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.
If you want to try it out, I highly recommend using an app to keep track of your daily food intake. I use the app Lose It!, but MyFitnessPal is another good one.
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.
12 thoughts on “Should You Count Calories?”
Great blog post, I often wonder this. I’ve been tracking my calories on MyFitnessPal for around 2 years now & have wondered several times if it’s a “healthy” thing to do. When I started counting, I lost 10lbs pretty quickly & have since lost another 10 even though weight loss wasn’t my initial goal. I was happy with the way I looked & felt before but that was nothing compared to how I feel now. Better exercise regime, cleaner eating & healthier lifestyle choices. No looking back & of course, no excuses!
Glad to hear you’ve had a positive experience with it, Jen! I have mixed feelings about counting calories obviously, but think it can make a huge difference for some people.
Nice post! I occasionally use MyFitnessPal to track calories. I was wondering how you break down the macros for the recipes you create? Do you use one of the apps you mentioned? Or do you calculate it manually?
I was going say, once you track you can intuitively gauge your meal input, but you’re right .. you either under eat, over eat, or allow cheats. Tracking is essential and if you’re mindful – tracking will stop you from eating or allow you to make a better choice when you see that you don’t have many macros left.
Counting is so difficult because there is lots of conflicting advice / guidelines about how much is the *correct* amount. How many calories and split of macros, carb timings. It becomes a head wreck.
Such good points on both ends of the spectrum! I have started implementing a “loose tracking” pattern. I track more some days than others, and will occasionally skip some altogether if it is similar to previous days (since I already know the breakdown of a lot of my usual foods). I enter recipes to get macro info when I meal prep. This works well for me, because it’s not as time consuming and I am not constantly obsessing over tracking everything. But, it helps keep me motivated, aware, and ensures that I get an idea of ways my body responds to foods to tweak when I need to.
Awesome blogpost Krista. I’m very much the same. I generally log my food and workouts. Though when I travel for work (I’m currently in Europe with lots of temptations;)) logging is too cumbersome to keep up with. But because I log when at home I have a much better ‘feel’ for when I don’t log.
Back at home, if I get sloppy in my nutrition I feel it when not logging. Then I start logging again and get back on path.
Inputting workouts now has become automatic. I use a polar loop with H7 HRM. The Polar app updates to Apple HealthKit which automatically updates to MFP.
Thanks for the blogpost. Good one.
I do not count calories, but I do keep a food/workout journal the first week of each month. I check off categories for the macro categories to see that I’m getting an appropriate amount of macros; enough protein, not too many carbs(esp. Sweets, my weak point). I find the once a month re-set keeps me real without being too much of an annoyance. I track my work-outs always.
I started the food journal after my second pregnancy when I was struggling to lose 15 pounds. The weight came off painlessly once I started tracking.
Hey Krista, love your thoughts here. I especially appreciate how you didn’t take a definitive stance but allowed for personal variation and a “gray zone.” I think that’s key. I would point out, though, that looking at body composition goals only through the lens of calories can be a bit misleading. It’s all too common for people to obsess over the (ultimately quasi-arbitrary) number of “calories” in their diet, while paying little attention to where those calories come from (i.e. the quality of calories). Personally, I like to look at food not as discrete energy units but information, chemical messages that instruct my body how to build itself. And, in my experience, focusing on consuming the highest quality “alimentary information” fosters more health than mere calorie counting. That’s not to say calorie-counting can’t be valuable — not at all. I’d just caution people to start tracking every morsel of food without understanding the broader significance of nutrition. Thanks for the work you do!