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Why calorie counting doesn't work

CALORIES.....oof does that word just make you cringe when you see it?

I am sure many of you who have experienced the diet cycle have attempted calorie counting at one time or another. Think about what your experience was like. What did you like about it? Did it give you structure? What did you not like? Did it only "work" for a period of time? Did you feel restricted?

I don't ever mention calories with my clients. We do talk about hunger and fullness, or your internal knowing for your energy (i.e. calorie) needs. We also talk about how to incorporate good quality foods or how to provide structure to your meals, all of which impact how much we're eating. Improving your eating habits goes far beyond calories and I think putting so much focus on this one piece of the puzzle can actually be harmful to your efforts.

So here's a few reasons why I do not focus on calories as a dietitian:

We don't need to be told how much we need to eat.

Think about how an infant grows into a toddler. A parent may have a general idea of how much they will need to eat, but you don't feed the baby based on what YOU think is right. When the baby is hungry, they cry and are then hopefully fed. They stop when they're full without question. They are able to grow more in 1 year than in any other time of life and it's all based on their instinct and ability to feel into their hunger and fullness cues. No one has to tell the baby how many calories are required. It is true that when that baby becomes a kid, teenager and adult, knowing when and how much to eat can become more complicated by conditioning. The solution though is not to put rigid standards in place for yourself with a number calculated by an app. If we're not working on the root of the issue then it will only create more resistance and a confusing relationship with food.

Our energy needs will always vary throughout days or weeks.

By only eating based off of a predetermined number, we're ignoring our natural ebbs and flows. Sure, calorie counting apps will account for activity, not only can those estimates be wildly inaccurate but activity is not the only factor that can change energy needs. We're all utilizing energy at different rates for various reasons. How much muscle you have, how rigorous an exercise is, your gut health, if you're body is fighting off a virus, even using your brain, can change calorie needs. Because you're human and not a robot doing the SAME things every single day, you should feel a difference in hunger as well as cravings day to day. Any one who menstruates will also have different calorie needs from the beginning of the month compared to the end of the month. A computer simply cannot figure our your very personalized needs.

The act of counting can become obsessive.

It can create a very strict and rigid relationship to food. Our eating should not be transactional. Our body is not a calculator or machine, it's made up of beautiful chemical reactions and those reactions will signal to us when to eat. It's really pretty awesome! Overriding those natural cues is never healthy or a sustainable behavior. It can create resentment towards yourself if you feel like you're failing or "doing it wrong". If you feel restricted and hungry when you're calorie counting, it's because it IS restricting. On the other end, you may not even feel hungry but eat any way because according to your allotted calories for the day, you still have X calories left! Not only will the app be inaccurate most times, but again, your needs could have just been slightly different that day.

It's not natural!

I don't want to speak for everyone but I don't think most people enjoy constantly checking nutrition labels or having to tally up calories at a restaurant. Imposing this unenjoyable task on yourself means you're also less likely to do it regularly or keep with it long term.

Calories alone doesn't take quality into account.

As I'm sure you're aware, tracking calories does not mean you are automatically choosing good quality, nourishing foods. You can keep within any set calorie limit and still eat highly imbalanced meals. Tracking apps do give breakdowns of micro and macro nutrient intake, but most users aren't really paying attention to this piece (again that would be a lot of added stress and over thinking). You also can still hit many of your nutrient requirements and still have an imbalanced diet (or a poor relationship with food) since many foods are fortified now.

It can create the bow and arrow effect.

If you have been a yo-yo dieter in the past, you've likely experienced this. When we restrict our food or follow rigid rules it's like pulling back your the bow and arrow. You pull, pull, pull as best you can, you try to "stay on track", follow the rules, until it's so taut you can't pull any more. Internally you likely feel exhausted with the diet or rules at this point. So you "let go" and the arrow goes flying. You tried sticking to it, you tried to do what you thought was "right" but in the end you end up either overeating or consuming every food you've been avoiding to a point where you're lacking balance in your diet.

What can we do instead?

To start, focus on getting good quality foods in and listening to your hunger and satiety cues. These two things together allow you to consume what your body really needs that day. Some of you may feel really unsure about your hunger or satiety cues. Years of dieting can actually disrupt that connection. Wherever you're at today, retraining yourself to trust hunger and fullness can take time and requires attention, but it's worth it! If you commit to listening to your body you'll feel much more confident in sustaining balanced eating.

This is a key piece of my online program! Within MINDFUL, you learn how to trust your body AND listen to your body. We do this by incorporating mindful practices like yoga, meditation and mindful eating. You'll also learn how to create balanced meals and eat well while maintaining a positive relationship with all foods. Reach out with any questions!

Be well,



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