The Trouble with Calorie Counting

I sound like a bit of a broken record on this subject don’t I? That’s ok. I like to make it known that I’m a big fan of calorie counting in certain situations.

I used 411fit.com to make sure I was eating enough at times through my pregnancy. I also counted calories before when wanting to lose weight. I think it’s a great tool to make people more aware of what they are putting in their body.

However, there are a couple trouble spots with counting calories full time. I ran into them in my past, which is why I am grateful that I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can focus on whole foods rather than calorie counting. (and thanks to Jenn for hosting WIAW!)

trouble with calorie counting- nutty butter

A scoop of Nutty Butter and half a banana

Above is some delicious caramel apple Nutty Butter made by Sarah. It’s ridiculously good. However, there is no nutrition label and the calorie-counting me would have stressed how to “count” it. Same as peanut butter? Less? More? I hated missing out on delicious foods, simply because they weren’t labeled with nutritional content.

trouble with calorie counting- fage and love grown

2% Blueberry Fage with Love Grown Granola and pomegranate arils

Exercise also can become more obsessive while calorie counting, too. I think it’s how people (especially women) fall into the cardio rut (all cardio, all the time). It burns more calories, right? It undermines the importance of strength training.

Yesterday, my friend talked me into trying a new class at the gym- cardio strength. There was no little calorie burn calculator to look at, just sweat and sore muscles. I have no idea how many calories I burned during that class and the beauty is, I don’t care. I didn’t add or subtract those calories from my daily total allotment, instead I relished in my muscle fatigue and ate when I was hungry.

trouble with calorie counting- lunch

Romaine, brown rice, black beans, jalapenos, avocado, sour cream, salsa and cilantro

This lunch would have been a pain back in the calorie counting days because I’d have to measure the rice, measure the beans and probably leave off the sour cream. For calorie counting purposes, it would be easier to heat up a Lean Cuisine. Health wise, the salad mess is so much better. Less chemicals, not cooked in plastic, more filling, and the list goes on. Often times I would pick convenience foods over fresh because it was easier to count. Another pitfall of strict calorie counting.

trouble with calorie counting- sabra hummus

Half a grapefruit, carrot sticks and Sabra hummus

A focus of solely calories also puts some really healthy foods at a disadvantage. Avocado, for example. It is not a low calorie food, but its rich in vitamins and minerals, provides necessary healthy fat for the body and keeps you satiated. A big bang for your calorie buck.

trouble with calorie counting- sweet potato chili

Sweet Potato Chili topped with avocado, sour cream and cilantro

Overall I think calorie counting can be beneficial, but when it becomes obsessive, all those benefits are negated. Food begins to rule your life and you find yourself googling menu items on your cell phone while out to dinner. Been there. It’s terribly annoying.

Once I began to use calorie counting as a guide and a learning tool, I found it helpful instead of obsessive and slowly transitioned into focusing on whole foods. Now, I don’t have calorie counts swirling through my head when I sit down to enjoy a glass of vino.

trouble with calorie counting- wine

…and it makes it taste SO much better.

Let’s chat. What are your thoughts on counting calories?

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Comments

  1. says

    I used to be very strict with counting calories (which helped me lose the 60 pounds!) but now, years after the weight loss, I try not to focus on it as much and instead look at the overall quality of the food. I think it’s a great way for people to start loosing weight but I couldn’t imagine doing it for the rest of my life (For all of the great reasons you listed above!)
    Erica recently posted..5 Minute Calorie Blasting Video & Gymboss GiveawayMy Profile

  2. says

    I fully agree with you. In the beginning I too have obsessively counted calories and exercised my butt off to burn those calories. Whenever I ate something or saw food and did not know their calorie intake, I would grab my phone and researched it. It became an obsession and took over my whole life.
    Luckily one day, I just decided not to anymore. I started eating clean foods most of the time and exercised without any indication as to how many calories I burn. Just sore muscles, like the class you did yesterday.
    I’m now more happier than ever. Enjoying foods and life the way it should be.
    blackhuff recently posted..I have no clue and it’s around the cornerMy Profile

    • says

      Sounds like we have the exact same experience! Though it can be helpful, I found myself sometimes adding up calories in my head at parties and it took away some of the joy for me!

