The pitfalls of calorie counting and what to do instead
March 7, 2022

The pitfalls of calorie counting and what to do instead

Rachel Wadsley, PhD

It’s been drilled into our heads that calorie counting is essential for getting healthy. Calories in vs. calories out, right? Well, that’s just plain old wrong! Yes, the food we eat matters but it’s not that simple. Health and healthy eating are complex.  

Calorie counting can lead to obsessive thoughts and behaviors. Here we’ll explore some ways calorie counting fails us, what we can do instead, and what really influences how our bodies process food. 

Start listening to your body

It's easy to become obsessed with daily budgets. You stress over planning ahead to make sure everything fits just right into your budget. When your day gets off whack, and you’ve eaten too few or too many calories, it’s panic time. You either scramble to eat more food or brace yourself for having an apple and some carrots for dinner because that's all you’re “allowed.”

When we obsess over calorie counting, we lose touch with our body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. Before you eat something, whether it’s mealtime or grabbing a snack, ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” 

Physical signs of hunger include physical discomfort in your stomach, tummy growls, being lightheaded, or feeling a bit drained. Other signs of hunger include irritability (I’m sure we’ve all been “hangry”) or trouble concentrating. 

Your body will also let you know when it’s full. Often, we eat too fast to notice this, or we just ignore it. Slow down and allow your body time to catch up. Put your fork down in between bites, sip water during your meal, and tune into how your energy level and mental clarity are affected. 

Don’t put food on a pedestal

Let’s get this out of the way right now. There is no good food, bad food, or “free foods” you can eat as much as you want of. Food is food. Yes, some foods are more nutritious, but just because a food is high in calories or fat doesn’t mean it’s terrible. And there is no food you must 100% cut out of your life. 

When you get into the mindset of good food vs. bad food, it’s easy to get obsessed with eating perfectly. This is when the idea of treats and cheats pops in. You know what I mean. How many times has Saturday become a “cheat day?” 

The trick is treating food as… food. If you constantly avoid something you want because it’s not “good food,” you will continue to crave that food. You will not feel satisfied after eating the “good food” just because you “should” eat it, which can lead to overeating later and developing an unhealthy relationship with food. 

Appreciate food as both a source of fuel and pleasure. Enjoy the foods you like and balance them out with other nutrient-dense items that you also enjoy.  Leave the idea of treats and cheats at the door. When you’re craving something, let yourself enjoy it. 

While you're eating, be mindful of your hunger and fullness cues. You might also explore any emotions connected to this craving. Are you stressed or want to reward yourself? These nuggets of information can help you navigate your cravings and enjoy your favorite foods from a neutral perspective. 

Stop punishing yourself

Alright, raise your hand if you’ve ever jumped on the treadmill or popped on an exercise video because you overindulged on one of those bad foods or totally blew your budget. Or maybe you vowed to only have a salad tomorrow for dinner, no matter what, to make up for today’s slip. Don’t worry. I have my hand raised too. 

We’ve been conditioned to keep ourselves in check. If you want to reach a certain weight or be healthy, you need to watch the numbers!!! Well, sorry, that doesn’t really work. Over 80% of people who try to lose weight gain it back. 

This vicious cycle of restriction and obsession leads to punishing ourselves with extra exercise solely to work off those calories, restrictive eating, or a flood of negative emotions or thoughts. Instead, let’s commit to being a little kinder to ourselves. 

Try this exercise the next time you want to eat something “bad” (let’s say a cookie) and you feel the pressure mounting. Sit for a moment with the thoughts and emotions coming up. Picture your child (or yourself as a kid). 

If the kid version of you came up and wanted a cookie, would you be thinking and reacting in the same way? Would you say those thoughts to kid you? Would you make them do 5 more laps around the block? Probably not. Try having the same kindness and reaction with yourself. Enjoy the cookie.     

Embrace each day

There isn’t a single calorie budget that’s right for you or anyone to follow every day. Our calorie needs vary day by day based on many factors such as how active we are, how much sleep we get, or even our level of stress. 

Our levels of hunger also fluctuate. If you’re sick and not as active, you’ll need less food to fuel your body, and you won’t be as hungry. But if you’ve been walking a lot because the weather’s fantastic, then your body will need more nutrients to keep up, and you feel that surge in hunger. 

There isn't a way to create a cookie-cutter budget or meal plan to follow. Step away from the all-or-nothing mindset and listen to your body like we have talked about before.    

What really influences how you process calories?

What you eat

Calories are not created equal, and science can prove it. Researchers conducted a study looking at the impact of types of food on hunger and eating habits. They provided people with either highly processed foods or the same amount of calories in nutrient-dense whole foods. The folks who ate the processed food were hungrier sooner after meals and munched down on 500 extra calories each day compared to the other group. 

Good old metabolism

As we get older, we tend to become more aware of changes in our metabolism. We notice that our bodies become slower at processing what we eat. Our body composition changes and we reach what's called our set point. 

Each person has a different set point weight their body likes to maintain. If you try to gain or lose weight, the body fights back, ending up back where you started. 

This course correction your body does is caused by your metabolism speeding up or slowing down to get you back to that sweet spot it wants to be at. So even if you’re eating a “healthy” low-calorie diet, you might not see a quick change in your weight and bounce right back to your previous weight after stopping the restrictive eating.   

Gut bugs

Our guts are teeming with trillions of microorganisms. These microbiotas help your body absorb nutrients from food. When your gut bacteria are happy campers, they work efficiently and you get the maximum use out of the foods you eat. 

What's the catch? The types of bacteria most prevalent in your bodies will influence the foods you crave. Different foods can increase or decrease the type of bacteria in your digestive system. Unfortunately, not all of those bacteria play nice. Certain bacteria can promote healthy digestion and food absorption. At the same time, others can increase the risk of physical and emotional issues like hypertension and depression. 

Making the shift from the old model of calorie counting to intuitive eating can be a little overwhelming. If you’d like to try and need some extra support, sign up for a free trial with trainwell (formerly CoPilot). You’ll get a 1-on-1 fitness trainer who's also certified in nutrition coaching. Having a guide can make the shift easier. 

Are you ready to accept the challenge to be kinder to yourself? Sign up for trainwell now

Written by Rachel Wadsley, PhD

Explore more trainwell articles