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6 Reasons to STOP Counting Calories and 11 Things to Do Instead - Lily Nichols, RND, CDE

I used to count calories.

Counting calories was part of my training as a dietitian — one of our homework assignments.

It seemed everyone in my class was really good at it, like they had memorized the calorie content of a bunch of foods. I treated the project as more of an experiment. I mean, if this is what we’re supposed to have our patients do, I should be able to do it.

The funny thing is, the more I counted calories, the less I was paying attention to the food in front of me. It was like looking at a spreadsheet on a plate. All you see is numbers.

I’d choose the less tasty entree because it was lower in calories, even if it didn’t sound appealing. If I got hungry after the meal, I’d second guess myself. “But I ate 700 calories!? That should be enough!”

It was like a battle between the calculator and my stomach.

The calculations said I needed a certain amount of calories per day. If I went over, it was a “bad” day. If I went under, it was an excuse to eat junk food. I’d think to myself, “Well, these chocolates are only 90 calories…”

I’ll admit, I failed miserably and stopped counting calories within a few weeks. I never really enjoyed it and I felt restricted, like I was going to develop disordered eating. I questioned the accuracy of all the calculations. There are a number of formulas to choose from and they all give you different answers. I couldn’t memorize the nutrition facts like my classmates, and frankly, I got tired of feeling like I belonged in the remedial nutrition class.

Now, I actively encourage my clients to stop counting calories and here’s why.

6 Reasons to Stop Counting Calories

1) Labels can lie.

Seriously. Labeling laws allow a 20% margin of error on the nutrition facts panel. That means your 100-calorie snack pack could be 119 calories. Or that 500 calorie TV dinner could be nearly 600 calories. Legally. Ooops.

“[T]he ratio between the amount obtained by laboratory analysis and the amount declared on the product label in the Nutrition Facts panel must be 120% or less, i.e., the label is considered to be out of compliance if the nutrient content of a composite of the product is greater than 20% above the value declared on the label.” (FDA Guidance for Industry: Nutrition Labeling Manual)

2) Nutrients vary by season, variety, ripeness, etc.

While it’s nice to have the nutrient analysis of foods, there is no way food companies or the USDA could analyze every variety of tomato from every region from every season from different growing conditions (i.e organic vs. conventional) and every other variable for nutrients, including calories.

That super sweet summer tomato likely has more calories (and valuable nutrients) than that tasteless, pink one from the dead of winter. Which one would you rather eat?

3) “More calories equals weight gain” is not an exact science.

If calorie counting worked long term, America would be the thinnest country in the world. We are a nation of compulsive dieters and you wouldn’t know it looking at us. Turns out the composition of what you’re eating is crucial to how many calories you eat and how many calories you burn.

The quality of the calories going in can affect the number of calories being burned off. – Dr. Ludwig, obesity researcher

In a study comparing 3 diets: low-fat, low-glycemic, and low-carb, the people on the low carb diet burned 350 calories more than the low-fat diet. (JAMA, 2012) And yet, our nutrition guidelines recommend a low-calorie, low-fat diet. Trouble is, when you focus on calories, you’re likely to eat less fat (since fat is more calorie-dense than carbohydrate and protein). And when you eat less fat, you’re likely to eat more carbohydrates. See the problem?

If you’re happy eating tasteless, low-fat food, going hungry and not losing weight, by all means, count calories and cut fat out of your diet.

4) We don’t absorb all calories.

It’s true! A study on almond consumption in humans found that up to 20% of the calories were not absorbed. (J Agric Food Chem, 2008) The exact reason is unknown, but possibly due to the “cellular structure” of nuts and the way our bodies digest food. I would speculate that we absorb a lot more calories from highly processed foods. Maybe that’s just me.

Or maybe not.

In summary, a calorie is not necessarily a calorie: given the functional differences between edible plants, interfamily and even interspecies differences must be considered when making comparisons between food processing techniques. (Proc Natl Acad Sci, 2012)

There’s also good evidence that our gut health (and gut bacteria) plays a role in how many calories we absorb from our food. (Amer J Clin Nutr, 2011)

5) Focusing on calories often means we restrict healthy foods.

This especially happens when it comes to fat. We often omit higher fat foods simply because they are higher in calories without taking into consideration what benefits we might get from them, such as staying fuller for longer (hangry much?), absorbing antioxidants from vegetables, and getting necessary nutrients, like fat-soluble vitamins. (This is crucially important for pregnant women who may become deficient in key brain-building nutrients if they restrict fat.)

I intentionally choose to fully ignore calorie labels, especially on real foods that are naturally high in fat such as meat, fish, eggs, cheese, butter, avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds. My body likes these foods, there are benefits to eating them, and I don’t need a calorie count to tell me otherwise.

6) Too much math.

Honestly, I don’t have time or energy to calculate everything that goes into my mouth. That probably sounds odd, since my life’s work is helping people improve their health by eating better, but I firmly believe this can be done and is best done without counting. (And I have satisfied clients and readers to prove it.) Counting calories is especially fruitless when you know #1-5.

So now you might be wondering:

If I think calorie counting is a such waste of time, what do I do instead?

How do I prevent myself from eating too much?

How do I stay at the same weight, year after year? (and help my clients do the same)

My answer is simple.

11 things I do instead of counting calories:

  1. I listen to my body.

  2. I always eat when I’m hungry. (Here’s how to know if you’re truly hungry.)

  3. I eat foods that I’m actually in the mood to eat.

  4. I put my full attention on the meal in front of me.

  5. I notice the sensations in my body before, during, and after eating.

  6. I sit down when I eat.

  7. I chew every bite before taking another.

  8. I savor the flavors, texture, mouth feel, sounds, richness, crunchiness or softness, saltiness or sweetness.

  9. I make an effort to eat healthy foods and make an equal effort to eat the healthy foods that taste good to me.

  10. I sometimes choose to eat foods purely for the pleasure of eating them, even when they are not “healthy”.

  11. I sometimes choose to eat more food than is comfortable, either because the food tastes really good or because I know I wont have time to eat again for a while (such as during a busy work day).

If this sounds like a breath of fresh air, I’m with you. Just putting this down on paper (or rather, in html) feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

I stopped feeling like a disobedient dietitian when I let go if this whole counting calories obsession. There’s a certain sense of freedom that comes from eating in the way we are meant to eat.

It’s sustainable and enjoyable. It frees up so much time and energy to spend on things that actually matter to you. And in the process, your body will naturally find a healthy weight.

It’s empowering to know that your body knows best. It validates all of those signals your body sends you moment to moment, even the urge to eat a little something extra at the end of a meal.

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