  3. says

    I really appreciated this post this morning…While I haven’t counted calories in awhile, I’ll admit the thought had crossed my mind again lately. With stopping breastfeeding I have noticed a few pounds creep back on and that coupled with training for a half marathon I ran over the weekend, I think I was consuming more food than I need to lately. I find that when I start to notice my pants fitting a little tighter, the former dieter in me tends to immediatley want to take drastic measures, but I know mentally that is not a good idea for me. I am actually going to be starting a new weight lifting plan in the next few weeks and along with it comes a diet plan. I plan to use the diet for ideas of clean eating, but I don’t plan to follow it 100%, I know all to well what my former disordered eating self would do with too much structure. I just appreciated the reminder that I know I am capable to eat intuitively!

    • says

      I feel ya, Katie! If I have a few days in a row where I feel heavier or my pants are tight, part of me thinks uh-oh should I count again? I push that thought aside for a day or two and focus on clean eating and it all sorts itself out. Much better for me mentally, too!

  4. says

    I used to be obsessed with calorie counting. And if something didn’t have a label or wasn’t easy to measure, I would overestimate “just in case.” Not good! I did lose a lot of weight fast but it was such an unhealthy and dangerous way of living. And I paid for it for years. I’m glad to say that no I longer obsessively count calories, rather I eat a lot of fruits and veggies, good quality protein, whole grains, and dark chocolate (A LOT of dark chocolate). This way of eating is working out much better – both physically and mentally. Great post!
    Parita @ myinnershakti recently posted..A Little GlimpseMy Profile

  5. Erin says

    I am a big fan of calorie counting. I think it is useful and very important in trying to lose weight. I am a firm believer that weight loss is 80% diet and 20% exercise. So often people complain that they can’t lose weight when the truth is they are overeating and have no clue or are just choosing to not have a clue. Even overeating healthy foods can derail weight loss.

    I know for me that even when I am watching what I eat and think I am eating right I still tend to eat more than I should for weight loss. Tracking my calories helps me see where I ate too much, how calories added up as well as letting me know where my calories are coming from. It also helps me make better choices on what I eat, for example, say I ate a piece of cake at a party I can add that in and see that I need to balance it out with a lighter dinner. I do strive for the day when I lose my pregnancy weight and have eating habits that allow me to be more mindful of eating to the point where I no longer need to count calories. I think that is a healthy place to be.

    • says

      Hey Erin! Sounds like we like calorie counting for the exact same reasons, like when trying to reach a weight loss goal. I used to work with clients (health coaching) and it’s amazing to see their eyes light up when they start tracking their food and all the extra calories that sneak in, so in those situations I, too, think it’s really helpful! I also agree that weight loss is 80% (if not 90%!) diet :)

  6. Kelli says

    I have to agree with Erin I am a big calorie counter it helps me stay on track. Don’t get me wrong I eat a lot of chocolate and healthy food as well I just guesstimate if I don’t know the exact calorie content. I have been the same weight for 10 years and 2 Pregnancies, I think its great for some and not so great for others.

    • says

      Awesome- sounds like it’s worked so well for you! I’m impressed with your ability to stick so well with it and not let it become obsessive. I had trouble with that after a while, which is why I had to find another way. Thanks for sharing!

