Why you shouldn't count calories

If you're in the same state of mind as everyone else in January, you might be considering counting your calories as a means to controlling your diet.

On first inspection, it seems like a smart move - after all, weight loss can only happen if you eat less than you burn off - the thing is, counting calories is a poor choice for most people I meet and here's why:

1. It's rarely worth the effort

Let's say you eat like everyone else does. Regular folk:

  • Don't rigidly plan their meals

  • Eat without thinking too much in advance

  • Consider food primarily as an enjoyable and social part of life.

Then you ask your friendly neighbourhood trainer for help with your nutrition:

"Ok, the first thing I'm going to need you to do is download an app so you can record your food and count your calories. You'll need to weigh and measure everything you eat, so we can see where you're at and then adjust as we go forward"

Understandably, your widening eyes reveal your reluctance, but your trainer (who's had this conversation at least a few times before) spots it and says:

"Look, it's not that hard. I've been doing this pretty much constantly for the last 4 years. If you want results this is what you have to do. Oh, and you'll need a good scale"

With your arm twisted, you go away and do your best to record everything. As expected, it's a huge faff.

Cooking takes at least twice as long because of all the weighing/measuring and you can forget going out for lunch at work because your usual place doesn't list calories on the menu.

Instead you now spend your lunches sitting at the desk with a sad looking supermarket salad, whilst meekly repeating to concerned colleagues, 'I needed to buy something with nutrition information.'

Looking down at that salad you justify your lunacy, you want the results badly, 'It's only a few weeks until my holiday'.

Back in the consultation room, and your trainer is scrolling through your log.

"Ok, it seems to me that you're consuming a little bit too much to get to where you want to be in time for the holiday"

After all that effort, and two weeks of near perfect recording, you await the magic bullet, that golden piece of advice that will result from your food diary being analysed.

I think in order to reduce your calories I’d suggest you cut down your wine drinking, especially on weekdays”

All of that effort?! And the advice that you're receiving is that you should drink less wine? That's pretty bl*@dy obvious!

Measuring calories and doing a detailed nutrition analysis makes sense if you’re adjusting the diet of a professional athlete but forcing the average person to count their calories is complete overkill.

Calorie counting just results in clients feeling alienated from their day to day life and detached from their enjoyment of food.

So why does you trainer recommend it?

2. It's better for your trainer than it is for you

Calorie counting is effective in the short term because it builds up an external structure of restrictions, as opposed to forcing us to examine how our actions align with our values.

In simple terms it's like the difference between choosing to identify as a healthy person or identify as a non-healthy person who’s just ‘on a diet’.

All food choices are determined exclusively by your willingness to ‘spend’ some of your calories on a certain item of food. The issue is, external restrictions cannot last forever, eventually the plan will come to an end, and what happens then?

You know exactly what happens. Old habits creep back in, your life reverts to what it was before, and you end up creeping slowly back to where you started.

This is bad for you. Now, here's why it's good for your trainer.

If you’re given a calorie allowance by your trainer and you find yourself unable to follow it, your trainer can point the finger and blame your lack of motivation. On the other hand, if you do manage to follow the plan then you will most likely get your results and make them look clever, for the coach there is no risk.

Even better, after a few months you'll probably fall of the wagon and be ready to sign up again!

Forcing a client into a calorie counting plan is a sign of a lazy trainer who is not confident in their ability to help people change.

3. It’s not as precise as people think

Despite the fancy apps, the detailed food labels and the personalised calorie calculators, accurately measuring the amount of energy in any food is fraught with inaccuracies.

There are three main issues:

  1. The number of calories in each item of food varies significantly. A 200g beef fillet could be anywhere between 323kcals and 526kcals which is a 50% difference.

  2. We all digest food differently. Depending on age, hormones and genetics you could extract more or fewer calories from certain foods, and it is estimated to account for as much as a 10% difference between individuals

  3. As food is cooked it's partially digested, making more calories available for absorption. The length of cooking time and the type of cooking both affect calorie availability. Depending on the food type, it has been estimated to vary by as much as 90%.

Last, but my no means least, there is the human error.

Unless you intend on carrying around a digital scale and measure everything that goes into your mouth, you will have to make estimates and research shows people are useless at eyeballing portion sizes.

Even if you are insane and you do carry a pocket scale, are you really going to go into your friend’s kitchen and weigh all their ingredients while they’re making you dinner?

What to do?

To lose weight and get in shape, you need to do the really obvious stuff. You know what I'm talking about, it's different for everyone, but you know what your obvious stuff is. You need to replace some of your bad habits with better ones.

The hard part is deciding where to start, building momentum, staying motivated and then being patient.

It's a much more complex issue than simply asking how many calories are in your coffee but mastering those things will equip you with the tools to live well forever, on your terms, with no restrictions.

For me, that's worth giving a go


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