4 Reasons Counting Calories Does More Harm than Good and 10 Things You Can Do Instead

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt so consumed with calorie counting that you start to no longer see food for food, but as instead a number - calories, macros, points, etc. Instead of choosing foods because you love them or because you know they are going to taste good and be satisfying, you choose them because the “number” is appealing or maybe the calories in that food item are so low that you feel that the food item is “better” suited for your diet.

Maybe you’ve even felt fearful of consuming that food after seeing the number of calories - a fear that you wouldn’t have even had if you hadn’t seen the number in the first place.  Have you ever stopped reading about the actual food items on a restaurant board or on a menu because your eyes are darting to the number of calories instead? You open up the menu and instantly you are consumed with the number of calories instead of focusing on the beautiful descriptions of the food items themselves? yup, guilty as charged. 

If you’re feeling consumed by calories, here’s the good news: with the right amount of support and guidance you can challenge your brain to shift away from the calorie counting strong hold, freeing up space to focus on about a million other things ;-) 

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Ready to start? Let’s dive in...

4 Reasons Counting Calories Does More Harm than Good

#1 : You're left feeling guilty, self critical, obsessive and anxious

Counting calories often becomes a source of stress, a foundation for food rules, and restriction. Studies on dieting also indicate that restricting intake by tracking calories can increase psychological stress on an individual and can increase cortisol levels which impact the biological functioning of the body (Tomiyama, A. Janet et al. “Low Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol.” Psychosomatic medicine 72.4 (2010): 357–364. PMC.). NOT an ideal situation! 

If you find yourself feeling anxious or depressed as a result of tracking your calories, worried about every morsel of food that touches your lips. Recognize these warning signs and reroute your path.  

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#2 : You are Ignoring Body Cues

“I ate lunch and then a few minutes later I was still hungry, so I drank a glass of water which helped for a little. But then I still felt hungry so I went for a walk until it passed.”

What if we ignored other body cues? “I’m feeling cold…. but I shouldn’t because the thermostat says 68 so that should be warm enough.  I’ll just watch tv until I forget about being cold.” Or “Wow, I’m really tired but it’s only 8pm and I usually go to bed at 10pm… I’ll just find something to do until it’s actually time for bed.” Or, my personal favorite,  “I really have to pee, but maybe I’ll just call a friend instead and hope that feeling goes away.”

HELLO! Our bodies are made to signal to our brains what we NEED. If you’re cold, grab another layer, if you’re hot, change into something cooler, if you’re tired, get some rest, if you have to pee, pee and if you’re hungry, EAT!

When we count calories we are using an EXTERNAL cue (usually driven by dieting / diet culture) to guide our eating rather than our natural, INTERNAL cues which help us eat intuitively. External cues I often hear from clients include counting and tracking calories, counting macros (grams of fat/carbs/sugar), portion sizes, dietary guidelines and the clock. Sure some of this external information can help us learn about nutrition, what a balanced meal or plate may look like, what foods are made up of, and when it might be time for meal or snack. Nonetheless, using external guidelines can also lead to a plethora of negative consequences, including increasing stress around food intake. .

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The majority of us have been intuitive eaters in the past. Let’s think about the most intuitive eaters -> babies. Babies cry when they’re hungry, quiet down when they’re given food, and stop eating when they’re full. Toddlers often do the same, they become upset when hungry, content when given food, and will stop eating when they’ve had enough.

Internal cues including hunger, fullness, cravings, food preferences, flavors, textures, colors, and smells starts at an early age. If we allow children exposure to ALL foods, we’ll naturally crave a variety. We will crave pizza, cookies, ice cream, and chips. We will also crave fruits, vegetables, protein, and grains. We learn to have balance of all foods and our bodies will know exactly what they need and how to utilize the nutrition within these foods. Somewhere along the way, we shift away from these internal cues and start to challenge them, but what if we continued listening?

When we stop focusing on internals cues and start using external cues to regulate our intake, we aren’t tuning into what we really need or want to each which varies day to day. We become more anxious around food and social food events. Often times, we steer away from the foods we ENJOY by using external guidelines. We skip out on cookies that look or smell good, we don’t allow ourselves that extra snack or second portion even if we are hungry. We eat before the party because we “can’t be tempted” by the cake (we like). Re-learning to follow internal cues can be difficult, but it can ultimately lead to a more balance diet and a happier and healthier relationship with food and your body. A win / win if you ask me!

