Six reasons why calorie counting does not serve you
Why you need to stop calorie counting and get your life back
Nutritional information, including calorific quantities, are indicated on almost all of the packaged food we buy in a supermarket or store. Because of this, many of us have experienced calorie counting and tracking at some point in our lives.
Research shows that two-thirds of women in the UK know how many calories they eat in a single day, and so it may play a significant factor in food behaviours. (1) We know that dietary restrictions and rules can contribute to binge eating (2) with studies showing a strong link between perfectionist behaviours and eating disorder pathology. (3)
With the current debate around whether restaurants should introduce calorific content on their menus or not, we thought we would provide our thoughts on why using calories as a measure of diet quality may not be the best idea on a journey towards intuitive eating and body empowerment.
ONE: You do not need to “earn” food
Calorie counting can contribute to creating rewarding and restricting behaviours around food and exercise. This can lead to a more challenging relationship with food as we may label certain foods as good and bad or healthy and unhealthy according to their calorie content. (4)
Have you ever ordered a portion of “dirty fries” and felt guilty afterwards? The language we use around food plays a significant impact in how we perceive foods. (4) Remind yourself that food is a fundamental human right, and a number should not dictate otherwise.
See foods from a neutral perspective and incorporate the foods you enjoy into your diet. Think of the energy they give your body, allowing you to move, speak, learn, and interact with the world around you.
TWO: Our calorie intakes and needs may vary from day to day.
Have you attended a wedding, birthday, or even Christmas and felt like you wanted to try everything? Similarly, have you felt poorly, weak and not up for eating? Or prepared for an important exam and noticed your appetite going through the roof?
Our bodies are constantly experiencing different stimuli, which continuously impact our hunger and fullness cues. It is entirely normal to have a higher or lower appetite, like how we may have a busier and quieter or good or bad day.
Food has a substantial emotional value, and in periods of grief and difficulty, it is perfectly normal to want to use food as a crutch to help us through difficult times. Calorie counting may put unnecessary stress and blame on ourselves during this time, which can exacerbate an already challenging situation.
Instead, allow yourself to enjoy foods that feel good in your unique self and appreciate the comfort and satisfaction they may bring.
THREE: Food provides nutritional AND emotional nourishment
Maybe you were about to add a side of protein or fat to your dish, but after looking at the calorific content, decided not to? A carbohydrate focused meal can be delicious and nourishing, but may not be as satiating as a meal with a balance of protein and fats included, too.
Remember that all foods contain some nutrition, and putting them on pedestals by calorie or nutrition content can create more guilt and anxiety around eating. Some foods are more nutrient-dense than others, but this doesn’t mean it serves no purpose in our diet.
For example – kale may be seen as a nutrient-dense, low-calorie, leafy green – packed with iron, folate and vitamin K. When we compare it to a cookie – initially, we may think a cookie has zero nutritional value.
However, cookies provide energy and flour fortified with B vitamins, folate, calcium, and iron. Furthermore, looking at calories only undermines the tremendous role food plays in emotional nourishment. (4)
Ensuring that a range of food groups are included on your plate(s) can make meals and snacks more satisfying as well as nutritious, keeping you fuller for longer.
Remember – focus on the nutrients, not numbers!
FOUR: Actual calorie amounts and requirements vary anyway
Did you know that the calories in your food vary by a huge number of factors, including (and not limited to):
- Location grown
- Soil quality
- Agricultural methods
- Species/variety of the food
- Visual differences
- The way we eat the food
- Our gut microbiome
All of the above means that it can be nearly impossible to calculate the specific calorie content of foods and how much energy we individually obtain from them. (5) Standard calorific estimates are based on complex calculations taken many years ago, which are still used today, and may have some variation given the environmental and societal changes since.
Furthermore, many countries use general guidelines for our calorie needs – often one number for adult women, men, and children. This puts a population of millions into a limited number of categories when in fact, we are all unique. In addition, our individual needs, genetics, socioeconomics and habits probably create a disparity that is often overlooked.
FIVE: It’s not sustainable.
Many of us know what it’s like to log into MyFitnessPal or similar apps after a meal and log everything we’ve eaten. It can be time-consuming and increase time spent thinking about food.
Research on MyFitnessPal shows that it tends to underestimate ingestion in nutrients due to database discrepancies for certain nutrients. (6,7) There is also a high correlation between usage of the app and high levels of eating disorder pathology and symptomatology. (8) In one study, 73% of app users believed the app to contribute to their eating disorder. (9) You can read more about the research on fitness trackers here.
Tracking our calories at the end of every meal or day can also be tiring when meals should be satisfying and stress-free. Tracking your calories adds another step to this process, affecting your enjoyment of the meal, and you deserve to be free from this added pressure.
SIX: You are so much more than a number.
You are doing incredible work on yourself every day, and none of that should be overridden by a few numbers. Remember, you are not what you eat, and this should not and does not define you. Stay fierce and fabulous!
Priya Chotai, BSc ANutr
EHL Team x
- Mintel. ‘Brits lose count of their calories: Over a third of Brits don’t know how many calories they consume on a typical day.’ Mintel.com [Internet]. [cited 2nd Jun 2021]. Available from: https://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/brits-lose-count-of-their-calories-over-a-third-of-brits-dont-know-how-many-calories-they-consume-on-a-typical-day
- Shafran R, Cooper Z, Fairburn CG: Clinical perfectionism: A cognitive-behavioural analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 2002, 40: 773-791. 10.1016/S0005-7967(01)00059-6.
- Bardone-Cone AM, Wonderlich SA, Frost RO, Bulik CM, Mitchell JE, Uppala S, Simonich H: Perfectionism and eating disorders: Current status and future directions. Clinical Psychology Review. 2007, 27: 384-405. 10.1016/j.cpr.2006.12.005.
- Thomas L. Just Eat It: How intuitive eating can help you get your shit together around food. London: Bluebird; 2019: 314-316.
- Dunn R. Everything you know about calories is wrong. Sci Am. 2013 Sep;309(3):56-9. doi: 10.1038/scientificamerican0913-56. PMID: 24003555.
- Evenepoel C, Clevers E, Deroover L, Van Loo W, Matthys C, Verbeke K. Accuracy of Nutrient Calculations Using the Consumer-Focused Online App MyFitnessPal: Validation Study. J Med Internet Res. 2020 Oct 21;22(10):e18237. doi: 10.2196/18237. PMID: 33084583; PMCID: PMC7641788.
- Teixeira V, Voci SM, Mendes-Netto RS, da Silva DG. The relative validity of a food record using the smartphone application MyFitnessPal. Nutr Diet. 2018 Apr;75(2):219-225. doi: 10.1111/1747-0080.12401. Epub 2017 Dec 27. PMID: 29280547.
- McCaig D, Elliott MT, Prnjak K, Walasek L, Meyer C. Engagement with MyFitnessPal in eating disorders: Qualitative insights from online forums. Int J Eat Disord. 2020 Mar;53(3):404-411. doi: 10.1002/eat.23205. Epub 2019 Nov 25. PMID: 31762064.
- Levinson, CA., Fewell L and Brosof, LC (2017) ‘My Fitness Pal Calorie Tracker Usage in the Eating Disorders’ Eating Behaviours, pp.14-16. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2017.08.003