When it comes to losing weight, many people swear by a simple trick: counting calories. After all, the human body only needs between 2,200 and 2,700 calories a day. And as numerous internet calorie calculators will tell you, all you need to do to lose weight is reduce your caloric intake, right? While that may be true to an extent, it doesn’t always mean that it’s healthy to do this. While calorie counting can help some individuals kick off their weight loss journeys, it’s not a magic trick that will help anyone become healthier (or happier for that matter). Moreover, it can even have some consequences, say several experts.
“Calorie counting can be a helpful tool when looking to eat healthy to reach specific weight goals,” says Amy Carson, a registered dietitian based in Chicago. “However, I don't recommend it for people who have a history of disordered eating or who become overwhelmed with being too specific.”
Carson recommends other strategies for more healthful eating, including listening to their own hunger and fullness cues, and learning what portion sizes are needed for their particular bodies.
“With my clients, I use a hunger scale to rate hunger from empty (1) to overly full (10). Typically, true hunger is a physical sensation instead of a mental one,” says Carson, who also works as medical services coordinator for Fitness Formula Clubs.
She’s also a big proponent of sticking to meal plans in order to stave off ever-dreaded decision fatigue that often leaves many of us ordering take out for nights on end. But if you do end up being unable to avoid mindless eating from time to time, Carson says not to sweat it.
“It's okay to eat sometimes out of boredom, stress, sadness and other feelings, but it's important to be mindful of when this is happening and have alternative strategies for coping with emotions,” says Carson.
Overall, Carson says a whole-food-based approach is often best as it tends to result in less calories naturally without actually having to count every calorie. This style of eating is approached differently by everyone and there isn’t one set of rules to follow, save that you should be opting for foods that stay as close to their original state as possible (hence the use of the word “whole”). Avoiding refined carbohydrates, added sugars and heavily processed foods seems to be key here.
For those interested in a whole-foods based approach to eating, Carson recommends folks start small by "incorporating a fruit or vegetable with every meal and try to have at least 3 colors of produce each day.”
When it comes to counting calories, many individuals lean heavily on the aid of calorie counting apps like MyFitnessPal and the LoseIt! app. Leah Hackney, a registered dietician who specializes in helping families raise intuitive eaters, also warns of the issues with these types of apps, despite the fact that they tend to be cheap and accessible ways of learning about nutrients in foods.
“Everyone is different, and some people may not be phased by tracking their food or may attain some improved behavior changes when food journaling,” says Hackney. “However, without guidance from a doctor, dietitian or qualified coach, the calorie counting apps may not be appropriate for many people [as] some people may set their calories at an unsafe or unsustainable level.”
She also emphasizes that these approaches and these apps may be an ill fit for those at risk for disordered eating, pointing to a small study in which 75 percent of people at an eating disorder treatment facility reported having used a calorie counting app, with 73 percent reporting they felt the app contributed to their disorders.
“In terms of attaining improved health markers, research indicates that focusing on behavior change and health promoting behaviors is indicative of sustainable wellness,” says Hackney. Among the changes she recommends are increasing physical activity, upping consumption of fruits and vegetables, reducing alcohol and smoking as well as simply eating when hungry and stopping when full.
“While the classic ‘move your body, eat your veggies, get sleep and drink water’ are very unsexy clichés, they hold true in leading to improvements on a person’s long-term wellness,” says Hackney.
Emma Heilbronner, an intuitive eating and wellness coach in the Boston area, is also against the idea of making calorie counting the basis of weight loss and/or health goals.
"A focus on calories disconnects us from our bodies and ultimately is not a healthy behavior because of the obsession it can cause and brain space it takes up,” says Heilbronner. Instead, she recommends going down the intuitive eating route in order to maintain good mental health enjoy food, and not have to spend all of one’s time counting calories.
“Intuitive eating is a great choice for people who are sick and tired of diet culture ruling their lives (the second you become aware of diet culture, you'll start to see it everywhere) and for people who are interested in a life of food freedom and body peace,” says Heilbronner. This particular way of eating has been lauded by celebrities like Demi Lovato for actually aiding in reducing disordered eating.
At the end of the day, experts seem united in understanding that while counting calories can be helpful for aiding weight loss for those who need it, it’s certainly not the only or even the main component for eating a healthful diet. To truly eat healthier, one needs to find a balance, lean heavily on vegetables and fruits, eat more mindfully, and when unsure of how to proceed, seek out help from trusted sources.
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