Why You Shouldn’t Count Calories (And What To Do Instead)

Why you should let go of counting calories so you can form balanced eating habits for life. 

Have you ever been on one of those diets or plans where you had to count calories and track everything you ate? If you’re here, that’s probably a yes. And I’m happy you are!

While that might work as a short-term fix, it’s simply not realistic to maintain 365 days a year for your whole life. Not only does counting calories not support you in living a healthy and balanced lifestyle, but it may also contribute to more stress, guilt, confusion, and overwhelm with food.

If you’re surprised to hear that we, as Registered Dietitians, don’t recommend counting calories, keep reading. You’ll learn why we don’t believe it’s supportive and how it can actually take you further away from your goals.

7 Reasons to Let Go of Counting Calories and Shift to Forming Balanced Eating Habits

1. Counting Calories Isn’t Practical for Daily Life

Most of the time, we’re not eating in situations where it’s possible to track every ingredient, use measuring cups, or even know what’s actually in the dish.

We go out to eat, we eat at our friends’ or our family’s homes and we eat nourishing whole foods that aren’t packaged with calorie amounts. That’s what normal life looks like! That’s why counting calories doesn’t work for our everyday lives. It becomes cumbersome or simply impossible to keep up with.

For example, think about what happens when we become accustomed to eating in food situations where we’re always counting or tracking calories. What happens when we’re in one of the above-listed social settings?

Oftentimes people strictly counting calories will try to avoid said social situations altogether, or refrain from eating to prevent themselves from getting “off track”. If they do decide to participate, they’re left feeling frustrated and confused because they don’t have the skills needed in order to navigate their food choices.

The moral of the story, counting calories simply isn’t practical.

2. It Overlooks Nutritional Value

Calories don’t tell you how nutritious a food item is. It’s as simple as that.

With a calorie counting approach, you can eat 2,000 calories of anything. You’re not necessarily cognizant of the nutritional composition of said 2,000 calories. Those calories may be from processed, packaged foods, or whole foods. 

Calorie-wise they’re the same, but nutrient-wise, they’re very different. Your body needs calories for energy, but it also needs vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Only looking at calories in a number-based way excludes a major piece of what contributes to your health and wellbeing.

In addition, counting calories can also lead you to avoid nutritious foods because they’re “high calorie”. Rather than seeing an avocado or a handful of cashews as a filling, nourishing food item, you may start to view them as high-calorie foods to “avoid”.

This not only wrongly guides you away from eating nourishing foods, but it can also lead to you developing an unhealthy relationship with food; one where you’re fearful of some foods simply because of their caloric content.

3. Calorie Counting Can Lead to Disordered Eating Behaviors

When we’re working with clients who have previously counted calories, we generally also see that they unintentionally have an unhealthy relationship with food. In many cases, this can present itself through disordered eating behaviors.

Unfortunately, in today’s society, many disordered eating behaviors are considered socially acceptable, or “normal”. You may not realize that these behaviors may be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food.

Here are a few examples of disordered eating behaviors:

  1. Yo-yo dieting
  2. Making up for “bad” foods eaten or “burning off” calories through exercise
  3. Skipping meals
  4. Anxiety around eating certain foods
  5. Rigid nutrition or fitness routines
  6. Extreme feelings of guilt or shame after eating
  7. Obsessing over your weight or body image
  8. Feeling out of control around food
  9. Keeping up with every nutrition trend

When you’re counting calories, it can be far too easy to develop these unhealthy eating behaviors. You’re so focused on eating a specific amount of calories per day that it can lead you to constantly think about your food choices. 

Being so controlling over your food ultimately leads you to feel more out of control. It can feel like eating well is really challenging to maintain, which overall is very negative for your physical and mental health.

4. It Causes You to Ignore Your Own Body and Needs

Our bodies send signals to tell us specifically what we uniquely need. Your hunger and satiety signals are your body’s way of telling you what it needs to feel and function at its best. This may be that it needs more food for energy (feeling hungry) or that the portion of food you ate was too much (feeling stuffed).

When we’re not in-tune with these cues, it can be easy to overeat or under-eat because we’re following strict portion guides instead.

So many things have taught us to disconnect from our own bodies and focus on external factors, such as:

  • Counting calories, macros, or points
  • Fasting
  • Eating until your plate is clean
  • Eating a specific portion size from a diet or plan

In contrast, an example of an eating style where you’re listening to your own body and your body’s needs is mindful eating. With mindful eating, we focus on developing a strong mind-body connection with compassion and without judgment. This allows you to understand what works uniquely for your own body. You’re then able to accept that what works for someone else may not work for you.

This is why so many diets, plans, and trends don’t work. They’re one-size-fits-all solutions. They ask us to follow specific rules without having us tune into our own bodies to see if it’s actually working or not.

When you’re more in tune with your own body, you build the confidence to know what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat based on your unique needs.

If you find this really challenging and it’s something you’re ready to focus on, sign up for our free masterclass. We’ll walk you through our mindful approach to nutrition that guides you towards having more balance, peace, and confidence.

5. If You’re Using Calorie Counting to Manage Your Weight, You’ll Likely Regain It

We hear from individuals time and time again through our Mindful Nutrition Method community that they really want to have a positive relationship with food, but they want to lose weight first. Then they’ll shift to a more sustainable solution.

