I was recently featured as an expert in a New York Times article about calorie counting, in which I stated my long-standing views of why I think the practice isn’t worth the time or effort for most people.
Predictably, there was plenty of backlash from people who love counting and tracking their calories, and who made a special effort to let me know what an idiot I am for saying what I said. Yay! I’m honoured that a predictably nasty Reddit thread was created about me and my article, too. No worries though; I’m used to backlash, and when I get it, I know that I’ve done a great job of getting people to think.
Anyhow, I thought I’d do a follow up article here because unlike being in the New York Times, I’m not at the mercy of an editor’s questions or a word count. I’ll explain my feelings about calories a bit more, and also reveal where I got the information for the NYT article’s most disputed claim, in which I state that exercise accounts for maximum 15-30% of our calorie burn on any given day. People did NOT like that, seemingly because they thought they could spend hours at the gym and then set their calorie-count back to zero. Nope.
That all being said, I really don’t care that much what you do to be healthy, as long as you’re healthy as a result. So, if you love counting calories, and it works for you, then by all means do it!! If you’re already successful with tracking your food, and you can maintain physical and mental health while doing it, don’t stop just because of what I’m saying. Everybody is different, and some people do fantastically with calorie counting.
Even though I discourage counting calories, I think it’s important to know the relative calorie values of foods. By this, I mean that maybe it’s good to know what foods are higher in calories, and what foods are lower. Calories count, but this concept is a lot more complicated than it has been made out to be with the simple ‘calories in versus calories out’ idea.
Here’s why I think calorie counting is counterproductive for most people:
You don’t know exactly how many calories you really need, and neither does your tracker.
I know there are plenty of equations that people use to calculate calories required – Mifflin St. Jeor, Harris Benedict, and others – and when I was a dietitian in a hospital taking care of ICU patients, I used those equations because I had to. Equations give you a ballpark number, but keep in mind that ‘ballpark’ is not exact, and the number of calories you require actually varies day to day, as well as with other factors like your personal muscle mass and genetics. I’ve never seen an equation that takes those into account.
Many people rely on other, even less accurate methods to calculate their calorie needs. For example, the number of calories that apps like MyFitnessPal tell you that you need is based on an equation that merely takes your weight and desired weight loss into account, and it’s safe to assume that this isn’t reliable. When I tried it, the app told me that I need 1200 calories a day, which is absurd.
If you take the time to do some trial and error, you might find the calorie level that promotes weight loss or weight maintenance for you. Once you lose weight, though, you’re going to have to adjust that level again, because you’ll need fewer calories as you lose weight…and fewer…and fewer…and fewer….this is why diets don’t work, but that’s a whole other post.
You don’t know how many calories are in labelled food.
The FDA accepts calorie numbers on labels that may be off by up 20% either way, and they don’t do such a great job of policing those numbers anyhow. That means your 200 calorie bag of whatever may actually be 240 calories. Or, it might actually be 160 calories! AHHH!
Restaurant calorie counts are generally not very accurate, because the food portions may be larger or smaller than predicted (usually larger, let’s face it) depending on who is preparing your meal.
It’s nice to know which meals in restaurants are higher in calories than others, for relative value. Just take those numbers with a serious grain of salt.
You don’t know how calories are processed in your body.
Gut bacteria, how well you chew your food, and how the food was processed (or not) can all determine how many calories you actually absorb from what you eat. So in this way, not all calories are created equal.
We know (and we didn’t as recently as when I went to nutrition school) that eating 1600 calories worth of chicken breast is a lot different in terms of calories absorbed than, say, eating 1600 calories worth of chocolate cake. The chicken breast takes more calories to break down in the body than a highly processed junk food like cake, so we actually get fewer net calories in the end. This is only one reason why you should be cutting down on the refined crap in your diet and choosing more minimally processed foods.
Some foods, like nuts, have been overestimated in terms of calories. An ounce of almonds has always been thought to have 170 calories. But recent research shows that when we eat almonds, we actually poop out some of the fat they contain, rendering their net calories to around 129 per ounce. That’s a really big difference, I’d say, for someone who loves almonds (and other nuts as well have this same effect). What I mean to say here is, you think you’re getting X number of calories, but that number may be vastly different than you think due to certain, unforeseen factors. Frustrating, isn’t it?
Food is food, not a number.
There tends to be a disconnect between food and hunger and food quality when the focus is on calories.
I’ve had far too many clients who have long histories of calorie counting, and one thing I’ve noticed with most of them is that they turn away from their bodies’ own cues in favour of the numbers. For example: Not choosing what they actually want to eat – even if it’s healthy – because it has a few too many calories. Instead, they choose something they don’t want to keep within their calorie range, even though their meal ends up being unsatisfying. The perfect example of this that I see all. the. time. is with breakfast. We know that a beautiful meal of eggs and sprouted grain toast with avocado is filling and maybe, say, 400 calories. Lots of people wish they could eat that particular meal for breakfast, but instead they go with some fat free sugar free yogurt, or a nasty almond milk smoothie with 1/2 cup of fruit, spinach, and a scoop of protein powder because it’s less calories. Then they come to my office, sit on my couch, and tell me how pissed off and hungry they are all day. Hello! Nourishing your body feels so much better than cutting corners and starving. I promise you that.
There’s also the case of those people who count their calories and end up eating when they’re not hungry, because they have calories left on their tracker. Losing your hunger cues is a big risk of calorie counting, as is becoming obsessed with the numbers, if you have any history or predisposition to an eating disorder. If this is the case, you should stay as far away from calorie counting (and counting ANYTHING) as you can.
Calorie trackers give a false impression that calories can be ‘undone’.
You can’t exercise off a bad diet, but some calorie/fitness trackers will have you believe otherwise. It’s a gross oversimplification to indicate that calories ‘burned’ through activity immediately undo the calories you’ve eaten prior to your workout.
In reality, unless you’re an athlete, most of the calories you burn – up to and around 70% – are used for your Basal Metabolic Rate, to keep you alive – heart beating, lungs breathing, that sort of stuff. It’s generally understood that another 10% of your daily calories go to the Thermic Effect of Food – in other words, to digest what you eat. 70 + 10 = 80. That leaves 20% for other stuff, including exercise.
Is this equation (as with all other equations) valid for everybody? Of course not! But I mentioned it in the NYT (with less detail) because it shows that while exercise or even activities of daily living consume some calories, the vast majority are burned up by your bodily functions. People went wild about this idea, and I mean ‘wild’ in a bad way. The fact remains though – believing that you can spend all day at the gym and reset your calorie tracker to zero is really a myth, and now you know why. And now you also know why exercise, while valuable for overall health, is only a VERY small part of weight loss for most people. Food is #1.
In the end, you need to do what works best for you when trying to achieve and maintain an ideal weight for you. But I have never and will likely never recommend calorie counting. Instead, I focus on food quality, portions, consistency of meals and snacks, and hunger and fullness cues. Stepping away from crunching numbers and refocusing on those things can have a profound effect on your physical and emotional health.