Calorie counting has been the gold standard of weight management for decades. But as we learn more about nutrition, and the effects of extreme dieting, it’s worth revisiting certain health truisms to ensure they’re actually, well, true.
First off, calories are a unit of energy measurement. In chemistry, the calorie is used to calculate how much energy is needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. In nutrition terms, calories estimate how much energy certain foods provide the body.
Calories are not inherently a bad thing. Your body uses the energy from food to power your everyday functioning, from physical activity to hormone production and digestion. A food higher in calories technically offers more energy, although there are some nuances here that we’ll get into in a sec. Excess calories that your body doesn’t need eventually get stored for later use as fat.
In order to lose weight, most experts recommend consuming fewer calories than you burn. This is called a calorie deficit. Calorie counting — where you track the calories of the foods you eat versus what you burn from exercise — can be a way to make this process easier. Once you establish your goal weight and caloric needs to hit that goal (online calculators can help), you can start logging the calorie counts of everything you eat and drink in a day.
However, there are definitely some pros and cons to calorie counting that you should be aware of before you try it yourself. And if you’re hungry for foods that actually support your weight loss journey, check out our Shape Shake.
Being aware of the calories you’re consuming can make it easier to reach your weight loss and fitness goals. Here are some of the potential benefits of calorie counting:
1. Calorie counting may help you lose weight
Restricting your calorie intake to consume less than what you burn through exercise and other physical activity is a widely-accepted method of weight loss. A 2015 study asked adults aged 21-51 restrict their calorie intake by 25 percent and tracked the results for two years. While most people were only able to cut about 12 percent of their calories, they still lost an average of 10 percent of their body weight compared to the control group. Follow-up research on the same population found that people who restricted their calories also enjoyed improved cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood sugar control.
2. It may help you be more aware of what you eat
It’s hard to know how many calories are in a food just by looking at it. And research shows that people typically underestimate a food’s calorie counts by around 175 calories. That’s a pretty significant number, especially if you’re trying to stick to a strict caloric intake. So the act of counting calories — with the help of nutrition labels, menu labels, and reference books — can help you get a slightly more accurate picture of what you’re consuming so you can make choices that better suit your needs. (There are limits, which we’ll get to shortly.)
Calorie-counting apps typically also help you track other nutritional information like protein, fats, and carbohydrates to give you a more holistic picture of what you’re eating.
3. Counting calories can help you build muscle mass
While a calorie deficit is necessary for weight loss, a higher calorie intake is essential for muscle gains. And again, counting calories can help you meet those goals. Just remember to stock up on protein to ensure your body has all the muscle-building amino acids it needs.
Having trouble getting enough protein in your diet? Try our delicious Plant-Based Protein Powder, which you can whirl into a smoothie, sprinkle onto your oatmeal, or sneak into other foods for an extra protein boost.
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What are the downsides of counting calories?
All that said, calorie counting is not a perfect method for losing weight or supporting health. As our understanding of nutrition science has evolved with better research, some experts and organisations have concerns about the potential consequences of calorie restriction in general, as well as the specific practice of calorie counting.
1. Not all calories are created equal
As mentioned earlier, calories can estimate how much energy a food will provide. However, a food’s calorie count doesn’t tell you the quality of that food, nor about the nutrition it provides. 100 calories of broccoli, for example, will impact your body a lot differently than 100 calories of potato chips, because it offers significantly more vitamins, fibre, and nutrients in that same 100 calories. If you’re not getting your calories from primarily nutritious sources that are well-rounded in their macronutrients, you run the risk of getting deficiencies or affecting your energy levels.
Indeed, a 2018 study comparing weight loss between people on low-carb diets and low-fat diets found, among other things, that the quality of food eaten may have been more important to weight loss than how much of it was eaten or just the type of diet.
Calories are estimates of the energy that a food will provide your body. Emphasis on the word estimate, as calorie counts on packaged foods can be pretty inaccurate. For example, a series of studies in 2018 found that the standard method for calculating calories in food is inaccurate for certain kinds of nuts, because they have fewer bioavailable calories than previously believed. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also allows for a fairly large margin of error (up to 20 percent) on nutrition labels, which studies have found leads to slightly higher calories per serving on some foods than advertised. You might log a snack as 100 calories when it actually might contain 120—which could inadvertently affect your weight loss goals.
Not even calorie counting apps are totally reliable. A 2019 study looked at 20 top calorie counting apps and found that over 65 percent of apps either over- or underestimated users’ calorie intake. So really, calorie counting should not be considered a hard science but rather an estimate at best.
3. Calculating calories is time consuming and limiting
All the steps that go into calorie counting can take up a lot of time. From researching the calorie content of different products to finding out what you need to eat, it’s a highly involved process that you need to be ready to take on. And it makes doing things like going out to eat, dinner parties with friends, holidays, and other social events incredibly difficult, since calorie counts aren’t always listed at restaurants (and certainly not at grandma’s dinner table). Some people may find that limiting and frustrating to deal with.
Counting calories on packaged food with a nutrition barcode is much easier to do than figuring out exactly what’s in a vegetable. All you have to do is scan it into the app and then you’re done! While it may seem easier, eating too many highly-processed foods may work against your goals. These types of products don’t always have the vitamins and macronutrients you need, while typically being higher in sugar and sodium—both of which in excess can negatively impact your health. And research shows that consuming lots of fast food and ultra-processed food may negatively impact your lifespan, cardiovascular health, and more.
5. Calorie counting may trigger or worsen disordered eating patterns
Tracking exactly what’s in your food can make people stressed or obsessive about food, which can fuel unhealthy behaviors. A study commissioned by Great Britain’s National Health Service found that focusing on calories led people to skip meals and avoid foods to meet their calorie goals. Research has also shown that there’s a strong association between tracking calories and eating disorder symptoms, at least in college students. (More research needs to be done to see if this is true in older adults.) Certain apps that help track calories might also worsen eating disorder symptoms.
6. Calories aren’t the only thing that affect your weight
Calorie restriction can help some people lose weight, but how successful it is depends on a lot of factors that affect your weight. Genetic makeup plays a big role, and can cause weight differences even between identical twins who eat the same amount of calories. Prescription medications (including hormonal birth control) and underlying health conditions (such as polycystic ovarian syndrome) can also impact your weight and make it harder to lose weight through calorie restriction alone.
There’s also research that suggests calorie restriction might not be a successful long-term weight loss strategy, as it can trigger metabolism and appetite changes that cause you to gain the weight back. There’s a lot of mixed research in general when it comes to weight loss, so certainly more robust studies are needed to better understand the longer-term effects of calorie restriction.
How to Know if Calorie Counting Is Right for You
Whether or not you choose to count calories is entirely up to you. If you’re not sure, always check in with your doctor or trusted health provider before making any major changes to the way you eat to ensure that you’re still getting the nutrients you need. (If you have a history of disordered eating, you should not track calories, cut food groups, or engage in other restrictive food behaviors.)
Whether you choose to keep track of calories or not, staying in tune with your body is of the utmost importance. Learn about the food that makes you feel the best, both physically and emotionally. Check in with yourself after each meal.
As you start to figure out what works best for you, try to eat more of the foods that make you feel good and cut back on the ones that don’t. Combine this with regular physical activity and you’ll be able to maintain a healthy weight without needing to count calories.
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1Lucan, S. & DiNicolantonio, J. (2015). How calorie-focused thinking about obesity and related diseases may mislead and harm public health. An alternative. Public Health Nutrition, 18(4), 571-581. doi:10.1017/S1368980014002559↩