From the fitness apps on our phones to the labels on our food, plenty of factors prompt us to start counting calories. These days, calorie-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal have hundreds of millions of users who enter information about the food they’ve eaten to see if they’re eating too much. It topped the charts as the most popular way to lose weight in 2020, and people follow the concept of eating ‘fewer calories than you burn’ religiously, but does it work? A certified weight loss coach answers the most import questions.
How Calorie Counting Works and the Calorie Deficit
Calorie counting is an age-old concept that brings weight loss (and gain) down to numbers. So if you eat more calories than your body uses daily, you gain weight. So the solution seems simple: eat fewer calories than what your body uses, which is called a calorie deficit. It indicates that you can lose weight by eating less, exercising to introduce a calorie deficit, or trying both.
One reason calorie counting seems so effective is that it makes weight loss look easy. So if you consume 500 calories less than what your body needs every day, that’s 3,500 calories per week. That’s the energy needed to make one pound of fat, or 0.45 kilograms. Consequently, calorie counting is the underlying mechanism of even the newest and most sophisticated diets.
Why Weight Loss Shouldn’t Be All About Calorie Counting
While calorie counting can be helpful to some extent, it doesn’t work in a bubble. Here’s why weight loss shouldn’t be all about counting your calories.
It Takes the Joy Out of Eating
For one, it makes eating an unhappy experience as you worry about every calorie you eat. And then, all the little bites you take can be very difficult to track. From free samples at the supermarket to a co-worker asking you to try her mum’s peach cobbler, thinking about each bite before you take it is enough to drive anyone crazy. If anything, weight loss should encourage you to enjoy the food you eat even more.
Calorie Counts Aren’t Always Accurate
Just about all packaged foods come with nutritional information on the label, but most of them can be inaccurate. These are usually based on averages, which don’t take into account our body’s rate of digestion, which is a complex process. Not to mention, it’s not easy to find calorie counts for all foods, which leads to many of us relying on guesswork. And unconscious bias towards food, such as the ‘health halo’ bias, can lead us to underestimate calories in food we think is healthy,
Our Bodies Don’t Digest All Foods the Same
Calorie counting can be inaccurate since our body doesn’t digest all foods in the same way. You’ll see that almonds are labelled as containing 170 calories per ounce. However, it fails to account for the fact that the digestive tract only partially digests them, so our body doesn’t absorb all the calories in it.
Not All Calories Are Created Equal
Obsessing over calories can lead us to make food choices that put numbers first and health second. It’s important to remember that not all calories are created equal. A glass of beer can have around 150 calories, but so do two boiled eggs. While one requires an added snack, the other helps you feel full on its own. We use the terms low-calorie and healthy interchangeably when referring to diets, but your low-calorie may not be healthy. When you’re fixated on calories, such as in the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) diet, you may end up eating too little of what your body needs and more of what your body doesn’t.
Can Calorie Counting Be Helpful?
That being said, we can’t disregard calorie counting altogether. Because digestion and metabolism are so complex and individual to each person, it is our best bet to learn about our food habits. When you track where your calories are coming from, it helps determine which eating patterns to be mindful of if you want to lose weight.
And while it’s not always accurate, calorie counting builds awareness and helps you set a baseline to compare whether you’re eating more or less. More importantly, it’s an effective way to monitor behaviour so you feel accountable for everyday choices.
This brings us to the final verdict. Should weight loss be about counting calories? The answer is that it shouldn’t be all about counting calories. This could explain why you’ve been unconsciously counting calories for years with little results. Something that can help in achieving your weight loss goals is guidance from an expert who can help you make better food and lifestyle choices. Advice from a weight loss coach who understands your routine and your body’s needs is effective for formulating a diet and exercise plan that suits you. Additionally, it leads to visible results that make the process all the more rewarding.