BlogWeight LossPros and Cons of Counting Calories

Pros and Cons of Counting Calories

Mariia Roza
Written by Mariia Roza on March 30, 2021
Medically reviewed by Dr. Olena Avdiievska

We love simple choices(1). This is why counting calories is so popular: It simplifies nutrition to numbers.

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Seven reasons why counting calories is inefficient for weight loss

Some researchers(2) and the first law of thermodynamics state that a calorie is always a calorie which means that you can lose weight(3) on burgers and candies as far as you’re in a calorie deficit. But will such a diet lead to sustainable weight loss? What is more, how such a diet will affect your overall health and hormonal balance(4)?

Counting calories is a controversial method of weight management. See below seven scientifically proven disadvantages of tracking your calorie intake and some thoughts on why this method of losing weight might not work for you.

1. Counting calories might lead to unbalanced eating

Common sense tells you that a giant brownie, 50 grams of olive oil, and a serving of chicken breast will affect your body differently. However, they all contain the same 450 calories!

When you count calories only, you can end up choosing foods that lack microelements and vitamins just because they have a lower calorie density. Some dieters also minimize their fat intake, as this is the most calorie-dense macronutrient. The lack of micronutrients and fats can have a detrimental effect on your reproductive and hormonal systems, your skin, hair, and nails. The WHO and other health organizations recommend consuming 20-35%(5) of your daily calorie intake from fats to stay healthy.

2. Counting calories is an unsustainable approach

Do you really want to count calories all your life? Studies(6) show that flexible dieting is better for your mental health and, what sounds counterintuitive, is also associated with a lower body mass index. Flexible dieting leads to more sustainable weight-loss results: It’s a fact(7)!

3. Counting calories might lead to disrupted eating behavior

Meticulous calorie counting and activity tracking can lead(8) to a psychological fixation on weight loss and may increase rigidity associated with eating disorders(9). Part of the problems begins when you start seeing your physical activity as a way to burn extra calories. Opting for excessive exercise can be a symptom of non-purging bulimia(10).

Women are more prone to drastically undereat on a diet | Shutterstock
Women are more prone to drastically undereat on a diet | Shutterstock

Whenever you feel that your relations with food are not as relaxed as they used to be, get medical help!

4. It’s impossible to be exact when counting calories

The inaccuracy in your calorie counting can hit 20% just because of inaccurate labels on the products. The FDA Guidance for Industry(11): Nutrition Labeling Manual allows the manufacturers the fault 20% when evaluating their products’ energy value.

Things worsen when it comes to whole food, like meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables. For example, you can’t tell the exact amount of calories in a glass of farm milk as all cows eat differently, and it determines how much fat their milk contains.

Things get worse when you come to meat and poultry. For example, 100 grams of chicken breast contains 114 kCal, a drumstick will add 161 kCal to your daily intake, and a wing can hit 222 kCal per 100 gram.

If you use some calorie trackers, they often have a “portion,” a “slice,” or a “piece” as a default measuring of food. But the weight of an “average” apple or an egg can vary tremendously! It seems that you have to weigh every bit of food you eat to make your calorie counting legit. But how much time your meal prep will take you in this case?

5. Counting calories takes a lot of time

When I was counting calories, the time I needed to prepare my meals almost tripled.

First, you weigh all the ingredients you want to put into your stew. Then you understand that you forgot to remove bones from the drumsticks before you’ve weighed them and weigh them again.

Then you write down all ingredients, their weight, and their calories. When the stew is ready, you weigh it again to see how much water has evaporated from your vegetables and meat to calculate the calories in 100 grams of the meal. It all takes a while.

I also used to plan my meals for the next day before going to bed. As a rule, it took me almost an hour every evening.

Counting calories can take up to two hours a day | Shutterstock
Counting calories can take up to two hours a day | Shutterstock

Before counting your calories, ask yourself, are you ready to sacrifice one to three hours a day to arithmetics and weighting products?