#3 : You worry that eating any more than your "calorie limit" will lead to weight gain

“If I eat more today than yesterday, I will gain weight!” Another common fear and barrier to intuitive eating that I often hear from my clients. 

Weight fluctuations are NORMAL my friends! We may weigh a few pounds more or less, day to day depending on many factors other than what we eat (fluids, hormones, stress, sleep....) and there is evidence to support that varying intake does not equate with weight gain. To the right is an example of varying intake over a year in weight stable individuals.  What we see is that intake varies greatly each day, but weight stays stable. Again, our bodies are made to regulate: temperature, eating, fluids and weight! Our bodies are constantly seeking balance and will fight hard for stability;  some days needing more and others less. 

By allowing ourselves to only consume only a certain number of calories every day, we are not allowing or trusting our bodies to do their job by naturally regulating our intake. Some days we need MORE than X amount of calories and some days we might need LESS. Varying intake is NORMAL. Your body knows when it needs more and when we’re counting calories (or macros or anything else…) we stop listening to our bodies instead relying on these often misleading external cues (again, regulated by the diet industry) to guide us. 

#4 You find yourself saying "no" to social events.

Avoiding social gatherings for fear that the food you may be offered will push you outside of your calorie limit? Find yourself restricting all day, banking your calories so that you can consume them all in one sitting? Worry that you won't know how to "count" that meal you have with your best friend?   If you find yourself avoiding opportunities with family and friends because your calorie counting endeavors are causing you anxiety, it may be time to delete your app and ditch your notebook. One of the MANY reasons we eat food is for enjoyment! Food is pleasurable and even more so when enjoyed with those you care about. I'd hate to see you missing out on these experiences because these calories, these units of energy, have the the power. 

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Our bodies are far more complex and complicated than the calories in and calories out equation we hear so much about.

Your genetics, stress levels, sleep patterns, fluid intake, age, gender….all play a role in your metabolic rate. And this rate changes every single day depending on all of these variables! Being a slave to the calorie tracking apps is just going to keep you stuck in the dieting cycle. Keeping yourself contained to an exact number of calories will only fuel the unhealthy dieting cycle and may end up slowing your metabolism by keeping your body stuck in a starvation zone. Learn to find freedom from the calorie counting (macro / point / kilojule counting) madness and free up that space to live more freely. 

10 things you can do instead of counting calories

  1. Set new personal goals for yourself that have NOTHING to do with altering your body weight, shape or size.

  2. Count 10 things you’re thankful for today

  3. Call or text a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while to reconnect

  4. Cook or bake something you enjoy with family, friends, or yourself for a fun food experience. Food is more than nutrients and calories, food is bonding, food is fun!

  5. Count 5 things you love about your best friend. Write these down and send them to him/her in a letter.

  6. Turn on your favorite show or watch a movie and enjoy while eating a snack you LOVE. That’s right, eating in from of a screen can be NORMAL and enjoyable!

  7. Count 3 things you like about yourself, why do you like these things?

  8. Plan out your dream vacation, where would you want to go, with who, what would you do there? How can you make this happen one day? (Now that you have so much more time on your hands not counting calories ;-)

  9. Take 20 minutes to do something you enjoy (read, listen to music, bubble bath, paint your nails, color, sing, dance, start an art project...)

  10. Delete the food tracking apps on your phone and Follow @NourishRx on IG, Facebook, and Pinterest for some healthy inspiration (shameless plug) instead!

It can be hard to let go of our habits, anxiety, and the way of perceiving calories revolving around our food intake that we have trained our minds to become adept to. No matter how difficult it may seem, it is always possible to let go of these negative thoughts that have clouded our better judgement. Remember: our bodies were wired to LISTEN to our internal cues, so it is never too late to reconnect with our bodies and minds alike!  Our team is here to extend our services, comfort, and support to guide you through all the steps necessary to help you get there. We want to see you succeed as much as you want it for yourself! Comment below about your journey, questions, or if you have tried any of these tips that have ultimately worked for you! We always love hearing from you. 

And make sure to stay tuned and connected with us for next week’s post!

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