• Brian Bender, PhD

Does Calorie Counting Work? Your Complete Guide

Counting calories typically takes a lot of time and effort. You have to search and find your foods in an app, estimate the quantity you’ve eaten, or worse, spend time filling old fashioned, pen and paper notebooks tracking your calories and macronutrients.


Plus, you need to spend brain space on thinking about what you’re eating all day, remembering it, or interrupting your days consistently to track each morsel.

Is it worth it?


Calorie counting is a controversial topic in the world of diet and nutrition.

For some, in invokes praise. Many studies in the academic literature show that calorie counting works for weight loss. In fact, quite consistently.


For others, calorie counting is the manifestation of all that is bad with diet culture. It separates your food into a numbers game and for some, may trigger a new host of mental ailments to tackle.


So who’s right?


As is often the case with nutrition, both can be right. And both can be wrong.


The guide will discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly about calorie counting.


We’ll go into the pros, and why some say calorie counting can be a useful tool for meeting your weight goals and what are the best ways to go about it.


And we’ll also dive into the not so good. What’s wrong with calorie counting, why can calorie counting fail, and the controversy surrounding the practice.


Note: this guide is not intended to be medical advice. Please consult your doctor before changing healthcare practices.


Nearly 3 Decades of Research Show Calorie Counting Works for Weight Loss


Really?


Peer-reviewed, scientific literature shows that calorie counting helps individuals consistently lose weight. And a plethora of research articles published in the last 5 years using new technologies to assist this effort show similar, positive results.


Now, before you get too excited (or angry), let’s take a look at some of the caveats.

First, the studies in these review are not randomized controlled trials.


Why does that matter?


RCTs are the gold standard of medical research. Without having a long, historical list of RCTs to back up these claims, we are left with imperfect conclusions.


So, studies certainly look like calorie counting works, and the results are consistent, but we can’t be 100% sure.


Why might calorie counting work for weight loss?


A few possibilities.


First, calorie counting helps you get an idea of how much food you are actually eating through the day.


Studies have investigated our ability to estimate in our heads how many calories we eat.

You may or may not be surprised to hear - we aren’t that good at it.


In fact, we can sometimes be off by 90%!


Most of us generally don’t investigate calorie content. If we’re preparing food at home, eating a dish prepared by friend or family, or even eating at a restaurant, we typically don’t know the caloric content of our meals.


And unless we diligently check the contents of our packaged foods (and don’t forget to account for the serving size), we often fail to realize the calorie density of the foods (and drinks!) we consume regularly.


Second, calorie counting can help you understand the breakdown of the food you are eating.

If you thought estimating calories was tough, try estimating the sugar content of your foods! And just like estimating calories, studies show we do a poor job of this as well.


And it shows.


The World Health Organization recommends we consume less than 10% of our calories from sugar, for example. They go further and say reducing your caloric intake of sugar to 5% of calories is even better.


How much sugar do we eat in America?


6% of our calories? 12%?


More like a whopping 18%! Over 95% of Americans - just about every one of us - exceeds the 10% WHO recommendation.


Third, calorie counting can be a stepping stone towards intuitive eating.


Intuitive eating is the skill of having an innate, underlying understanding of healthy eating habits and mindful eating.


Through calorie counting, many individuals must take notice of the foods they eat throughout the day.


Often, we eat without thinking about it.


Munching on popcorn during a movie. Snacking at the office. Eating a burrito in the car on your way home?


But bringing these meals into your consciousness - your prefrontal cortex - can shift your mindset. It can help you take stock of the food you eat, build mindful eating habits, and gradually become a more intuitive eater.


For some, this practice may persist. They may be able to quit calorie counting and still take stock of the foods they eat throughout the day.


Others may gradually lose the skill again over time.


Things brings us back to central theme of this article.


Not all tools and practices work for everyone.


But for some, they can be extremely valuable. Even, life-changing.


So why is it bad for some?


An Obsession with Calorie Counting can Lead to Eating Disorders


For some folks, calorie counting can become an unhealthy practice.


Just like habitually stepping on a scale and can lead many to shed pounds, it can also lead many to feel shame, anxiety, and depression.


The end-goal of any weight loss program is to reach a steady, healthy weight. And the key to any healthy diet, is to establish a nutritious, balanced diet that you maintain throughout your life.


But calorie counting can become obsessive and even counter-productive.


Some may find the anxiety associated with keeping track of every meal and every bite overwhelming. To the point of even causing weight gain and unhealthy eating practices.

On the other end of the spectrum, it can lead to eating disorders that lead to chronic undernutrition, such as anorexia or bulimia.


Others may maintain a healthy weight and even a balanced, nutritious diet, but suffer from a condition known as orthorexia. This condition, arguably growing in numbers, is the condition of being overly consumed with the idea of eating the most nutritious foods, all of the time. To the point of causing mental anguish and anxiety around the act of eating.


Obesity and poorly balanced nutrition are some of the leading disease risk factors we face as a people. But replacing them at the expense of mental anguish is hardly a win.


Thus, calorie counting can be a misguided strategy for some. If you find yourself creating an unhealthy relationship with food or body image while calorie counting, it would be wise to seek help from qualified individuals.