All those years of a busy life have caught up to you and you've realized you'd like to improve your health by losing some (or a lot) of weight.

There are innumerable articles on the internet on the best diets out there, and sage advice from friends and family about the top tricks to lose weight. There are also many free as well as paid apps, which promise amazing results.

Where should you start? This article discussed one specific and very common approach to losing weight: calorie counting, and what you should watch out for if you are using it as a way to lose excess weight. I’ve also suggested an alternative that I think works better long term, for your body and your sanity too.

The biggest advantage of calorie counting

The internet and app stores nowadays have amazing calorie counters that promise to have every dish you can imagine. The math, graphs and charts look very cool too. All you have to do is download an app, input what you are eating and all the calculations are ready for you to analyze.

It’s the simple math of CICO - Calories In Calories Out after all.

CICO is an easy way of saying:

  • When you take in more energy than you burn, you gain weight.
  • When you take in less energy than you burn, you lose weight.

This is a fundamental concept in body weight regulation.

With your beautiful app, you can figure out if you’re eating too many calories compared to your daily calorie expenditure.

If you’re eating more than you should, there’s no better way to discover that than by seeing those calorie numbers add up to well above your recommended daily intake. Numbers don’t lie. If you’re eating 3,250 cals a day when you really should be at 2,500, the math is simple. You’re eating 750 extra calories every day and 273,750 extra calories a year. Once you recover from that initial shock, the realisation is clear as day. You should eat less. A simple and elegant answer presented to you in numbers that you cannot argue with.

Whether you’re just getting started with calorie trackers or are a seasoned pro, it’s worth asking: Is this the answer to all your health worries and the road to sustainable weight loss?

Calorie counting can be a great starting point on the road to discovering a healthy lifestyle.

Calorie counting can make you more conscious of what you’re eating and how much. Think of it as a log of your eating habits. You can even note down any triggers that tempt you to have treats, whether it’s stress or social situations or something else. You could easily spend hours poring over the data and analysing the graphs and charts.

Job done, right? Not quite.

Is it really that simple? At some point you may start to wonder - will this actually help you lose weight and improve your health? If you have tried using a calorie counting app, whether you are losing weight should be just one of the goals you should focus on. But don’t forget to also ask yourself these questions:

  • How has it worked out for you?
  • Do you feel fitter and healthier?
  • Are you asking the right questions? Does calorie-counting help you think about the various healthy foods that you should be eating. For example eg. probiotics, a variety of vegetables, wholegrains and low GI foods etc, rather than purely focus on limiting calories.
  • Are you learning not only to limit your calories, but also to better your lifestyle in all areas (better nutrition, exercise, sleep, etc)?
  • Do you see yourself using this over a long-term? Is it sustainable?
  • Is your mental health tied to you meeting your calorie target for the day (in other words, do you get stressed out thinking about what you can and cannot eat)?
  • If you had no phone (so no access to your calorie counter), would you still know how to eat well at home, at a restaurant or while ordering in?

Calorie counting has limitations

It’s worth recognizing that calorie counting can have some limitations and here are some things for you to think about.

  • It’s not really that easy over the long-term

    Your app can calculate calories in the foods you are eating, but you can’t just pick up a fruit and eat it. If you want to be accurate, you have to weigh everything. Every single time. After all, if you shopped for apples you’ll soon realize that there are many varieties and an apple can weigh anywhere between 70-100 grams. It’s no trouble in the beginning but after a few days, it is going to get a little painful. It’s no surprise that many people give it up after a while and go back to the way they were eating before.
  • It’s not accurate

    What?! You go to all this trouble and it’s not even accurate? That’s right, calorie counting is not an exact science and calorie estimates can be off by more than 25%, even in packaged foods.

    Calorie numbers on food labels and databases are averages. The true calorie content of what you eat can be upto 50% off (higher or lower, depends on many factors).