  7. says

    I totally agree with you. I struggle with getting to a healthy weight, and lean cuisines are so handy, yet so impractical for the long term. I’m a 24 year old female so it would be easy to keep microwaving my meals, but at the same time I want to learn good healthy recipes now so that when I have a family I can “whip up a healthy dinner” thanks for being a great inspiration and not just telling us what is the tastiest “heat and eat” meal.
    Katie recently posted..How You Doin’?My Profile

  8. says

    I think calorie counting works for some and is a very slippery slope for others. For me, when I was losing weight, I used it for the first week or so to simply gain an idea about how many calories the foods I was commonly eating had. But I could feel the obsessiveness coming on, and after a week I quit and focused on eating filling meals and not snacking.

    For people who genuinely are unaware of the calorie counts of their food, I think it can be great and very eye-opening but once it becomes all consuming, that’s probably when it’s time to stop.
    Megan recently posted..A Dog’s PaceMy Profile

  9. says

    I think having a good general overview of what you’re eating is a good idea and after years of strict calorie counting myself I’m sure you’re the same in that you instinctively know the general calorie content of foods and their quantities without too much thought these days. It’s not good to obsess about it but having a balanced perspective to ensure you’re not over eating is important.
    Michelle@Peachy Palate recently posted..A simple revisitMy Profile

  10. says

    Great post! I definitely still find myself “trying” to count calories, after going through an eating disorder, but I know as long as I honour my hunger and eat when I’m hungry, stop when I’m full, and eat whole foods that aren’t processed I’m sure my body will be healthy no matter what. Sometimes, I do start to count again just to make sure I’m eating enough, but I try not to. I used to always only do cardio because it burned more, didn’t even care that strength training was healthy for my body, I just wanted to burn more calories. Um yah, glad that has changed around! Strength training is amazing!
    Lisa recently posted..What I Ate WednesdayMy Profile

    • says

      I used to be really into cardio, too because I didn’t understand how strength could define the body and make it look so much better than just being skinny! Like you said, glad that’s changed! :)

  11. says

    I don’t mind at all that you write about this a lot, I love it! I think calorie counting can lead to problems for many of women. I have a history with those issues, but even recently I was using myfintesspal, and would get stressed out when I wasn’t sure how many calories I ate (homemade stuff, etc)…or when my workout wasn’t on myfitnesspal — how do I count Insanity? I am not too focused on losing weight, however, so I understand this may be different for everyone. For me, taking a journal without necessarily counting is good for me because I can still track (and I already have a good idea of what calories are in my food).
    Jess@atasteofconfidence recently posted..That’s when I miss you…My Profile

  12. says

    Counting calories works when done correctly and with an emphasis on whole foods, but that being said, it makes mean :) I get frustrated with it and it doesn’t make me happy. Instead, I try to very roughly estimate how many calories I’ve had in a day. Light breakfast and light lunch? I have a more filling dinner. It seems to work at keeping me in balance, but without the frustration that comes from charting calories. And my husband likes me better this way :)

    • says

      Haha, I used to drive people nuts, too, by saying annoying things like “do you know how many calories are in those fries?” – I’m surprised anyone hung out with me! :)

  13. says

    First, let me just say you could always ask for nutritional information if you need it. Since I’m such a small business, I don’t have to put it on, so I like using the space for pretty designs and logos. :) The calories ARE about the same as regular nut butter, though.

    Anyways, I waffle back and forth on the issue. I have counted calories for so long that I instinctively seem to know how many are in most foods. Once you can eyeball portions it is easier. I don’t know if it is good or bad to do, but on the one hand, it does keep portions in check. I don’t choose convenience foods over whole foods in order to know “for sure” how many calories are in something, because I feel like they might not be 100% accurate anyway. (Just like the exercise machines are up to 25% off I have heard!) It helps me eat MORE if I haven’t eaten enough during the day, but it can also become like a mental ‘game’ if you will. I think it definitely is important to remember nutritional value over calories.

    I’m rambling. I think it works for some people and not for others. There is freedom from numbers, but it can also be a good tool for keeping yourself in check.
    Sarah @ The Smart Kitchen recently posted..Goop! (There It Is…) [WIAW]My Profile

    • says

      Yes, the mental game is what used to get me sucked in. Found it wasn’t good for my sanity, though I’m not against checking in with a calorie count every now and then.

