The Controversy of Counting Calories

updated May 1, 2019
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I’m pretty sure I was counting calories before I learned to ride a bike. It’s the only kind of math I’ve ever been any good at. I’ve had so very much practice, after all. For me, dutifully measuring and weighing what I eat and then recording the calories has always been, hands down, the most effective way to lose weight. Yet I have been discouraged from doing this simple self-monitoring by doctors, friends, therapists, and nutritionists alike, because calories have become increasingly controversial.

A calorie is simply a unit of measurement. It tells us how much energy our bodies can potentially extract from a food. I used to believe strongly in the “calories in, calories out” theory of weight loss, the idea that as long as you are burning more calories than you are eating, you will lose weight. But that idea has been called into question for myriad reasons. Clearly, it’s not so simple.

Everyone’s digestive tract is made up of a unique combination of microorganisms, and they don’t all work exactly the same. If an apple has 100 calories, one person’s body may extract 99 of them while another person can use only 80. We now know that we can’t absorb some of the calories in certain nuts.

And if you’ve ever read Gary Taubes’ fascinating book Good Calories, Bad Calories, you are well aware that certain kinds of calories (refined carbs) seem to stoke our hunger hormones, causing us to eat more, while other types of calories (fat and protein) seem to help us eat less.

There’s no doubt that the whole subject is complicated, but I don’t have to understand the fine grain science of calories to know that counting them helps me lose weight.

For me, it all comes down mindfulness. I don’t set a calorie limit or goal—instead I try to adhere to my own philosophy of what to eat—but I find tracking what I eat eliminates mindless eating. If I know I have to record every bite, I notice, measure, and remember what goes into my mouth. This self-monitoring is tremendously helpful when it comes to making conscious food choices. Even without restricting calories, I will reliably lose weight as a result of paying such close attention.

This practice also has the bonus of exposing calorie-bombs in my diet I have been overlooking or underestimating. For example, my husband likes to make hot chocolate. He uses a high quality 98% cacao chocolate, whole grass-fed milk, and dark brown sugar. I would have estimated the calories at something like 350. But when I crunched the numbers, I saw that the actual damage is more like 600 calories. Needless to say, the next time we make hot chocolate it will be with a different recipe and I’ll look at the nutrition break down first.

Another argument against counting calories is that it can make a person obsessive about food restriction and weight loss. I can see that point, and would discourage anyone from going down that road. In the past, I’ve let calorie counting keep me away from social events or dinners out when I wouldn’t have a precise way to track what I ate. That’s bad. This time, I don’t do that. I just eat whatever I eat and guesstimate the best I can when I get home. For me, that blunts the tendency toward un healthy obsession and keeps the practice of calorie counting something I can live with.

Now, I don’t expect to be counting calories every day for the rest of my life, but I do plan to continue tracking what I eat until I hit my goal weight. After that, I will take a break with the understanding that I’ll return to calorie counting if my weight creeps up. There may be good reasons to for certain people to avoid it, but calorie counting is a tool that works for me.

Loving Food While Losing Weight

Is it possible to talk about the fraught space of food, body, and weight in a healthy, thoughtful way? We think so, and we’re presenting a monthlong column exploring one food-lover and food writer’s journey towards finding her own personal balance. Joy Manning is joining us this month with her own stories, practical tips, recipes, and perspective on the real-life struggle between loving food and loving your body.