    Research has shown that the amount of calories we extract from food depends on how we prepare the food, which bacteria are in our gut, how much energy our body uses to break our food down etc. In short, digestion can be a messy affair. Genetics and personal body type can also play a role in energy expenditure, so a simple calories-in vs. calories-out is not necessarily accurate.
  • Calories are about quantity, not quality

    The real focus should be on quality - both for food and exercise. 100 cals from an apple or from a piece of cake? The answer is obvious, but it's really easy to lose sight of this if we're focused on the math.

    A calorie counter will also not tell you that your diet should include gut friendly foods that have probiotics, that you should consider the fibre content of your food, or the glycemic load of your food to manage blood sugar better. These are just examples of things you will never end up considering if you just focus on numbers.

    We can end up getting blinded by trying to hit numeric goals.
  • You want to enjoy your food, not obsess over it

    If you’re counting calories, you will probably end up having a planned menu for all your meals. It’s just easier that way. If you want to explore something new, you need to do your research first, measure ingredients, calculate how to adjust your other meals to account for the change in calories etc etc. That’s not really fun. If you are not enjoying your meals, it ought to raise a red flag. It can affect your peace of mind and add to your daily stress.

    There are also many cases where people only eat the foods that they can find on the app they’re using. If they cannot track it, they don’t eat it. This is where tracking your food comes at a cost - your mental well-being. And it's definitely not worth it.

    In fact, in countries like the UK where calorie counting apps have been around for a long time, they’re now finding that it can cause anxiety issues and affect mental health adversely. It’s already a stressful world out there, do we really need more in our life?
  • Listen to your body

    Yes, perhaps counting calories can help for some time, but how long can you continue counting calories? It does not teach you any skills. When we talk about schools our children study at, we like to say our kids should not learn by rote and should learn real life skills. Isn't calorie counting the same? You learn very well how to associate real food with a number but never learn any real-life skills. You don't learn how to adapt your eating for different real-life situations.

    Eventually, it’s better to listen to your body’s natural cues. If you eat healthy and nourishing foods, you are healing your body and taking care of it.
  • Things can go too far

    Once you get used to thinking that you need to eat less as a goal, it’s easy to get caught up into trying and doing more and exceeding expectations. This means eating much less than you should. After all, if your goal is 2,250 cals, then surely eating 1,800 cals is a great idea, right?

    Wrong.

Eating less should not be your goal. It should be to eat right, which means to eat healthy and balanced meals. Eating less will happen as a side effect.

So the bottomline is this - counting calories can be a helpful starting point. But it’s not a complete solution.

In the long term, we need to look at the things that really matter and ask the right questions. And 'how many calories...' is just one of them.

Is there an alternative?

Yes. Portion control.

Instead of counting calories, you track portions, i.e. how much of a food you’re eating.

To give you an idea, here’s what portion control looks like in real life:

  1. Think food groups, not individual foods. The major food groups will be carbohydrates, vegetables, protein and fats.
  2. No equipment necessary other than your own hand, so you get the right portions of each of the above food groups for yourself.
  3. At each meal, aim for the following (lower-sized portions for women, larger-sized portions for men):

Carbs: No more than 1-2 cupped hand sized portions
Protein: 1-2 palm-sized servings
Veggies: 1-2 fist-size servings
Fats: 1-2 thumb-sized servings

Look at the images below to get an idea of portion sizes:

Image: Precision Nutrition

As you can see, portion control can be simpler than calorie counting as you don’t need to measure and track your consumption at every meal.

It’s important to note however that the above is also just a starting point. Once you get used to these portions, see how these portions are working out for you and you can adjust depending on how you feel and what your goals are. For e.g., you can reduce carbs and/or fats at one or more meals and increase protein or vegetables instead, if you are looking to lose weight.

There is no right answer, except the one that works for you.

In summary, it’s possible to use other methods to control your weight or a combination of many methods including calorie counting, but ultimately, pick whatever works for you best based on the following:

  • Is it doable?
  • Are you able to achieve your goals; how is it really working for you?
  • Are you more aware of your nutritional choices?

And don’t forget: it’s always important to have the bandwidth to think about and act on other factors that can affect your health, including exercise, sleep and stress.

Calorie-counting is not a way of life, but eating and living healthy is.

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