones, stress, gut health, sleep, and activity levels as these all play a role in overall health and metabolism.”
So the experts agree: counting calories is not a healthy practice. It’s better to shift your attention to eating real foods and following a healthy balanced lifestyle, a lifestyle that you can live and enjoy over the long term. This will not only produce better results, but will also make you a much happier person overall.