The Things I Thought I Knew: The Pros and Cons of Calorie Counting

Counting Calories Is A Controversial Topic

Some people believe that you simply need to burn more calories than you take in to lose weight. Others believe in adopting a mindset of intuitive eating and eating when you are hungry.

My opinions have fluctuated on this topic. I went through a period of swearing by every calorie I consumed, to being completely against the practice.

And now I'm somewhere in-between.

The Thing I Thought I Knew

Eleven years ago during my very first personal training session my trainer sat me down to talk about my goals and I only had one - to lose weight. He explained to me that to lose weight I had to simply burn more calories than I consumed. 

I took that advice and ran with it. It became my gospel. I had a paid account and tracked every single morsel of food I ate. I was fixated on the number that the system told me I needed to lose weight. I made sure never to exceed that amount (which was 1200 calories per day). I did this for years, eventually switching to MyFitnessPal because it was free vs paid.

Seeds of Doubt

Then the theory of Intuitive Eating started gaining traction. It planted the seed in my mind that maybe losing weight isn't all about "burning more calories than you consume."

Calorie-counting began to feel cumbersome. It was time-consuming to calculate portions and enter every piece of food in a meal. So eventually, I stopped tracking calories all together.

When I did this I found my meals more enjoyable. The food tasted better. It didn't feel so burdensome to have to track it to the nth degree. It was liberating and I adopted the attitude that tracking calories was bad.

That is until last summer when I came realize that there are a time and place for everything. Let me explain.

Why You Shouldn't Count Calories

Because I started from a place of zero healthy habits I saw results when I started counting calories. I mean who wouldn't lose weight going from eating 3,000 calorie entrees every night to only 1200 calories for an entire day? 

But I quickly became obsessed with numbers. 

Arbitrary numbers that some app told me I needed to limit myself to based on my height, gender and weight. A daily calorie number that didn't take anything about my personal health, ethnicity, background, and lifestyle into consideration.

I could tell you exactly how many raw almonds made up a single serving. Then I could tell you how many calories and fat grams were in that serving. I got to a point where I could do this with any and every food that I ate. And notice I said calories and fat grams. I didn't even pay attention to how much protein, carbohydrates, and even sugar I was getting.

I also adopted the mindset of "saving calories." If I knew I was going out to dinner or having dessert for a special occasion I'd starve myself and skip meals to "bank" my calories and "save them" for later. I can't even begin to tell you how bad this is!

Eventually, I got to the point of needlessly limiting my number of calories to where the restriction caused more harm than good. 

And as I increased my activity level, I failed to increase the calories I ate. So in essence, by becoming stuck on a daily calorie limit, I starved my body of the nutrients it needed.

Beyond this, I wasted an obscene amount of time logging calories. 

Calorie counting apps had advanced to having popular restaurant menus in its databases. So if I ate out it was relatively easy to log the meal. 

But when I began to cook more meals at home (hint: what you should be doing) I had to look for more apps to help me figure out how many calories were in the ingredients that I cooked with. Then I had to create a custom meal to log the meal.

It took up way too much time and caused more stress than it should have. 

When You Should Calorie Count

Just when I had written off calorie-counting for good, I was reminded that it does have its benefits. 

Here's when it's a good thing:

1. When you've never paid attention to what you ate before. 

If you have no concept of how many calories is in your Cheesecake Factory entree, you really should take a look. I can promise you, it's not good. 

If you're starting from a place of zero healthy habits then use calorie-counting as a guideline to educate yourself on what foods are healthy and what foods aren't. Use it help you learn what foods are nutrient-rich to help you make healthy food choices. There's nothing wrong with this. The error happens when we base all of our choices (food, social, time, energy) on only the number of calories.

2. When you need to track your macronutrients.

Besides being free, another reason I switched to MyFitnessPal is because it takes all the food you logged and spits out a graph that shows you just how many carbohydrates, protein, and fat you ate.

This is important to make sure you're getting the right amount of each and to make sure you are eating ENOUGH calories overall.

Too often we are concerned about overeating, yet many people undereat, especially athletes.

If you are an endurance athlete or do heavy workouts on a regular basis you have to eat enough food to fuel your body. 

So How Many Calories Do I Need?

I've been asked this question by many people that I've worked with.

The answer is that it's different for each person. 

How many calories your body needs is specific to you. And your number will even change as your activity levels do.

That being said if you really want to do how many calories YOU need you can take a Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) Test.

An RMR Test determines the number of calories your body uses at rest. From there it can give you a calorie range to lose weight, maintain weight, or gain weight.

The test is conducted by breathing into a tube that is hooked up to a machine. It measures the amount of oxygen your body uses and the amount of carbon dioxide your body produces.

The test has to be administered on an empty stomach so you'll want to have it done first thing in the morning. I've done this test several times (the last time being in the Spring of 2013) at my corporate gym. 

If you really must know what your specific calorie ranges are, this might be something you consider doing. But again it should only be a guide, not the basis of your entire diet.

What I Know Now

Last summer I worked with a registered dietician to treat my SIBO. She asked me to count calories for 3-5 days. I was very resistant to the idea for all the reasons I shared above. But she then explained why she needed me to do this which are the reasons I listed for when you should do this.

I managed to do this for a few days and from it, gained some valuable insight into my diet. I learned that I wasn't consuming enough carbohydrates. By adding a few more grams to each meal, I instantly felt better - more energized and fueled. I only did it for a few days and was able to make a simple fix that had a direct, positive impact on my health.

In short, I learned that calorie counting:

  • Doesn't have to be an end-all-be-all.
  • Doesn't have to be a lifestyle.
  • Shouldn't be your only guideline to managing your diet.
  • Is something that can be effectively done on a short-term basis.
  • Can give you insight to things that might be in your blind spot.
  • Can be an educational and helpful guide.

The Bottom Line

If you are just getting started and haven't a clue about healthy foods, then consider tracking your calories as a place to start. It can help you learn just how unhealthy your box of sugary cereal is and how much more you can get from eating some quality protein and veggies for breakfast instead.

If you are a female athlete who is concerned about not consuming enough calories, protein or iron, then maybe you do want to count your calories and micronutrients for a few days. 

On the other hand, if you are an athlete and you are counting calories for restrictive purposes then you might need to ask yourself why. What are you are afraid  will happen, or not happen that is making you restrict calories? 

If you are obsessively stuck on numbers but still eating low-fat, sugary processed meals, you might want to stop thinking about how many calories you're eating and start thinking about "quality over quantity." You might be doing more harm than good.

If you have digestive issues I would strongly recommend rethinking every belief you have about counting calories altogether and consider other factors that might be impacting your health - like stress. 

As for me, I've learned that if I am eating whole, unprocessed foods - lots of veggies, lean protein, minimal sugar and enough carbs, then I don't need to count calories. My body tells me everything I need to know, I've just had to learn to listen to it.  

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Naomi Nakamura is a certified Holistic Health Coach who takes a holistic approach through functional nutrition. Through her weekly show, The Live FAB Live Podcast, coaching programs, and safer skincare solutions, she helps people with acne and other chronic skin issues clear up their skin by teaching them where food meets physiology and how food, gut health, stress, and toxins are intricately connected to the health and appearance of our skin. Naomi resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and can often be found romping around the city with her puppy girl, Coco Pop! Connect with Naomi at: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest.