Is it Ok to Count Calories?
The human body has been around approximately six million years, fine tuning our eating habits to keep us alive. But then we created calorie counting and learned to tune out our internal cues in favour of mathematical equations (and we can’t even agree on one universal equation!) So many people listen to their phones over their bodies, and who can blame them? We’re told to second guess hunger from so many sources. Do you feel like hunger is something you never really trust?
Is calorie counting good?
Often calorie counters are used with the intention to lose or maintain weight, so a low-calorie target may be set. But apps that use calorie trackers have been known to set targets that are well below a person’s basic energy needs even to maintain weight.
For example, the ever a nuisance Noom gives 1200 calories as a target no matter the person’s “goal”. Such energy demands are unsustainable – either you’ll get bored and stop, potentially to restart at a later date or develop disordered eating, or you will be in an energy deficit and feel the physical side effects (don’t worry - we’ll get to these! But I’m sure you can think of a few that you’ve experienced.)
Eating disorders and disordered eating
Most people who have eating disorders have used a calorie tracker - In a 2017 study looking at 105 people diagnosed with an eating disorder, 75% reported using an online tool to count their calories and 73% perceived that this contributed to their eating disorder (1) Note that eating disorders are not a "diet gone wrong" - they are a mental health condition, and dieting can be a "loaded gun."
I also want to add here that not everyone who tracks calories will develop an eating disorder, but we can’t ignore that 35% of so-called “normal dieters” go on to have a very disordered relationship to food (2) - which people often find pretty shocking. In fact, one study found that 50-75% of women have disordered eating (3).
What is disordered eating?
Good question! This is a term used a lot, but it’s not clear what it really means.
I think of disordered eating as: Any physical actions/behaviours, or mental thoughts/talk that demonstrate a strained, shamed, or difficult time with food. This includes:
Going on fad diets, trying new diet trends, buying dieting products for weight loss e.g. "skinny teas" and diet pills
Eating disorder behaviours like purging by vomiting, laxative or diuretic use; restricting food intake; exercising to make up for food
Any feelings of shame, guilt, second-guessing, and negative thoughts around food
Not trusting your body to tell you when, what, or how much to eat
Disordered eating is very normalised and is seen as "just being healthy." Which is why it's pretty difficult to notice disordered eating behaviours and patterns.
What does calorie counting do to you?
You don't trust your body
Have you ever tried to count the number of breaths you take in a day? Just to make sure you’re getting enough and not over-breathing. Chances are you don’t because you innately trust your body to meet its needs. But the same can’t be said for calories.
Would you record your fluid intake vs how much you pee and sweat just to make sure your kidneys can be trusted? Probably not!
Counting calories makes you out of tune with your body’s internal cues in regard to hunger and fullness that keep us alive. I’m guessing if I were to ask you if you trust your body to tell you when to eat and when to stop you might say “no way!”?
Hunger and fullness signals - which sounds pretty fancy, but it’s just intuitively “knowing” when you need to eat, and when you’re done - is your body's way of meeting a fundamental need: Getting energy from food.
“Trusting your body” might sound pretty hippy to some of you, but it doesn’t need to be like that. I mention Haslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs quite a lot, so you might be familiar (to the right) but as you can see, food is a base level
need. If you don’t trust your body to tell you when to feed it (without this being dictated by your phone!) then you can’t fulfil the higher-ranking needs, like self-fulfilment.
Answer me this.
What does trusting your calorie tracker more than your body do for you?
Does it make you feel good? If it does, then that’s great. But if it doesn’t, it might be time to reattune to your body's natural hunger and fullness signals. If you want to start doing just that, make sure to stay tuned for my top tips.
The psychological stress
When I think about my years of calorie counting, I felt so many things - and not many of them were nice emotions to feel. When I speak to clients, who before working with me were right where you are, they report:
Feeling like they need to track calories - there’s no other way they could be healthy
Feeling sick of tracking everything they eat every day
Feeling like they could go over their calorie limits, but sometimes they just feel so much guilt and deliberation every time they do
Some days just completely going off the rails and saying “stuff it” to the whole thing
But they are on a cycle of running straight back to the safety of calorie counting.
They know that:
Constantly keep an eye on the calories they’re consuming is exhausting
They don’t really care how much your grams of protein, carbs, and fat every single food they eat contains
Thinking all day long about how much of their daily quota that they have left is psychologically demanding and they end up feeling like they don’t have much real time for anything else they want to do.
Studies have shown that regular use of calorie counting apps leads to increased anxious attitudes towards food. Such a lack of flexibility can also lead to social stress – if a friend invites you out for an unplanned dinner or drinks and it’s not factored into your daily goal what do you do? Logic says go with them, but it’s easy when in the grip of counting calories to skip the meal in favour of the dinner you’ve pre-calculated the calories for.
Such a fixation on calories can lead to disordered thoughts when it comes to eating and an obsession with calories. Both of which can take a lot of time and work to undo - but thankfully, an Intuitive Eating nutritionist (like me!) can support you.
You may be missing out on micronutrients
Going for light calorie vs. calorie dense foods may mean you skip foods that are higher in fat such as avocados, nuts and seeds that may contain micronutrients our body’s need, in favour of low-calorie food that does not contain such micronutrients.
Not to mention, low-carb diets are low in every nutritionist’s favourite nutrient - fibre! Fibre is linked to digestion, mood, mental health, and long-term health such as prevention of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Your calorie needs are fluid – menstrual cycle, sleep, cravings, exercise, hydration etc. all affect what your body needs on a particular day and no app can be that intuitive. That means your set daily goal being the same everyday isn’t accurate.
Here’s the final kicker that people often don’t know about….
Calorie numbers are potentially wrong
Nutrition labels can legally be up to 20% wrong! That makes a food you believe is 100 calories, can actually be 80 or 120kcals.
Not all varieties of food are measured including local varieties or seasonal variation
Gut health affects absorption of the calories meaning more/less are absorbed - did you know only 30% of the calories from nuts are actually absorbed!?
Food preparation affects calories that are available for absorption – cooking food makes more available for absorption
How to stop calorie counting
1. Firstly, delete the app/device you’re using to count calories. If you can’t go cold turkey, that might mean you would benefit from 1-1 support. Please reach out here to book a completely free, no obligation call to hear how Shannon can support you.
2. Build meals that feel good to you – start with the macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat etc.) and number of fruit/veg you want to include and build from there.
3. Focus on how meals/food make you feel.
4. Make sure you sleep enough.
5. Focus on being present rather than planning for your next meal.
6. Think about how long you’ve been tracking calories for, reminder it’s going to take time to feel less drawn to it.