Navigating Calorie Counting: Key Considerations to Determine if It's Your Ideal Approach
Embracing the practice of calorie counting can appear to be a silver bullet, especially when you're on a mission to dodge weight gain or shed those extra pounds.Counting calories is often seen as a promising strategy for weight management, especially when there are specific health concerns involved, such as PCOS, insulin resistance, or fertility issues. While it can provide valuable insights and structure, it's essential to approach calorie counting with careful consideration. Rather than blindly following this method, take a step back and evaluate its potential impact on your overall well-being and whether it is a suitable approach for you.
It can be ‘addictive’ and have a negative impact on mental health
The act of calorie counting can sometimes morph into an ingrained habit that becomes incredibly challenging to break. It may even lead to obsessive thoughts, causing anxiety around food and eating-related situations (1). Instead of eagerly anticipating a friend's birthday celebration, you find yourself preoccupied with scrutinizing restaurant menus in advance, meticulously calculating calorie content. In some cases, individuals go to extremes and opt to avoid social gatherings involving food altogether. It's important to recognize that for many people, calorie counting encompasses far more than just numbers. Failing to adhere to the prescribed calorie limit can easily be interpreted as a personal "failure," contributing to diminished self-worth. This, in turn, raises the likelihood of emotional eating episodes or even full-blown binges.
Nobody knows (even not your phone or watch!) exactly how many calories you need
Determining the precise calorie requirements for each individual is an incredibly challenging task. Not only do our dietary needs differ from person to person, but they also fluctuate within ourselves over time—across days, weeks, and months. As an illustration, women who practice intuitive eating may consume up to 500 calories more per day during the week leading up to their menstrual period compared to the follicular phase (the initial stage of the cycle) (2). Energy needs can vary from one menstrual cycle to another, and no app, scale, watch, or healthcare provider can accurately pinpoint the exact number of calories you need. Additionally, the number of calories your body burns is influenced by factors such as your activity level, body temperature, external temperature, and even the timing or spacing of your meals. So, it's evident that calorie counting alone cannot provide a complete and accurate picture of your unique energy requirements.
It’s impossible to accurately work out the calories in your food
Precisely calculating the calorie content of the food we consume is an impossible feat, even with the aid of books, apps, and scales! Fortunately, our bodies have a remarkable ability to handle these calculations for us. However, for women struggling with disordered eating patterns like emotional eating, binge eating, or cycles of restriction and overeating, trusting their hunger and fullness cues can feel incredibly daunting. It's important to acknowledge that engaging in repetitive dieting and disordered eating behaviors can dull the subtle signals of hunger and fullness, making it more challenging for our bodies to regulate food intake in the future. This, in turn, increases the susceptibility to overeating and may trigger heightened anxiety regarding our food consumption. But fret not, as there is good news. The ability to reconnect with our hunger and fullness cues can be regained. It typically involves establishing a solid foundation of balanced nutrition, comprehending the emotional and other triggers behind our eating habits, and reestablishing a genuine awareness of what it truly feels like to be hungry and satisfied.
Three Steps to End the Calorie Counting Cycle
The act of calorie counting may provide a sense of temporary reassurance, but in the long run, it fosters an unhealthy fixation on food content, leading to rigidity and obsession. Regrettably, when individuals decide they want to break free from this cycle, the anxiety surrounding stopping this behavior and the ingrained habit often hinder their progress. If you find yourself trapped in this cycle, here are three steps you can take to initiate positive change.
Establish a solid foundation for meeting your nutritional needs.
If you lack confidence in determining the appropriate composition of your diet, struggle to trust your hunger or fullness cues, or have specific health requirements, seeking assistance in this area might be necessary.
Cook from scratch and use whole-foods most of the time.
If you rely on ultra-processed foods a lot, you might find it difficult to notice when you reached your fullness; it’s so easy to eat more! Ultra-processed foods are often very palatable, with the perfect fat to sugar or salt ratio, the right crunch or perfect mouthfeel - they are designed to be irresistible, so no wonder most people overeat them.
Gradually reduce reliance on calorie counting.
Some people can go ‘cold turkey’ when it comes to stopping calorie counting, but some will need to do it more gradually to not feel overwhelmed or ridden by anxiety. Start with one meal a day and make a plan for moving forward. You may not unlearn the calorie information, but you can stop it affecting your thoughts and behaviors as you practice not buying into the thoughts when they pop up. Every time you fight off the urge to count calories, the habit will become weaker and easier to eliminate.
- Jebeile H, McMaster CM, Johnson BJ, Garnett SP, Paxton SJ, Seidler AL, Jones RA, Hill AJ, Maguire S, Braet C, Dammery G, Wilfley DE, Baur LA, Lister NB, On Behalf Of The Eating Disorders In Weight-Related Therapy Edit Collaboration. Identifying Factors Which Influence Eating Disorder Risk during Behavioral Weight Management: A Consensus Study. Nutrients. 2023 Feb 22;15(5):1085.
- Campolier, M., Thondre, S., & Lightowler, H. (2015). Resting metabolic rate and the menstrual cycle. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 74(OCE1), E29. doi:10.1017/S0029665115000440