It’s been a common question for ages, and for a lot of people practicing a healthier diet, counting calories leads to yo-yo dieting. On one hand, it’s helpful because it can provide structure with real numbers, whereas on the other hand, it can cause people to obsess about what they’re eating, negatively impacting their long-term health and fitness goals.
We count calories now by reading food labels, menus at restaurants and measuring out serving sizes. With that in mind, you’re probably asking again whether or not it’s “better” to count calories. Because it’s a personal choice that depends on your own specific needs, here’s some insight into the question to help lead you to your answer.
So, Should You Count Calories?
THE “YES” SIDE
KNOW HOW MANY DAILY CALORIES YOU NEED
Do you know how many calories you need in a day? If you’re conscious about what you eat, you probably ballpark the amount you need, or have seen the recommended 2,000 calories a day at restaurants and grocery stores, but chances are, you don’t know the actual number. According to WebMD, a survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation reported that 67 percent of Americans consider calorie count when making food purchases, yet nine out 10 people have no idea how many calories they actually need.
Everyday Health says that your daily caloric number depends on your age, sex, weight, height and how physically active you are. If you’re someone that works better with this specific type of structure, then consult with a dietitian first before blindly beginning a fitness journey.
PROVIDES STRUCTURE WITH WEIGHT LOSS
For people with very specific weight loss goals or who just think more analytically, it could benefit them to count their calories. According to an interview between dietitian Lauren Popeck and Shape Magazine, sometimes counting calories is easier than understanding the benefits of complex foods. Shape Magazine also says that many people consume way more calories than they even realize, and when someone hits a plateau during their weight-loss journey, counting calories can help someone determine what they need to cut back on or eat more of, to ultimately keep them in check.
MORE AWARENESS WITH HABITS AND BEHAVIORAL CHANGE
According to Shape Magazine, this is where stress and emotional eaters can benefit from counting calories. It’s natural for many people to turn to food when they’re either bored, stressed or upset. In many of these instances, calories can really stack up without us even thinking about it. If we know the calorie count of something, even during these emotional states, we can actively choose an alternative coping mechanism or simply swap a high-calorie food for something that’s a little lighter.
THE “NO” SIDE
FOOD LABELS AREN’T ALWAYS ACCURATE
It’s more well-known for restaurants to display inaccurate numbers on their menus, but according to Time Magazine and the FDA, counting accurate calories might be impossible because the number displayed on food labels is actually 20 percent higher.
The TODAY Show also conducted an experiment back in 2017 about whether or not restaurant menus display accurate numbers. A lot of their results showed lower numbers compared to what was displayed on certain menus, but TODAY also came to the conclusion that even though this was the case, that means that there’s a likelihood for numbers to also be higher than what’s displayed on menus. Either way, the consumer wasn’t getting what they thought. Because of experiments like these, restaurants and major fast food chains display a calorie range under menu items.
Regardless if the calories are displayed on a menu, many people order with a “this or that” mentality and end up being incorrect about which choice is “healthier.” For example, someone who is trying to be food-conscious might order a salad instead of a hamburger at a restaurant, when all of a sudden, the salad comes out doused in bacon and ranch dressing, yet they thought they chose the healthier option because it was a “salad.” You don’t need to know the exact number of calories in either of those food choices to know that you just didn’t choose wisely. In a nutshell, you’re probably better off buying what you initially went to the store for or just ordering the hamburger with fries instead of making yourself crazy about what’s on the label.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY INSTEAD
This is something that is always a work in progress, especially when it comes to weight loss, because most of us just don’t do it until we are over-stuffed and lying on the floor like we just feasted for Thanksgiving. Lisa Moskovitz, a dietitian interviewed by Shape Magazine says that knowing a caloric range can be beneficial to anyone trying to be food-conscious, but not to rely on the numbers because they can disrupt your body’s hunger and fullness cues. If you feel shaky but you’re hydrated, it’s most likely time to eat. The time to stop is just before feeling “stuffed.” Focus on eating slower so that you can better detect these cues.
UNDERSTAND PORTION CONTROL
You listen to your body and know when it’s hungry and full, but you’re either staying stagnant at your weight or you’re gaining weight. Yes, this means that you’re consuming more calories than what your body actually needs and you’re not “burning off” enough as a result, but the physical calorie itself is not necessarily the bad guy in this situation. It’s more than likely your portion size. In this case, even eating too much of healthy foods can cause a plateau in your weight-loss journey, but that also doesn’t mean to go crazy and measure every little crumb of food that you put into your body either.
According to Shape Magazine, three ounces of meat is close in size to a deck of cards, one cup of veggies is equal to a medium-sized fist and a half cup of grains is about the size of your palm. Everyday Health says that a tennis ball is about the size of one cup, which is recommended for foods like pasta and cereal. It’s also better to snack a little throughout the day so you don’t overeat during “big” meals.
When you’re snacking, instead of mindlessly eating straight out of the container, use those approximate measurements or simply grab a small handful of something healthy like some almonds or vegetables. You don’t necessarily know how many calories you’re taking in, but it feels a lot more natural this way, and if you constantly practice this, it will become a part of your daily routine.
Come time for a main meal, Everyday Health suggests putting your food on smaller plates. A lot of the time, we eat the amount that we are used to because we’ve always been given large plates and have the mentality to fill up our plates, when in fact, that amount is more than what our bodies need. Everyday Health says to trick your mind into thinking there’s more food by filling up a smaller plate. A small plate can make portions look bigger, but you’ll end up consuming the amount your body actually needs.
QUALITY NOT QUANTITY
All foods are not created equal. In fact, many of us have the misconception that fat makes us fat, when in fact it’s actually high-processed foods that are digested quickly into sugar and raise our insulin levels, according to Health Magazine. When you eat highly-processed foods, the insulin that is released causes calories to store as fat, which leaves your body feeling unsatisfied and still hungry.
Foods high in fiber, protein and fat, which can typically have a normal or even greater number of calories satisfy the body longer. The calorie intake in this case does not matter because if you are filling your body with nutrient-rich foods, they get digested slower, which naturally makes you feel fuller longer and not needing to eat as much.
SOMETIMES YOU JUST DON’T WANT TO KNOW, AND THAT’S OKAY
Think about it this way: It’s Friday night. You’re out at an Italian restaurant with your friends. You’re most likely not going to whip out your calculator to track how many calories you’re going to consume that night, because chances are, it’s going to be more than usual and that’s completely normal–you’re at a restaurant, not in math class. You’re better off just allowing yourself to enjoy the evening because mentally, it’s better to know that indulging is part of a healthy fitness journey, and the less you beat yourself up for setbacks, the faster you’ll reach your long-term goals. When you decide to indulge, go into it with an open mind, accepting that it might set you back a little, allow yourself some wiggle room, enjoy the moment and get right back on track. We’re all human and practicing this is a lot more permanent than counting how many calories are in the pasta dish you just enjoyed.
IN CONCLUSION: BE MINDFUL, NOT OBSESSIVE
Whether or not you’re a calorie-counter, the ultimate takeaway is to use calories as a reference of being mindful, but not letting them consume your life choices. Unless specific to your needs and weight-loss journey, you’re most likely not going to count your calories in detail on a normal basis, and even if you are on a fitness journey, there are healthier ways to track your progress than through a calculator. For a more realistic approach, feed your body nutrient-rich foods without worrying about the numbers behind them, but also practice moderation by allowing yourself to indulge sometimes.