Of all the ways in which people try to lose weight in America today, counting calories is probably the most popular.
It is also probably one of the most misguided.
Well, I’m not sure I can say that, given that I know that something called The Grapefruit Diet exists.
Nevertheless, so far as I am concerned, calorie counting is extremely flawed. It is bad for health. It’s bad for spirit. And it’s bad for weight loss. Here are some reasons why — though the list is by no means exhaustive.
1) Counting calories is time consuming
Counting calories is time consuming. You either have to search for calorie amounts on google for every food you eat, or carry around one of those little pocket calorie guides. I used to do that. Nothing like a good old-fashioned calorie counter in your back pocket.
Then you have to measure your food, and then do math.
And you can’t simply weight in after the fact, but need to parcel out your food beforehand, so you can make your target goals. Of course, you may be one of the more loosey goosey calorie counters and simply tally how much you’ve eaten after the fact, but that’s time consuming too because after you’ve done all the math you will probably spend a fair bit of time worrying about it.
Moreover, one of the most obnoxious things about calorie counting (and body image issues in general) is that it’s such a mental time drain. You have so many creative, brilliant things to bring to the world! What a terrible drag it would be to dampen that light and energy so that it can be channeled toward grape rationing.
I can’t even.
2. Energy needs vary by day
Part of the reason calorie regimens are so dangerous is that they impose strict rules on daily eating, even though energy needs vary greatly day by day.
Energy needs vary for a whole slew of reasons: exercise, how much you’ve slept, whether you’ve worked out recently and are rebuilding muscle, how much stress you are under, how much time you spend standing or walking on any given day, if you are sick and how active your immune system is at the time, and even the time of the menstrual cycle are all important factors.
Each of these variables means that every day requires a different number of calories to be eaten.
When calorie counting, you will almost certainly, every single day, miss that mark.
This is a problem physically because it can teach you to ignore your body’s basic hunger drives. Doing so may signal to your body that you are starving yourself at times, or overeating at others. When you are out of sync with your body’s caloric needs, you open yourself up to stress hormone problems and sex hormone problems, which can lead to infertility, irregular periods, mood swings, low libido, and many other problems down the line.
This is also a problem mentally because any sort of leftover hunger or restrictive feelings can make you feel deprived, which can feed feelings of deprivation, frustration, yearning, and obsession.
Much easier than dealing with the physical and psychological problems that come from calorie counting is simply learning to interpret and eat in harmony with your body’s hunger drives. It may take time and patience to learn, but the rewards are great.
3. It’s controlling aspect is addictive
Most people who become serious calorie counters also have type A personalities. They are perfectionists. They like to have their worlds managed in particular little boxes which can be controlled and manipulated to their liking.
Sometimes, people start to get a high on this kind of control. I was definitely one of them. I loved when I could demonstrate my mastery of the world, my moral superiority, and my discipline. I felt the power in myself, and I delighted when I could demonstrate that kind of control in front of others, too. Counting calories was a great way for me to feel like I had control over myself, my bood, and my body. I loved the feeling.
My humble advice in this regard is to be mindful about it. Do not let the obsession overtake you, and be wary of the ways in which it can. Avoiding calorie counting altogether is the best way to do this. Maybe knowing that type A perfectionism underlies your calorie counting habit can help you deconstruct it, and ultimately let go.
4. It can make you care more about weight than health
One of the major problems of calorie counting is that it prioritizes weight over health.
Calorie counting is all about weight loss (and that’s not to say it’s effective, more on which in the next point).
It gives priority to eating less. The smart, effective, and healthful way of eating would instead be to give priority to eating better.
In fact, it can be actively detrimental to your health to make weight loss your focus over and above high quality eating. Our society thinks that skinnier people are healthier, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Thin people regularly get diagnosed with diseases and die early deaths; overweight people regularly live long, healthy lives. Sometimes, being overweight actually increases your health.
5. It will in all likelihood make you gain weight in the long run
Calorie counting is inherently contradictory. It may make you think that you are going to lose weight, but in actuality most people who lose weight by calorie counting eventually gain it back.
When you prioritize quantity over quality, it is nearly impossible to maintain. This is for a wide variety of reasons:
For one, high quality nutrition helps you feel full. The body sometimes feels hungry specifically because it is missing out on important nutrients. Focusing on high quality foods in this way will help you feel both healthier and more satisfied by your food.
For another, rigidly controlling food intake forces the body to be in a permanent state of hunger, to some degree or another. Doing this causes the body to up-regulate it’s production of hunger-stimulating hormones. The more of these hormones you have swimming in your blood, the hungrier you will feel, and the more you will feel like you need to eat. When you eventually cave to these increasingly pressing signals, you will in all likelihood overeat, since the hunger signals that have built up are so strong.
Once you overeat, if you are a calorie counter you will in all likelihood restrict your calorie allowance for the following day even more, which can further exacerbate the hunger hormone problem, thus sending you into a spiral of restriction and overeating.
This kind of pattern, in which the body is restricted and then overeats, causes weight gain. In a state of restriction, the metabolism slows down. Then when you overeat, you store even more fat than you would have before.
Slowed metabolisms are a very real problem for being who diet or have dieted in their past. It is very hard to overcome a slow metabolism once it sets in from calorie counting. The ideal situation would be to never restrict calories in the first place. If that can’t be avoided, you can help boost your metabolism by starting to eat as intuitively as possible, and relaxing the controlling grip you have on your diet and your body.
It is totally possible to lose weight without counting calories. In fact, it is even more effective and permanent not to.
Also, If you want to lose weight, but are wary of calorie counting (and for good reason!), I provide a great way for loosely keeping track of your food intake without counting calories in my program for weight loss, Weight Loss Unlocked: The Paleo Woman’s Solution.
And that’s a wrap for me! What do you think? There are plenty more reasons to never count calories again! What are yours?