One of the biggest nutrition questions I get on a regular basis is whether or not it’s really necessary to count calories.
I always hesitate to answer this one, because really, it depends so much on you—what your short and long-term goals are, whether you know how to eat intuitively or not, whether you’ll actually be diligent and honest when you do it (and not accidentally “forget” that half box of chocolate chip cookies you ate last night), and whether you have obsessive tendencies.
Depending on what your answers are to those questions above, I may or may not tell you it’s a good idea to count calories on a regular basis.
So do I count calories?
Yep, I sure do.
To be totally honest, I wish I didn’t have to. I don’t think it’s healthy to obsess over every morsel of food you eat or feel guilty about your macros on vacation or special holidays. Yet ever since I started counting them when I first got my personal training certification years ago, I’ve tried to go off counting them several times mainly because not only did it drive my husband crazy, I kept having this notion that I should be able to eat intuitively after keeping track of my food for so long.
Yet every time I tried going off counting them, both my physique and my athletic performance suffered. Basically, here’s what would happen:
- Often, I’d actually under eat because I was worried about over eating. Working out consistently means you need to fuel yourself right, and eating too few calories for the amount of activity you’re doing is not going to help you reach a faster 100 burpee challenge time or bust out a bunch of pull ups.
- I’d almost always get too little protein, since I naturally crave a higher carbohydrate diet.
- I’d worry about treats and cheat-style meals even more than usual, since I had no “proof” to see that I’d eaten healthy all week and it really wasn’t going to hurt to have a slice of pizza on Friday night.
Because of these and other reasons, I always ended up going back to counting calories. These days, I still do it pretty diligently (although I tend to give myself a break on holidays and short vacations).
So should you count calories?
Here are a few really good reasons to count them:
It makes you more aware of what you’re eating
Writing down what you eat on a regular basis forces you to really confront what you’re putting into your body, which in turn can have a big impact on what you actually end up eating.
Think about it: if you’ve made it a goal to eat healthier, then you look at your food log and realize you’ve barely eaten a single vegetable lately and have pretty much subsided on nothing but bread over the past week, it’s probably going to be pretty clear to you why you haven’t lost any weight lately. And the next time you sit down to a meal, you’re probably going to order a salad instead.
Being aware of what you eat can make a huge difference, and I’ve found that for myself (and people like me) having my food choices in print is really the best way to increase awareness.
It shows you if you’re over (or under) eating
Although more people probably struggle more with eating too many calories for their activity level, it’s also not uncommon for athletes (especially women) to eat too few calories to support the amount of exercise they’re doing.
Not eating enough calories can lead to a bunch of issues, including a decreased metabolism, an increase in body fat, decreased athletic performance, among other unwanted results.
So whether you’re prone to under or overeating, counting your daily calories is one of the best ways to get your calorie levels where they should be.
It helps you keep track of daily macro levels
Whether your goal is to lose weight, build muscle, or increase your athletic performance, the type of calories you consume (a.k.a. your macronutrient levels) makes a big difference as to whether you’re able to meet those goals or not.
If your goal is to build muscle or increase athletic performance, you need carbs, and lots of them. On the other hand, if you’re trying to lose some body fat, you’ll most likely do much better on a higher protein and higher fat diet.
Keeping track of what you eat makes it much easier to pay attention to the levels of protein, carbohydrates, and fat that you’re consuming on a regular basis and whether you need to adjust those levels to better meet your goals.
And a few really good reasons not to count them:
It can encourage unhealthy obsessive behavior
For anyone with obsessive compulsive tendencies, calorie counting may not be the best way to go about living a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
That’s because those of us who are already a bit obsessive (speaking from experience here) can easily go a bit overboard and slide into an unhealthy pattern when calorie counting. Some examples of this might be:
- Purposefully deciding to under eat based on previous food log data
- Getting anxiety over every morsel of food eaten (I.e. “Omg did I eat six almonds or seven?!?”)
- Not enjoying holidays/vacations/special occasions because of worries over calories and macros
The bottom line is that if you’re an overly obsessive person, you may do better in the long run not counting calories and trying a different, less anxiety-causing approach (such as simply following correct portion sizes) instead.
It’s just plain annoying
The biggest reason not to count calories?
It’s annoying. Counting calories definitely takes time, since there’s no current technology that allows you to take a photo of what you eat and simply input that into your daily food log.
In order to be as accurate as possible, you have to manually enter everything you ate for the day and your portion sizes. And don’t forget any hidden ingredients like added oils, butter, or cheeses—those count too!
The bottom line is that counting calories takes time.
Plus, not only is it annoying for you to do and take time out of whatever else you’d rather be doing with your life, it might also drive your friends and family crazy.
Watching you constantly record everything you eat may cause your spouse (or boyfriend/girlfriend, friends, parents, whoever) to think you’re always wasting your time or obsessing too much about everything you eat. It may also cause people round you to second guess what they’re eating, which, depending on the person, could be a good or a bad thing.
To count or not to count?
Ultimately, it depends on your own personal goals and your behavior type as to whether you should or shouldn’t count calories on a regular basis.
Although long-term calorie counting can be super annoying and may not be healthy for all personality types, I do recommend everyone counts calories for a week or two at a time every once in a while.
Even counting your calories temporarily can really help you learn about everything you’re eating as well as give you a much clearer idea of portion sizes and your macronutrient breakdown.
Of course, you can always use a good old fashioned food journal as well—but I find logging food in an app much less painful than physically writing everything down.