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Calorie counting can be really helpful in some ways and quite harmful in others, so what is the right answer for you? Read on and find out.
Let’s dive in and figure out if counting calories might be helpful for your weight loss.
The Pros of Counting Calories
I counted calories off and on for many years on my 100-pound weight loss journey and there are definitely some benefits of counting calories that shouldn’t be overlooked.
It helps you learn the nutrients in what you’re eating
Counting calories isn’t just about the number next to the calories. It helps you to see the protein, sodium, sugar, carbs, and fat, as well. All of that information can be really helpful in figuring out what healthy diet works best for you.
It helps you to learn proper portion sizes
When you are counting calories, you are always looking at nutrition labels and searching how many calories is in a certain amount of the food you just ate for accurate tracking.
It can be pretty painful when you realize your normal amount in a typical bowl of ice cream is actually 4 servings worth, but that awareness is so good for recognizing where you need to adjust your portions.
Actually counting out one serving size of pretzels, chips, and M&Ms can have a drastic effect on your weight loss journey if you are used to sitting down with the whole bag!
It raises your awareness of what you are eating
Mindless snacking is a big deal.
When you go to a restaurant, they set a huge basket full of chips or bread right in front of you and you never even have the chance to recognize how much you ate because the waitress refills it before you know it.
When you are at work and you grab a doughnut, snack bar, or cookie every time you pass by the break room.
When you are at small group and there is a counter full of snacks, it’s easy to keep munching away without keeping track.
Counting calories takes away mindless eating and gets you to pay attention.
It can get you to say no to the bread basket and doughnuts because you know you’ll have to majorly adjust the rest of the day to get the numbers to add up to meet your calorie goal.
The Cons of Counting Calories
It focuses on numbers more than nutrients
To illustrate my point, here is a screenshot of one of my food diary entries on My Fitness Pal from April 2010. This is when I was trying my hardest to keep my calorie count under 1200 a day. I was often starving because the only thing I cared about was the number in the calories column.
I ate a dried pineapple ring for breakfast.
That probably kept me full for all of 5 minutes. I was under 25g of protein for the entire day, which is extremely low compared to what I eat now! And the only vegetables I ate were in the form of canned tomato soup and tater tots – I can’t even fathom that now.
Don’t let the number of calories be more important than the things you know are important to a healthy diet – vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, fruit.
Calorie counts on nutrition labels are not 100% accurate
This may be devastating news to you, but even though the purpose of nutrition labels is to give you a good idea of the calories you are eating, their numbers are not entirely accurate.
The calories can vary in accuracy by about 20%.
Labels still give you a general idea of high, low, and mid-calorie foods, but just know you can’t depend entirely on numbers alone.
It teaches you to add up numbers instead of paying attention to your body
When you are counting calories, it can be like putting together a puzzle, trying to get all of the pieces of your meals and snacks to fit within your calorie goal.
The goal becomes staying under or near that number at all costs.
But there is something important missing there – YOU.
You are not a perfectly calculated formula.
Did you get full before finishing all of your lunch? Are you just eating because you still have calories left for the day, even though you aren’t hungry? Are you going to bed starving because you didn’t have any calories left in your day for an evening snack?
Calorie counting can cause you to ignore your hunger cues, which is not a good thing.
Also, be wary of buying into the numbers in calorie counting apps that show you that you can out-exercise all of the food you eat in a day. Your body doesn’t work quite like that and their numbers for calories burned aren’t usually accurate anyways.
Stand up, exercise, and move your body – it’s great for you and it does burn calories and benefit you in a ton of ways! But don’t think by logging 2 hours of light housework that you exercised your whole lunch away.
So, Should YOU Be Counting Calories?
If you are trying to lose weight, you need a tracking system to hold yourself accountable for the foods and the portions you are eating, whether that is calories or Weight Watchers points or something else.
I’m a huge fan of tracking your food, just don’t put your entire focus on calories.
If you google the phrase, “Should I be counting calories?” you will find a long list of articles warning you against it.
In fact, the first quote that pops up in my search by a former personal trainer reads, ” counting calories leads to failure 95.4% of the time—and often leaves people fatter.”
So, there you have it.
But that’s not the end.
What Should You Do Instead?
Track your food (not just your calories).
- You can still log your food into My Fitness Pal, write it into a food journal, or take pictures of your meals to track it all, just don’t obsess over the calories as much.
- Pay attention to portion sizes and try to eat more whole foods and less processed foods.
- Make sure your breakfasts are high in protein.
- Eat more vegetables (my number 1 “dieting” tip!).
- Cook at home more often (restaurant portion sizes are ginormous!)
- Swap out some of your old choices for the whole grain variety
Look for patterns.
- Do you always overeat ice cream or chips at night?
- Do you always default to fast food on Bible study night?
- Do you eat healthy breakfasts all week, but then go crazy on doughnuts, muffins, & pancakes on weekends?
- Are you always starving an hour after breakfast?
- Do you forget to eat lunch on your busy Mondays?
Don’t just log your food and forget about it.
Come up with solutions.
When I was tracking my food, I started noticing that on the mornings I ate a bowl of Rice Chex for breakfast, I was starving not long afterward. I noticed that, though the calorie count was fine, it didn’t have enough protein or fiber to keep me full until lunch.
If you’re forgetting to eat, try to make your lunch the night before and set a reminder at lunchtime. Planning ahead can save you thousands of calories!
Come up with a doable action plan that you can follow.
Be both persistent and consistent.
Don’t give up after a week of healthy eating when you don’t see the results you expected.
Weight loss takes time and there are all kinds of changes that happen inside of your body that will not be immediately visible to you.
Keep making those small changes, one decision at a time.
Consistency brings results.
Discouragement will creep in, but be consistent anyway (and have an awesome support system of people that will help you push through the down times!).
If You DO Decide to Count Calories
Don’t choose an incredibly low number thinking you are going to lose a ton of weight fast.
Obviously, the number of calories your body needs depends on a bunch of different factors, but 1200 calories is usually too few calories.
Fast weight loss is not usually sustainable weight loss.
Eating too few calories can kill your metabolism and mean that you won’t ever be able to get back to a “normal” level of calories.
The study they did on the participants in The Biggest Loser showed that their extreme changes slowed down their metabolism so much that even 6 years later, it was nearly impossible for them to maintain their weight loss because they would have to eat so few calories.
Don’t get so lost in the numbers that you forget about the nutrients!
If you are going to count calories, count nutrients, too.
Count your servings of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and whole grains.
Pay attention to the way your plate looks at meal times. Try to fill half of it with vegetables before adding the rest.
When you fill your diet with the right whole foods instead of just adding up the “right” numbers, you’ll notice that you can eat more, feel more satisfied, and still lose weight.
Don’t think you have to do it forever.
If you were swayed by the pros in this post, knowing you need help with portion control and being aware of what you are eating, count calories for a while.
Learn about reading food labels, portion sizes, and the basic nutrition in the foods you eat regularly.
Then as you get later into your weight loss journey and into the weight maintenance stage, you can start to loosen the reigns.
One of the biggest dangers of strict calorie counting is that it leads to burnout, which is the last thing you want when you are trying to lose weight and maintain that weight loss for the rest of your life.
You can always go back to it if you feel like you need to.
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