They say, “I’ll just count calories for a short period of time until I reach my goal weight. Then I’ll make new, maintainable eating habits.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. First, if you use restrictive habits to reach a specific weight, that weight won’t be maintainable for you unless you continue with those restrictive habits. 

I have a hunch that if you’ve dieted or calorie counted before, you’ve likely already experienced this. One of our members who shared why she joined shared this exact experience. She said, “I was at goal weight for about twenty minutes before I started to regain and had to start all over.”

Studies show that dieters end up gaining weight back within 12 months. They’re focused on making short-term changes to see results, but not on long-term behavior change. And unfortunately, weight gain can pull many people back into dieting and the start-and-stop cycle. 

Can you relate to this feeling?

You can also continue in this cycle if you never reach the goal weight you originally set. Maybe you try a different diet because that one “didn’t work,” saying that this next one will be your last.

You can see just how easy it can be to fall back into the start-and-stop cycle.

Then, not only have you still not created eating habits that support you on a daily basis, but you also may feel guilt or shame. This can impact your mental wellbeing and can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors. Ultimately leading you to sacrifice your health and wellbeing to achieve a specific number. 

Instead of telling yourself that you’ll calorie count until you reach your goal weight, commit to practicing a sustainable approach to nourishing yourself well that doesn’t include dieting.

When you’re able to make long-lasting changes, create consistency beyond 30 days, and find what works best for your body, you’re able to reach and maintain a weight that’s natural for your body to maintain.

6. It Doesn’t Solve the Underlying Problem

If you’re currently counting calories, something leads you to believe this would be a good choice for you and your health. In our experience, someone often chooses to count calories because they want to lose or gain weight.

While calorie counting may help you to adjust your weight temporarily, it’s a short-term, “band-aid” solution. It doesn’t address the underlying problem. In our coaching, rather than addressing the symptom (which in this case is simply being at a weight you’re uncomfortable with), we like to address the condition, if you will. We uncover what’s causing you to be at an uncomfortable weight.

After working with thousands of clients, we’ve found that there are likely one of three reasons that may cause this discomfort. In our coaching, we focus on addressing the cause, which then allows us to find a much more supportive solution.

The three most common reasons why people want to lose or gain weight are as follows:

1. Not having eating and lifestyle habits that support your individual needs

If you’ve chosen to abide by a diet that simply isn’t right for you, it will often lead you to a weight you are uncomfortable with.

For example, say you heard from an influencer or friend that you should eat a certain way despite the fact that you inherently enjoy eating a different way. Let’s say for this example we’re talking about a strict paleo diet.

If you’re unable to eat things that you enjoy simply because someone else says so, this will often lead to a harmful on-and-off, all-or-nothing, pendulum-style eating cycle. This can ultimately lead to unintentional weight gain or loss.

Additionally, if you have lifestyle factors that are being neglected, you may also experience the same thing. Take stress or improper sleep cycles for example. If we’re constantly stressed and not managing it well, and therefore also not sleeping well, our eating habits, in turn, can become erratic and out of whack.

You need to do what feels right to you and your individual body!

2. A health condition is present 

Our health can influence weight fluctuations, therefore it’s important to understand what’s happening in your own body to know how to support it.

For example, you may have a particular disease state you’re aware of that that you’re simply unsure of how to manage through food and lifestyle. Or you may possibly be struggling with disordered eating habits that can cause spikes and/or drops in weight.

Regardless of the condition, it’s always important to take a look at the whole picture from the inside out, rather than simply focussing on weight alone.

3. Body image challenges

You may be at a weight that is very natural and comfortable for your body to maintain, but you may still feel as though you need to lose or gain weight.

If you use restrictive eating habits, like calorie counting, to try to adjust your weight, your body won’t be able to maintain it. You can end up experiencing weight fluctuations that are not only harmful to your physical health but also deepen the severity of any body image challenges you may be experiencing.

Unfortunately, counting calories doesn’t help you overcome any of these causes. All of these require you to practice a more mindful approach to nutrition. One where you can cultivate a more positive experience with food, build greater awareness of your body’s unique needs, and integrate eating habits that will support you daily.

7. Counting Calories Takes the Joy and Pleasure Out of the Food Experience

If you know me, you’ve likely heard me say this before, and it’s worth repeating:

Food is more than nourishment. It’s tradition, culture, pleasure, and joy, and it’s okay to celebrate the many roles food plays in our lives!

Every day, I cook meals that not only nourish my body but also make me so happy and filled with joy.

Food is such a powerful way to bring nourishment and joy into our lives. But unfortunately, so many diets completely ignore this “life/joy” element. They can make you feel as though cooking is a chore, or that your meals are unsatisfying (both on a hunger level and also an emotional level).

They may cause you to view food as a means to an end. Or cause you to “look forward to” the next time you “can” eat that food you’ve been restricting. This undoubtedly causes a lot of stress and puts quite a bit of mental energy towards what you should or shouldn’t eat.

How You Can Eat Well Without Counting Calories

By now, you may be wondering what a more supportive way to nourish yourself would be instead of counting calories.

There are a few key pieces to focus on, and we cover these during my free masterclass!

Sign up to discover the practices you need to adopt in order to let go of calorie counting. You’ll learn how to integrate new eating habits into your life that are more supportive.

You don’t need to stress and obsess about food. There is a better way and yes it’s possible to cultivate a positive relationship with food! Join this free balanced eating masterclass to learn how.

Watch The Free Masterclass

McKel (Hill) Kooienga
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