So, you’ve just learned how to set your weight loss goals. But, if there’s any suggestion that seems to always come up in a conversation around healthy weight loss, it’s calorie counting. Mention you’re looking to shed a few pounds, and everyone from your barista to your mother-in-law recommends tracking your calories.
Maybe you’ve already tried it yourself.
With all this talk about tracking your food intake, it’s natural to wonder to yourself, “should I count calories?” It may be tempting to jump into the habit right away. But before you do, it’s important to have a complete understanding of the advantages and drawbacks.
We’ll be explaining calories, calorie counting, and its effectiveness on weight management. Let’s dive in.
Anytime you eat a serving of a packaged food, you’ll find the nutrition facts listed. And the biggest, boldest piece of writing on the label almost always says one thing: calories.
But what exactly are calories? And why do they matter? Because these questions shed some light on the practice of calorie counting, we’ll start this conversation with a thorough examination of the calorie.
A calorie is a unit of energy. However, the “calorie” that we know from the side of the cereal box is actually a kilocalorie (kcal for short). That means that there are 1,000 calories in every “calorie” listed on your food.
But don’t worry—when you’re counting calories, you’re really counting kilocalories. We just call them calories for the sake of simplicity. From here on out, you can assume that “one calorie” is referring to a kilocalorie.
One calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water (that’s about a quarter of a gallon) one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Instead of using that energy to heat water, your body is using it to operate.
At first, scientists measured calories using a bomb calorimeter. By burning food and observing the temperature change in a surrounding water tank, chemists were able to determine the total amount of calories in any given food.
Nowadays, calories are calculated indirectly based on the carbohydrates, fats, and lean protein found in food.
As mentioned, your body uses calories to keep you going throughout the day. Many of your daily calories are allotted to basic functions such as:
Sustaining brain function
The rate at which your body consumes energy for these fundamental needs is called your basal metabolic rate.
Aside from the basics, your body also uses calories to digest food and power any physical activity. When people say that exercise “burns calories,” they’re referring to the fact that exertion uses up the calories you get from food and drink. Anything from walking to cycling to skiing requires calories.
In short, everyone needs calories to move—and, more importantly, to survive.
The concept of counting calories hinges on a single assertion: if you consume fewer calories than you expend, you’ll lose weight. Advocates of calorie counting claim that by tracking the calories you consume in a day, you’ll know what kind of physical activity you need to do (if any) to counteract those calories.
There is some logic behind the idea, as excess calories are stored in the body as fat.
In general, someone who counts calorie content will record every meal, snack, and drink into a journal or an app. When starting this process, they might set a goal for the number of calories they want to consume in a day. From there, they can eat and drink as normal, provided they don’t surpass their daily calorie limit. Calorie counting is also one of the ways on how to overcome weight loss plateau.
Generally, there are two ways to count calories:
Calorie limit – Adhering to a calorie limit will generally encourage the calorie counter to eat low-calorie foods throughout the day, as hitting the quota by 2 p.m. means a growling stomach for the rest of the evening.
Meal plans – The other method of calorie counting involves creating a meal plan that encompasses a specific number of calories in it. By following a pre-made diet, a calorie counter can take the guesswork out of their daily recordings since they already know their caloric intake for the day.
Above all, counting your calorie intake is meant to promote awareness of the nutritional value of everyday foods. It can also be helpful when speaking with a nutritionist or dietitian, as you’ll be using the same language to discuss your dietary lifestyle.
While some individuals swear by calorie counting, there are a few valid critiques of the practice, too. Here are some of the concerns that professionals bring up around counting calories.
Most of the food we eat comes with a sticker that denotes how many calories it contains. Even some restaurants list the caloric value of a meal. That should make counting calories straightforward and precise, right?
The reality isn’t so simple. In truth, not everything you eat comes with a label. Foods like veggies from the farmer’s market or takeout usually lack an official calorie count, so you’re left guessing the number of calories you consumed.
On that note, studies have shown that people are notorious for either underestimating or overestimating their caloric intake and expenditure.
Even if you can successfully estimate how many calories you’ve consumed, there’s no way to know how many calories your body absorbed. Everything from the amount of protein in a meal to your gut health can change how your body processes calories.
In the case that you managed to count every calorie accurately, you may still run into another problem: determining how many calories you need in a day. While the FDA uses 2,000 calories as a guideline, your actual caloric requirements will vary, depending on:
Your weight loss goal
Without knowing exactly how many calories your body is using each day, counting becomes somewhat baseless.
Technically, a calorie is a calorie, regardless of where it comes from. Since calories are a measurement of energy, it can be argued that every calorie is the same.
However, our body sources calories from three major macronutrients:
These three nutrients are processed and absorbed by the body in different ways. For example, eating 100 calories of a protein-rich steak or black bean patty is nothing like eating 100 calories of gummy bears.
That’s because protein takes more energy to digest than sugar. In fact, 20 to 30 percent of the total calories in protein are used to digest it.
On a calorie counting app, both servings would look the same. But protein also leaves you feeling much fuller than a handful of candy does. That’s why looking at calories alone isn’t enough—you need to look at where the calories are coming from. As a general rule:
1 gram of carbs = 4 calories
1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
Your body needs a mix of these macronutrients to function properly, so aim to get your calories from a diverse array of foods.
Should you weigh yourself everyday? Some do, and frequently while calorie counting. However, there’s growing evidence to suggest that a fixation on counting calories can contribute to eating disorders. In one study of over 900 U.S. college students, calorie counting was associated with an increase in eating disorder severity. Other studies have found similar results.
This isn’t to say that everyone who counts calories will develop an unhealthy relationship with food. But if you’re prone to feelings of guilt or shame about what you eat, you may want to steer clear of tracking calories.
As you’ll remember, calorie counting relies on the idea that you need to consume fewer calories than you expend. Although this “caloric deficit” principle is grounded in fact, calling calorie counting the secret to healthy weight loss is problematic.
Boiling weight loss down to calories in versus calories out is an oversimplification of the complex processes taking place within our bodies. There are too many biological factors at play to focus uniquely on calories. Hormones, stress levels, and more all play a role in your body weight.
In our opinion, you don’t need to count calories to lose body weight. There are dozens of tactics for preventing weight gain, and the only ones that are “necessary” are the ones that give you results (or any methods prescribed by your doctor).
If counting calories seems to work for you, that’s great! There’s certainly something to be said about mindful eating habits and knowing the difference between high- and low-calorie foods. But calorie counting is not the one-size-fits-all strategy that it’s made out to be.
So, is calorie counting effective? The truth is that calorie counting can be beneficial to some, but in reality, it’s the other weight-loss strategies associated with calorie counting that are effective.
At Found, we know all about a multi-faceted approach to our weight loss program. We recognize the importance of focusing on the actual healthy food we eat and our relationship with eating.
Found helps you understand what’s happening with your body—and how your food choices affect it. This holistic approach to wellness—which also includes dedicated weight loss support and weight loss medication—is tailored to your specific needs.
If you’re ready to try something new with weight care, take our quiz today and see if Found is right for you.
FDA. How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label#Calories
NCBI. Calorie Estimation in Adults Differing in Body Weight Class and Weight Loss Status. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5055397/
NIH. Helpful or harmful? The comparative value of self-weighing and calorie counting versus intuitive eating on the eating disorder symptomology of college students. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30155857/