      PS- I like the design and pretty logo taking up the space instead of numbers :)

  14. Rachel Starr says

    In the recent months, I’ve actually found calorie counting to be really helpful! For the first 20 years of my life I was very very slim. Like, barely 100lbs when I graduated high school. It was my natural state & there was no disordered eating. It was just the way I was built.

    Obviously, as I got older & eventually had kids, my body changed. I always exercised but couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t drop the extra pounds. My sister told me about the MyFitnessPal app. It’s an awesome (FREE!) app that helps you keep track of your food intake & exercise. You can even scan food packaging bar codes to add to your daily tally. See, I’ve never had to diet before. So I was continually underestimating my daily caloric intake. By tracking my calories, I was able to see, in black & white, where I could cut back. I sound like a spokesperson for them, but I swear, I’m not!

    I’m not looking to be 100lbs again. That’s just not realistic. But I’m within a few pounds to where I was pre-kids. So calorie counting works for me.

    • says

      I love calorie counting for the reasons you specified! I think it’s great that it works so well for you. I’ve heard a lot of people say good things about myfitnesspal, too. Maybe they should look into hiring you as a spokes person ;)
      I get too obsessive with it if I try to do it long term, but I love to check in every now and then our of curiosity and figure how many calories I’ve eaten in a day!

  15. says

    I used to calorie count but then I’d go get so frustrated if I used up all my calories by 3pm. Now I’ve learned though that not all calories are created equal and I’m more focused on eating a balanced diet:)
    Kelsey recently posted..Holiday DessertMy Profile

  16. Dukebdc says

    When I was in my 20s, I would use calorie counting as a sort of punishment. “No, you can’t eat that,” was pretty much my mantra when I was dieting. I’m not implying I had an eating disorder (don’t want to minimize the devastating impact of EDs), but like you mentioned, I ate a lot of packaged food because it had a label and was easy to count. However, I never calculated how many calories I burned in exercise. There are very few ways to count accurately, and I never planned to “eat back” any exercise calories because I worked out for general health, and not endurance sports.

    I’m in my 30s now, and after maintaining my goal weight for 5 years, I started creeping up last year (I got married and lost my job and both took a toll on my waistline). So I went back to calorie counting, with a new attitude this time. I use way more fresh fruits and veggies now. What’s great about a lot of veggies is that they are so low in calories that you really don’t have to be super-accurate in weighing or portioning. Tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, spinach, cucumber, mushrooms, etc., all fall in this category.

    What I do still track carefully are the “extras.” I love butter, and have to go back to the package to measure out exactly one tablespoon so I know I’m staying honest. The same is true for ice cream, candy, cheese, bread–basically anything that can be calorically dense without necessarily filling you up. After years of practice, I know that when I make a salad I should measure the beans, olive oil, and dried cranberries but can dump spinach, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, vinegar and strawberries on to my heart’s content. So I guess I follow a hybrid practice that works for me!

  17. says

    I used to calorie count all the time & I just think it uses too much brain power when life is about sooooo much more!
    My new theory is:
    Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full!
    Our bodies don’t use the same number of calories everyday anyway so we can’t really determine our needs by an arbitrary number!

  18. says

    I used to be really strict with calorie counting too. Now, I still have the numbers running through my head (I’m not sure that will ever change), but I do listen to my body way more than I used to. If I’m hungry, I eat. No “but I don’t have any calories left!”

    Right now I’m on myfitnesspal, but I use it more to track my macronutrients than anything else. I have to be super cautious about getting enough protein and fiber. The calories don’t matter quite as much.

