I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no fan of counting calories. In fact, I feel it can be counterproductive to achieving your health & fitness goals.
Let me explain.
On the surface, counting calories seems like it makes sense. Just eat fewer calories than you burn, and you’ll lose weight.
But when you think critically about it, does it really?
The inaccurate assumption that calorie counters make is that if you eat in a caloric deficit, your body will automatically make up the difference by burning fat.
The problem is that your body has other options. For example, one option it has to adapt to fewer calories coming in is to slow down your metabolism.
Slower metabolism = fewer calories burned.
So rather than burning fat to account for your caloric deficit, your body slows down how much energy it expends.
That’s just one example. Your body can also go and burn off valuable muscle tissue as well to make up for the caloric deficit.
When you’re trying to drop fat, lean muscle is your friend. The last thing you want to do is burn it off.
Also, do you truly believe you can accurately measure how many calories you are eating and burning?
Let’s think about this. Imagine you eat an apple. You go into your calorie counting app and enter that you ate an apple. It then tells you how many calories are in that apple.
BUT that calculator is assuming a certain size apple. Unless you weigh your apple, you have no idea if your apple is the same size. Apple calories vary depending on the type, ripeness, and area they are grown.
There are simply too many variables to accurately determine exactly how many calories are in your apple.
Can you get close? Sure. But not exact.
Now look at the other side of the equation, energy expenditure. Most calorie calculators have you estimate how much energy you expend depending on things like weight, height, and physical activity level.
The problem is that there are WAY more variables that come into play that determine how much energy your body expends.
For example, a poor night of sleep affects both energy expenditure and caloric intake. The temperature in the room could cause you to burn more or fewer calories. How much you move that day affects your energy expenditure.
Heck, even stress has an effect.
There are countless variables to take into consideration. To truly determine your energy expenditure you’d need to live in a controlled lab environment under constant testing.
No average person wanting to lose some flab has the time or money for that.
Calorie counting is an over-simplified method that (in my opinion) is a cop out for doing the hard work of eating real, whole, high quality foods that nourish your body.
Plus, other than certain types of people, what average person wants to count calories all day long? Who has time to do that?
It is way too much micro-managing for the average person.
Additionally, it isn’t sustainable. Sure, you can probably motivate yourself to count calories for a few weeks. Maybe even a few months.
But a few years? A few decades? A lifetime?
Calorie counters often cite the Kansas State University Professor who lost 27 pounds eating nothing but twinkies, nutty bars, and powdered donuts for 10 weeks.
Can you lose weight doing that? Sure. You can also lose weight by cutting off your arm or your leg.
The problem is that the method is not sustainable. It is not something you can maintain for 5, 10, 20, 50 years.
And when you’re looking to make a change in your health or fitness, you want to look for things that are sustainable… things that you can keep up for the rest of your life.
A diet of twinkies and nutty bars is not something you can sustain.
So what’s the solution? If calorie counting doesn’t work, what should one do for an approach to nutrition?
Eat real, whole foods that nourish your body. Eat slowly. Listen to your body. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re not, don’t. If you’re full, stop.
When you begin eating higher quality foods, your body stops becoming a slave to eating every few hours. Instead, you will be able to tell when you’re hungry and when you’re full.
It’s a beautiful thing.
When you’re eating garbage all day long, your hunger and satiety hormones are thrown completely out of whack.
You truly have no idea when you’re hungry and when you’re not.
But when you eat high quality foods, these hormones come back into balance and you will be able to have much more control over your eating.
Plus, when you eat high quality foods your body will naturally trend toward your ideal body composition (which is different for everyone by the way!)
Why isn’t this method more popular? Because it’s a lot harder and less profitable.
It’s much easier to sell diet programs that tell people they can eat whatever they want and still lose weight.
Telling people they can’t eat garbage? That’s a lot more difficult, a lot less profitable, and a lot less fun.
But it’s the truth. To make this nutrition thing sustainable, the bulk of your diet must come from real, whole foods your body recognizes and is designed to eat.
This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy delicious treats here and there. You can, and you should.
It just shouldn’t make up the bulk of your diet.
Telling people they can eat whatever they want and still lose weight is downright dangerous advice.
Yes, you can in the short term, but eventually your body will rebel and you will be stuck in an endless loop of losing weight and then gaining it all back and more.
Now that I’ve practically beat calorie counting to death, let’s look at the flip side of the coin. Is there any value in it or times where it may make sense?
Yes, in fact. If your goal is to gain weight, I would argue that counting calories may actually make sense.
Many ectomorph body types struggle to gain weight because they don’t eat enough. But counting calories can give you a rough idea of how much your eating.
You can then increase calories accordingly if you aren’t gaining weight.
Another time it might make sense is when you’re trying to gain a better understanding of your eating patterns. You could count calories for a few weeks to get a rough idea of where you stand.
Consider it a tool in your tool belt – something for you to use on occasion when the situation calls for it.
But don’t depend on it. As I said, it’s not a long term sustainable approach.