Do I Need to Count Calories to Lose Weight?

No.

Thanks for swinging by. Have a nice day!

I kid, I kid.

But seriously, asking if you need to count calories to lose weight is like asking if you need to go to group fitness classes to get in shape.

Certain people are going to thrive in a group fitness setting and have amazing results. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there every day finding success in working with personal trainers, streaming exercise sessions from their living room, or starting a couch to 5K program.

Some people love (and achieve significant weight loss) counting calories. And I think there’s a time, place, and situation where it can really be a useful tool in your nutritional toolbelt. But I also think there’s a significant component of healthy eating that you can lose sight of when you jump into worrying about how many calories are in a twinkie.

Eating. Real. Food.

Diving headfirst into counting calories to lose weight can create a situation where you might be missing the forest for the trees. I genuinely believe it’s more important to slowly move away from a mainly processed or fast food diet to more real foods above all else.

Now, if you’ve already moved to cooking more at home and filling your days with primarily real foods, calorie counting could serve as a tool to further your weight loss goals. But if your foundation isn’t built on eating foods in their natural state, no amount of calorie counting is going to truly enable you to feel well.

My Experience With Food Tracking & Calorie Counting

On two separate occasions in my mid-twenties, I fell extremely ill very quickly with an unexplained cause. I was up all night getting sick and went to the hospital for dehydration because I couldn’t keep anything down.

When I discussed it with my primary care doctor, she indicated that she thought it might be a food allergy. Her recommendation was to begin tracking everything I ate to see if I could drill down on the root cause.

After that appointment, I logged all of my meals and snacks into MyFitnessPal every day for close to a year. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with food tracking, but I vividly remember sitting down with a plate of food and not taking a bite until I had every ingredient in the app.

The more I logged my food, the more it helped me create associations between what I was eating and how I felt. (But to this day, I still have no idea what caused my mysterious illness.)

By tracking everything I was eating, I began to take note of my calories. I also started to make food choices based on calorie count and not nutritional value. And that can be a slippery slope.

Some people begin to count calories to lose weight and use their calorie limit as the end-all-be-all. A good day is one where you come in significantly below your goal, and a bad day is when you feel like you should punish yourself for going over by eating that extra piece of bread at dinner.

At this point, where emotions depend on the calorie count, I think counting calories stops being helpful and starts being damaging.

The Case for Counting Calories

Counting calories has its place in the health and nutrition space. And many people find great success doing it. I believe calorie counting has a place if you are:

  • Looking to understand portion control: It’s no secret that portion sizes in America are growing. You might be shocked to see how much an ounce of potato chips really is when you weigh it on a food scale. Logging the number of servings you have of a food can be a big eye-opener in understanding what a single serving looks like compared to what many of us are used to eating.
  • Curious about the nutritional value of certain foods: Calorie counting, and especially the apps that support it today, can give you an overview of macros (fat, protein, and carbohydrates) which are essential to understand if you’re trying to lose weight. You may uncover that 85% of your calories come from carbs which can lead to a few easy dietary substitutions.
  • Trying to identify trends:  If you’re “doing all the right things” when it comes to eating healthy, but some days you still feel a bit of brain fog, fatigue, or irritability, tracking food and counting calories can help you to identify trigger foods and any patterns you may be pushing to the back of your mind. Through my food tracking experience, I confirmed that I have a horrible sweet tooth that takes hold every night after dinner if I don’t keep it in check. I now keep better options available (what’s up, popcorn, strawberries, and chocolate-covered almonds) when I know I’ll get the craving post-dinner.

The Case for Avoiding the Count

But to play devil’s advocate, counting calories could have the opposite impact on your weight loss goals if you:

  • Have struggled with an eating disorder: The most important thing to consider if you’ve had an eating disorder is trying to re-establish a stable relationship with food. Sometimes counting calories can feel restrictive and create an uncomfortable mental situation where you’re afraid to go over your count by even one calorie.
  • Have an all-or-nothing mindset:  If you’re prone to “I’ll start on Monday” syndrome, counting calories can cause you to throw out all progress if you’re not seeing what you want to see reflected. When going one calorie over your goal throws you into “I might as well just finish the bag” mode, counting calories is probably not suitable for you right now.
  • Allow it to dictate your attitude: Some people can put so much emphasis on their calorie goal that it’s literally the difference between a good day and a bad day. It’s critical to recognize that calorie counting is just one of many aspects of your nutritional picture. There is so much more to nutrition than only calories. And it might be time to make a shift from worrying about a number to worrying about how you feel.

Alternatives to Counting Calories for Weight Loss

If you’re working on getting your nutrition in check and want to optimize it to lose some weight, there are plenty of things you can do that don’t involve calorie counting at all.

  • Start with sleep: Poor sleep quality can lead to decreased leptin (the satiety hormone) and a rise in ghrelin (the hunger hormone). So that means inadequate sleep literally causes your body to say “I’m full” less frequently and “I’m hungry” more frequently. Aim for 7-8 hours per night and look at cutting out alcohol and stopping eating several hours before bed to improve sleep quality.
  • Focus on real, whole foods: Instead of counting the calories in a food, opt for real foods instead. Try a simple substitution. Instead of your afternoon snack of chips, try out an apple and peanut butter or almonds and a banana. See if there’s a difference in your energy level or focus following the snack to determine if that’s something you could incorporate long-term.
  • Practice mindful eating and savor your food: I’m a speedy eater, which I have to work to combat every day. Especially when something tastes delicious, it’s down the hatch before I know what happened. Try to take a break between bites, acknowledge the flavors in the food, clear your mouth out completely, set down your utensils, or even set a timer if you need to for how long it should take to eat your meal. Not only will these strategies help you to slow down, but they can also help with digestive issues and cause you to feel full sooner.
  • Decrease the size of your eating window:  Fasting is having a moment. But the truth is that going periods of 12 to 18 or more hours without eating each day allows your body to reset and take out the garbage. Consider trying to go from 8 pm to 8 am without food for a few days and see how you feel. Breakfast is just a meal that breaks your nightly fast. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have it at 6 am.

The Main Thing About Counting Calories for Weight Loss

Counting calories can be helpful for some, but as a rule of thumb, I don’t like to recommend it for someone who is just trying to wrap their mind around what a “healthy” eating plan might look like. Experiment first. Eat more real, whole foods and take note of your energy. My hunch is that you’ll see the scale start to budge as you limit intake of processed foods. And that could end up being just what your body needed.

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