  19. says

    I used to calorie count everything that passed my lips last spring…my wedding was in June and I was focusing on getting down to a weight I wanted to be at (I realize how stupid that sounds, trust me). Despite the fact that I was eating very well (probably a 90/10 diet with mostly whole foods) and exercising well each day, it really started to mess with my head!
    I would get really obsessive about it and couldn’t stand it when I didn’t know how many calories something was (going out to eat drove me crazy).
    Now, I don’t calorie count. I do the best I can to give my body (and mind sometimes, aka dark chocolate) what it needs.
    As an alternative, somedays I literally write down all of the foods I eat in a day and go through and highlight the wholesome, healthy foods so I can take a look at what I’m eating more so than how much I’m eating.
    Danica @ It’s Progression recently posted..my struggle: is it enough?My Profile

  20. says

    I count calories once in a while to make sure I am eating enough while pregnant and nursing…although i can certainly see how it can be a slippery slope. There were days while nursing I’d eat 4500 calories and be like wow, isnt that way too much? But I was at a healthy weight, folloing my hunger cues, so my body must have needed it.
    lindsay @ fuelmyfamily recently posted..My Family’s “Kid Meal”My Profile

  21. says

    I definitely agree with you on this. Although calorie counting can be helpful in some situations, it often prevents us from enjoying our meals and life in general. I think the focus should instead be on putting real, whole foods into our bodies. And I am currently working my way through a jar of cookie dough Nutty Butter with a spoon. ;-)
    Gina @ Health, Love, and Chocolate recently posted..WIAW: Straight From the TubMy Profile

  22. says

    I love this. It’s similar to the issue I have with weight watchers. I think there are a lot of things they do right, but I have seen so many friends become obsessed with points of things instead of just focusing on eating real, healthy foods. Like you point out, sometimes if you’re counting calories it’s a lot easier to just go for foods that are labeled (which usually translates to less whole foods and more sodium, processed foods, etc.).
    Amanda @ Sistas of Strength recently posted..The Friday Five: Turkey (Burner) VersionMy Profile

  23. says

    I agree with you. Whenever I do it, I get obsessive, realize it, and then cut myself off. I think I can’t go without doing it, but it’s freeing and I’m actually able to pretty easily. Though I must say that at this point, I know most of my calories.
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  24. nicolelynn says

    Thanks so much for posting this. I have counted my calories every single day for 2 years now, with only missing maybe 4-5 times. I guess I’m obsessed with it! I have a fear of gaining even a little bit of weight, and with the pressure put on women to appear perfect is definitely a reason for this. I’ve been better lately at letting myself indulge in a few more calories here or there, usually as a reward for a hard workout. Your post about the dangers of obsessive calorie counting is just adding to my journey to overcome this fixation on only eating 1200 kcals and instead let myself go once in a while. Thanks for opening my eyes and adding to my inspiration!

  25. says

    I recently just started counting calories per my doctors request. No matter what I cannot lose weight and I need to. Until my thyroid ultrasound and blood test in December this is what I have to do. I get an alloted 1200 a day… and all day I am obsessing already. I can’t wait until I am able to make a transition like you have from calorie counting to eating whole food.

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  30. says

    Calorie counting seems like it gives people control. If you burn more than you take in you will lose weight. This strategy is too time consuming to really work in practice though. If you eat the right things you don’t need to count anything and you can enjoy your life
    Leah W recently posted..Breakfast for Fast Weight LossMy Profile

Trackbacks

  1. […] Janice Bremis was stunned the day her husband came home and announced that, after six years of marriage, he was moving out. When he did finally pack up and rent a room from a friend, Bremis had to come to terms with the fact that the relationship was over. As her steady life radically changed, the 41-year-old latched onto the only activity that gave her any sense of stability: strict calorie counting. […]

  2. […] Janice Bremis was stunned the day her husband came home and announced that, after six years of marriage, he was moving out. When he did finally pack up and rent a room from a friend, Bremis had to come to terms with the fact that the relationship was over. As her steady life radically changed, the 41-year-old latched onto the only activity that gave her any sense of stability: strict calorie counting. […]

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