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Stop counting calories – seriously

Every dietitian just lost faith me with the title of this article, but hang tight, it gets better.

Calorie counting became all the rage starting in the mid to late 20th century, fueled by advancements in nutrition science, the emergence of diet trends like Weight Watchers in the 1960s and mandatory food labeling. Counting calories became the means to achieve ideal body shapes and maintain overall health.

In today’s modern world, calorie counting remains a prevalent approach to nutrition and weight management. However, while calories are often considered a significant factor in nutrition and weight management, there are situations when calories should not be the primary focus of the individual.

In my nutrition practice, I work with many women with binge-eating tendencies and depleted bodies from the many tough restrictive diets they’ve been on over the years. The reason is that a calorie doesn’t necessarily equal nourishment. Calories are a measure of energy the food gives us – and that’s it. So, why are many women still reaching for low-calorie diets and counting calories when they aren’t the keys to a healthy, well-nourished body?

The problem is that when you’re focusing only on calories, you lose insight into these nutrition factors that are key to maintaining a healthy body:

  • Nutrient quality: The quality of the food you consume (nutrient density) is more critical than its calorie content. Highly processed foods may have a lower calorie count but lack essential nutrients, while whole foods like fruits and vegetables provide valuable vitamins, minerals and fiber needed to maintain and build a healthy body.
  • Hunger and satiety: Relying solely on calorie counting may disregard your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. Eating when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re satisfied, can be more intuitive and sustainable for many people trying to kick the calorie counting habit to the curb.
  • Metabolic differences: Calorie needs vary significantly from person to person because of differences in metabolism, activity level and genetics. Focusing solely on a fixed calorie target may not account for these variations for your individual needs. Not everyone who wants to be healthy needs a 1,200-calorie diet – in fact, hardly anyone does.
  • Psychological well-being: In my experience working with thousands of clients, strict calorie counting can lead to an unhealthy obsession with food and body image, potentially contributing to disordered eating behaviors and negatively impacting mental health. If you have been on a diet for most of your life and have binge-eating tendencies, it doesn’t define who you are, it’s just a product of your history.
  • Mindful eating: Some believe that practicing mindful eating, which involves paying attention to the sensory experience of eating, can be more beneficial than strict calorie counting. It encourages a healthier relationship with food and may naturally lead to better portion control without all the heartache of counting calories.
  • Hormonal factors: Hormones play a crucial role in weight regulation. Counting calories doesn’t factor in changes needed to build or maintain your muscle mass, support your hormonal balance or guide you to the best foods to build a healthier gut.
  • Sustainability: Extremely low-calorie diets or strict calorie counting can be difficult to maintain over the long term. Sustainable dietary habits that promote overall health and well-being are often a better focus. If you’ve been on 15 diets and they have all failed, you did not fail, they failed you.

Calorie counting is not the way to ensure you’re eating the healthiest foods for your body. A balanced approach to nutrition that considers factors like nutrient quality, portion control, hunger cues and individual goals is often recommended for long-term health and well-being.

Fran Sutherlin, RD, MS is a local registered dietitian, specializing in using digestive wellness to prevent or manage chronic disease. She has a master’s degree in nutrition, is a personal health coach, speaker, and owner of Sustainable Nutrition. She can be reached at 970-444-2122 or fran@fransutherlin.com.