6. Losing weight only on calorie deficit can wrack your hormonal balance

One explanation is that your body weight has a set point(12), and it always tries to come back to it. It works both for naturally slim people and people who were obese for decades.

To prove this theory, researchers have overfed people with normal BMI (body mass index) and found out that when they are in an enormous calorie surplus, their BMR (basal metabolic rate) hits the roof, as well as their NEET (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). Overfed people fidget more; they’re always hot and want to move more. Their ghrelin (hunger hormone) level is objectively lower, and their leptin (satiety hormone) level is higher than it used to be when they usually ate.

On the contrary, when obese people were underfed, at some point, their BMR starts to slow down. They are always cold, and their activity level drops significantly. Their bodies try to maintain as many calories as they can. This phenomenon is called metabolic adaptation(13). What is more, these people are much hungrier and don’t feel satiety after a meal.

One of the proofs of this theory came out in 2016. There was an extensive article(14) in Obese journal about the metabolic adaptation in some of The Biggest Loser participants. Studies have shown that even six years after the show, some participants’ metabolic rate was 500 to 600 calories lower than in people of the same weight, height, and physical activity. Their hunger hormone level was consistently high, and their satiety hormone level was always low.

Sustainable and healthy weight loss is much more than the calories in – calories out equation. If you want to lose weight by simply counting calories and ignoring the quality of your food, you can end up slim but with a wracked hormonal balance, always hungry, tired, and never satiated.

7. We see numbers, not food

One of the worst parts of counting calories concerns how our perception of food changes. Many pathological dieters stop seeing food as a source of pleasure and see only numbers. Food is an important part(15) of social life and culture. Listen to those who used to track their calories rigidly, and you will hear stories of how people avoided parties and family gatherings as they were afraid of food that “doesn’t fit their daily calorie limit.”

How can you lose weight without counting calories?

Ask for professional help. Calories do matter for weight loss; however, if you’ve never been interested in nutrition, there are multiple factors you can miss when prescribing yourself a diet. Instead of experimenting with your body, get a consultation with a professional dietitian or buy a personalized meal plan composed by a nutrition expert.

Use the plate rule. It will help you keep an eye on your portion sizes and stay flexible with your dieting. This rule will help you compose balanced meals and stay within your energy needs without counting calories.

1/2 of your plate should be fruits and veggies, 1/4 grains, and 1/4 protein sources | Shutterstock
1/2 of your plate should be fruits and veggies, 1/4 grains, and 1/4 protein sources | Shutterstock

Listen to your body. Many of us overeat(16) and gain weight because of emotional hunger. Remember that the path to the perfect body starts in your head and every time you want to grab some food, ask yourself: “Am I really hungry?”

When is calorie counting helpful for weight loss?

1. Counting calories can become a wake-up call

Some overweight people believe that they have bad genetics, slow metabolism, or hormonal disbalance when in reality, the main reason behind their extra pounds is a calorie surplus. Studies(17) show that the discrepancy between how much people think they eat and how much they really eat can hit 47%! Tracking calories can help you see the reason why you gain weight or can’t lose it.

Counting calories in necessary if you can't understand why you gain weight | Shutterstock
Counting calories in necessary if you can't understand why you gain weight | Shutterstock

2. Knowing how many calories you need can speed up your weight loss

The study(18) published in the Obesity research journal states that the more often people log their food intake into food journals, the more body weight they lose.

3. Counting calories can teach you more about food

When you start counting calories, you inevitably get more aware of macronutrients in your food and how they affect your body. You also learn that calorie-density is only one of the many measuring factors describing your meals.

Summing up

  • Counting calories can be overwhelming and lead to psychological problems.
  • It can take the joy out of eating, even though it’s a great way to keep your health on track.
  • If you are serious about losing weight and improving your physique, you need to look at all aspects of your diet, not only on calories.

If you’re trying to find the perfect balance and enjoy a diet that is rich in all of the necessary nutrients with just the right amount of calories, Unimeal can help. We’ll calculate the calories and macros that your body needs to reach your weight loss and overall health goals.

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