This time last year, I wouldn’t eat a meal without carefully documenting exactly how many calories I consumed and how many I had left over each day. I was eager to make changes to my body shape and improve my health, and I had read that calorie counting was the best method.
Calorie counting has often been considered an effective way to quantitatively measure your nutrition. Apps like MyFitnessPal and Noom built their brands around determining exactly how many calories were in that Starbucks Grande Vanilla Latte (250) or that banana you had for breakfast (105) for the stated purpose of helping users lose weight or make changes to their body shape. But is it really a healthy practice?
Like with many trends that emerge from the health and wellness industries, we need to critically evaluate both the promised benefits and the potential hazards. Self-proclaimed health experts on social media sites like Instagram and TikTok say that weight loss boils down to calories in versus calories out. Depending on where you look, research can rebuff or affirm the effectiveness of calorie counting. To find the truth, I spoke to an expert, David Gaviria, a doctorate student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Nutrition.
What is calorie counting?
Calories express the nutritional value of a given food or drink, but at its simplest, a calorie is a unit of energy. Calories are the units of measurement used to describe how much energy is exerted in a day (calories burned) or consumed. They’re necessary to keep us alive and keep our organs functioning. Calories give the body fuel to function and move, whether it’s breathing, sprinting a mile or digesting food.
It’s true that to lose weight you have to burn more calories than you consume, and you can do this through changes in dietary habits and increased exercise. For many on a weight loss journey, the practice of self-monitoring every calorie consumed and burned in a day is an effective way to stay within a target number of calories to reach health or weight goals.
Gaviria said counting calories has come to be popularized really as a result of diet culture. While some people, like athletes, may need to rely on calorie counting to make sure they’re consuming enough energy to fuel their rigorous workout schedules, it has mostly been to manipulate weight status.
“Counting calories isn’t really a natural thing,” Gaviria said. “We eat food, not calories. And yes, our bodies transform food into calories that it uses for day-to-day function, but really it’s just a quantitative way, a number, to help people essentially maintain their diet or maintain their weight.”
What are the potential hazards of calorie counting?
Although tracking daily calories can be a tool for weight loss or for making sure you’re fueling your body correctly, it’s not an appropriate practice for everyone. For some, it’s been linked to contributing to eating disorders and disordered eating.
This is not to say calorie counting can’t be useful, but it depends on the individual — including their health history and emotional relationship to food and their body. Hazards can arise when calorie counting, so it’s important to be aware of the potential dangers and warning signs to look out for.
Accuracy is near impossible
Tracking your calorie intake accurately is notoriously difficult. For starters, it’s hard to know how many calories are in the food you’re eating. While there are several online directories of calorie counts for foods, getting precise numbers is still not straightforward. For instance, if you’re looking up the calories in a half-cup serving of rice, that number will be different if the rice is cooked or uncooked. It’s even harder for fruits and veggies — if there are 110 calories in a banana, how big is that banana? With so many different sizes, each is going to have a different amount of calories.
“You have to essentially know precisely what the calorie content of the food is that you’re eating and that gets difficult to do without getting even more meticulous by weighing and measuring things out,” Gaviria said. “Not to mention that it’s just very time-consuming, it takes up a lot of brain space to be like, ‘Okay, well, if I need to have this meal, I only have 500 calories left, what meal can I build that is going to be 500 calories?'”
Besides trying to guess the calories in a given portion size and plan your daily meals down to a specific number of calories, it can also be taxing to remember to track every calorie.
Many forget to track oils or butter used to sauté, or the condiments added to a sandwich or dressing added to a salad. It’s easy to skip tracking whole meals if you’re eating on the go. Even simple omissions can add up to 500 to 700 calories that weren’t counted.
Links to eating disorders and compulsive tracking
While many use calorie counting safely, this practice has been linked to leading to food restriction beyond what’s healthy or encouraging disordered eating. Calorie tracking is definitely not recommended for individuals with a history of eating disorders and weight or body disorders, as it could exacerbate symptoms and encourage a negative relationship with food.
One study conducted in 2017 found that of 105 people diagnosed with an eating disorder, 75% disclosed they used an app (MyFitnessPal) to count calories and 73% said they felt this app contributed to eating disorder symptoms. While not all calorie tracker users experience unhealthy side effects, there is research that suggests it can lead to a restrictive, unbalanced diet or could be associated with higher eating disorder pathology.
“Some people that believe the research on calorie tracking shows it can place people at risk for eating disorders or compulsive tracking, but then there’s some people that believe the research shows that it does not,” Gaviria said. “I think that it goes back to the individual and their own circumstance. People need to take the time with themselves to recognize whether or not it’s a good process for them. And if they do start doing it, when to recognize that it’s not a good process for them.”
When should someone stop calorie counting?
It’s likely that at some point, you may try calorie counting either out of curiosity or to lose weight. If you do decide to use calorie tracking regularly, as Gaviria stated, it’s important to know when to stop.
Experiencing feelings of guilt, shame or anxiety is a sign that calorie tracking is becoming harmful and you should stop immediately. If you find yourself thinking about food often or getting worried throughout the day about your future food choices and how you’ll fit it into your calorie allotment, you should consider stopping. If you feel compelled to track calories while cooking or eating, then that could be a sign you’re compulsive tracking.
Gaviria said the biggest indicator you need to stop tracking is if you’re asked out to eat and the first thing that goes through your mind is your calorie window.
“If you start denying yourself social situations that you used to previously enjoy going to because it’s not going to fit in your calories, that’s a really big sign that you should reconsider what you’re doing,” Gaviria said.
Symptoms can also manifest physically, not just psychologically. If you suddenly don’t have an appetite during the day or you lose your sense of hunger, that can be a sign that you’re not listening to your body, Gaviria explained. A lack of energy, trouble sleeping, exhaustion and a halt in menstrual cycles are major signs to stop. It’s sometimes easier to pick up on those physical signs before noticing what’s happening mentally.
Is there really a safe way to calorie count?
Many find that counting calories is an effective way to maintain a calorie deficit and lose weight. CNET already has a guide on expert-backed ways to safely calorie count if you choose to do so, but it’s important to remember body weight and shape aren’t the sole indicators of your health. In fact, there are many other metrics that matter more to your overall health than weight, including genetics, access to healthcare and mental health.
If you choose to calorie track, it would be healthy to understand it’s not your end-all. Any changes to your body take time and patience. If you’re tracking safely, you would still eat foods you enjoy even if it means going over your calorie count, and you wouldn’t feel ashamed. Rather than denying yourself, you can be mindful of what you’re choosing to eat.
“There are healthy ways to go about doing it,” Gaviria said. “But I think the moral of the story would be to use calorie tracking in moderation and still let yourself enjoy what’s important in life rather than avoiding the things that are important to you just because of calories.”
Remember health doesn’t need to be complicated. A healthy, nutritious diet can be achieved through eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and drinking water, engaging in physical activity, reducing stress and getting plenty of sunlight. These basic changes can make you feel healthy and you’ll start noticing a difference instantaneously.