Why Calorie Counting Doesn’t Work: A Rant

By Marsha Hudnall on 07/12/2010
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Why calorie counting makes you fat | Counting calories leads to weight gainNews flash:  Many Americans are clueless of how many calories they do or should eat. This according to a headline in USA Today, based on a recent survey of over 1,000 Americans.

My question:  who cares?

It’s irrelevant whether Americans are clueless about calories.  Because trying to know how many calories we do and “should” eat is an exercise in futility. And the struggle can make things worse.

Here’s why:

  • We can’t really know how many calories are in what we eat. The calorie count listed on a food label or chart is an estimation based on averages.  “Average” means there are differences, and that means any one piece or package of food can have more or fewer calories than a label or calorie chart says. Food labeling regulators know this, and actually allow a 20% difference in calories up or down from what’s listed on the label.  While many might argue the exact number of calories isn’t important, consider what happens when someone thinks she is eating the “right” amount but is actually getting more.  If that happens consistently, she could end up gaining weight.  If that seems far-fetched, check out this article.
  • Foods also differ in how efficiently they are digested and absorbed. Case in point is nuts.  We don’t actually absorb the number of calories listed on the label for a serving of nuts.  There’s an inefficiency in how our bodies digest them, meaning that nuts are actually lower in calories than a label suggests.  In this case, if someone thinks she’s eating enough, but actually isn’t, she might end up getting too hungry, which almost always leads to overeating.
  • The number of calories we might need each day is also an estimation. We’d have to attach ourselves to a tool to constantly measure our calorie expenditure to really know what we’re burning.  That’s because the amount of calories we use at any one time is dependent on so many things, not the least of which is our individual metabolism. A calorie chart just can’t account for all the differences.

All this is why mindful eating is really the only way to go when it comes to trying to match our energy/calorie intake with our energy/calorie expenditure.  And our bodies are the only tool we need to do that.  Not that some of us don’t need to re-learn how to listen to and support our body’s ability to tell us when, what and how much to eat, but counting calories isn’t the way.  In fact, it interferes.*

It makes me want to cry.

Because counting calories (or points or fat grams or other numbers) continues to be a primary focus of the mainstream approach to ending weight struggles.  Bottom line: We continue to follow a path we’ve followed for the last 50 years, which clearly hasn’t taken us where we want to go.  And it’s a distraction from what can really help.

What can really help?

As I just said, mindful eating offers a different way.  But for mindful eating to work, we have to get accurate cues from our bodies.  Two findings from the survey mentioned above give me pause in that regard.

  • Interest in changing what we eat to improve our health and well-being is actually declining.
  • Interest in doing that to lose weight appears to be holding steady.

This can only spell trouble for our body’s ability to give us accurate cues about eating.  Weight loss practices in the past generally haven’t produced health, and health is the foundation for a well-functioning body.

Another bottom line:  The continued focus on weight loss instead of health forms the highway that the calorie counting path runs along.  It’s completely misplaced and almost guarantees failure at permanently achieving a healthy weight.

*I’m referring to the psychological impact of calorie counting, which adds another layer to why it doesn’t work.  Read a bit about that in some of the related posts below.

What do you think about all this?

4 Responses (Add Yours)

  • LorineB says:

    is it bad to eat celery if you are trying to survive?

  • Marsha says:

    Celery is a great food. It has lots of good nutrition. It also happens to be low in calories. That’s how food is — some are rich, some aren’t. That doesn’t make them good or bad. It just is what it is! What’s really important is how it makes us feel. If all we ate was celery, we probably wouldn’t feel so good. As part of balanced eating, though, it can be a great choice.

  • Mary says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. Much to consider. Isn’t it possible that counting calories is helpful to those who need to do so for accountability’s sake? Esp. those who are compulsive overeaters. I think the motivation behind it can vary, and that is what should be considered.

    I do count calories and I like that it keeps me honest about what I’m eating. But I do feel like I don’t trust my body or myself to tell me when I’m no longer hungry. I don’t want to risk letting my body be at the weight it ends up at. I don’t trust myself to go it alone. Or I don’t have the time to really sit down and pay attention to the feelings as I eat. I feel imprisoned and controlled, and for this control freak, that’s an interesting paradox.

    This is a big issue for me but I’m very interested in processing through these issues.

  • Marsha says:

    Thank you for exploring this with us, Mary. I completely understand the dilemma for compulsive eaters — the trust in the body’s ability to guide eating isn’t there yet…and maybe the body is out of balance, too. So initial steps may be needed to promote that balance and gain that trust. In my opinion, though, calorie counting just isn’t it. It doesn’t teach trust and often doesn’t lead to balance. We use the plate model at Green Mountain to help provide eating structure that can do both (http://www.fitwoman.com/support/fitbriefings/plate-model/). Then we work on listening to cues and exploring what else is going on that may be affecting our eating.

    Ultimately, though, Mary, your statement “I don’t want to risk letting my body be at the weight it ends up at” may confound your efforts. When we resist our body’s natural, healthy weight, we almost guarantee we are going to struggle with eating. Of course, all this is very individual and I don’t want to presume anything about you just by reading one comment on a blog. Are you working with anyone who can help you process this?

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