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You’re in the midst of a busy day, squeezing in family time, exercise, and work when you finally find a moment to grab a snack. Several handfuls in, you casually turn the package over and start scanning the food label. What do you look for first? For many, it’s calories.

Let's face it, we’ve been conditioned to be calorie-conscious since childhood. We grew up in the wake of 100-calorie snack packs, meal replacement shakes, and low-fat frozen dinners, all of which sent one very clear message: Eat fewer calories. These trends have evolved over the decades, but our inclination to track calories remains the same.

Is calorie counting healthy? As someone who’s diligently counted calories and practiced intuitive eating, I believe the answer is different for everyone. Understanding the potential benefits and risks is key to determining what's best for you.

What Is Calorie Counting?

First, let's talk about calories. Calories are units that measure the amount of energy provided to the body through the foods we eat. Your body uses calories to fuel your muscles, brain, and heart. Calories are also utilized during digestion and supply the energy needed to perform physical activities. 

Calorically dense foods provide the body with more energy than foods with fewer calories. Calorie counting involves logging the number of calories you eat throughout the day. This can be done by keeping a written log or using a calorie-tracking app or website. 

Calorie counting is commonly used as an accountability tool for weight loss. Although it sounds straightforward, counting calories takes more effort than you'd think. Entering every food item you eat, including portion size, into an app is time-consuming and tedious. 

Should I Count Calories Or Just Eat Healthily?

Deciding whether to count calories vs. just eating more nutrient-dense foods is a personal choice. Understanding the potential pros and cons of calorie counting can help you decide. 

If weight loss is your goal, calorie counting provides a form of accountability. Tracking what you eat could inspire you to plan your meals out ahead of time instead of thoughtlessly grabbing whatever is most readily available. Additionally, calorie counting takes the guesswork out of wondering if you’re in a calorie deficit. You can make data-based decisions about what to eat that fit within your daily calorie goal. 

On the other hand, tracking your calories takes work. Entering foods and portion sizes into an app several times throughout the day is inconvenient and time-consuming. For this reason, counting calories is likely not a long-term solution. Furthermore, humans are notorious for underestimating how much they eat, causing calorie records to be inaccurate. Most importantly, diligently tracking your calories can lead to disordered eating tendencies. Skipping meals, cutting out food groups, and feeling guilt or shame when you exceed your calorie goal are signs of disordered eating. If you find yourself slipping into unhealthy eating behaviors, it’s best to stop calorie counting. 

Is Counting Calories a Healthy Way to Lose Weight?

Calorie counting can be an effective way to lose weight when done sensibly. For weight loss, aim to be in a slight calorie deficit rather than drastically reducing calories. Cutting calories too quickly is not sustainable and will likely lead to weight cycling. Also, avoid going into calorie counting with an “all or nothing” mindset. Going over your calorie goal or choosing to eat energy-dense foods doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it just means you're human. 

Calorie counting may help you kickstart your weight loss but isn’t a long-term practice for most. Use the tool as a guide to help you learn about the foods you're eating and to maintain a slight calorie deficit. After a while, you may find you don’t want to track your food intake because you trust yourself enough to make choices that align with your goals. 

Aside From Weight Loss, Are There Any Benefits to Calorie Counting?

If tracking your calories in an app, you’re likely to learn about the nutrients in the foods you're eating. These apps (like apps that track macros) not only count calories but also keep track of the macronutrients and micronutrients in the foods you enter. People who want to gain more physical strength might use calorie-counting apps or websites to track their protein intake. Tracking macros vs counting calories can be two different things, but ultimately you want to know how much your eating of both.

Additionally, someone with heart or kidney disease may use the calorie counting tool to help them monitor and reduce their sodium intake. Ultimately, gaining knowledge about the foods you eat through calorie counting tools may help you eat more balanced meals and manage or prevent chronic diseases.

Is It Mentally Healthy to Count Calories?

Calorie counting can be mentally and emotionally taxing. Using a calorie tracker could lead to disordered eating habits that put your mental health in jeopardy. If tracking your calorie intake results in feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety, it’s best to stop this practice.

An unhealthy obsession with counting calories, only choosing what you consider the healthiest foods, and eliminating foods you believe to be harmful can be indicative of an underlying eating disorder. Orthorexia, for instance, is an eating disorder that involves an unhealthy fixation with only eating the healthiest foods that can have severe consequences. Sometimes what starts as an intention to become healthier can lead to serious mental health complications. If your beliefs about food are sabotaging your mental health, seek support from a qualified mental health professional. 

Who’s a Good Candidate For Calorie Counting?

The best candidate for calorie counting is someone who has a healthy relationship with food and body image. Achieving sustainable weight loss by tracking your food intake and implementing other lifestyle changes can be a long journey. Appreciating your body at every size along the way is ideal when adopting and maintaining new eating habits.

People with health conditions like diabetes, kidney disease, or heart disease may also be good candidates for calorie counting. Calorie-counting tools can be a valuable resource for those wanting to decrease or increase their intake of certain nutrients to prevent or manage chronic diseases. 

Who Isn’t?

Calorie counting is not recommended for those with a history of disordered eating. Some signs of disordered eating are listed below.

  • Cutting out food groups 
  • Skipping meals 
  • Binge eating 
  • Feeling guilt, shame, or anxiety associated with food 
  • Obsessively counting calories or weighing food 
  • Determining self-worth based on calorie intake

What Can I Do Instead of Calorie Counting?

Plenty of people can lose weight without counting calories by making various nutrition and lifestyle changes. Think about the foods you eat regularly. Is your diet full of calorically dense foods that lack important nutrients? While these foods might taste good, they won’t keep you feeling full for very long and do little for your physical health. You might snack more throughout the day because your food choices don’t contain the nutrients that promote satiety. Think about swapping some of these foods for other nutrient-dense options rich in fiber and protein. You may find that you're eating less, which could be enough to put you in a calorie deficit. 

Other considerations:

  • Listen to your hunger/satiety cues. So many of us eat on autopilot and don’t even notice when we are full until we are physically uncomfortable. Eat slowly, taste your food, and pause to assess your satiety level.
  • Develop coping mechanisms for when you’re sad, stressed, or bored. Emotional hunger is a natural response, but eating shouldn’t be your go-to coping method when faced with challenging emotions. Consider taking a walk, calling a friend, or journaling instead.

Top Calorie Counting Tips From a Registered Dietitian

  1. If your goal is weight loss, aim to be in a slight calorie deficit rather than drastically reducing calories. Cutting calories too quickly is usually not sustainable.  
  2. Utilize calorie counting tools to learn more about foods you're eating, including their macronutrient and micronutrient content. This can be especially helpful for those wanting to manage a chronic disease with nutrition.
  3. Do not equate eating fewer calories with eating a more nutritious diet. Just because you are logging your calorie intake doesn’t mean you are choosing more nutrient-rich foods overall.
  4. Think of calorie counting goals as suggestions rather than strict guidelines. Going over your calorie goal doesn’t mean you’ve failed. 
  5. Honor your mental health. If calorie counting is causing you distress or you’re developing an unhealthy relationship with food, consider other options. 

Final Thoughts on Calorie Counting: Is It a Healthy Lifestyle?

Counting calories could help you lose weight, become more knowledgeable about the foods you’re eating, and plan more balanced meals ahead of time. For those with chronic health conditions, calorie counting tools provide nutrient insight valuable for disease management. On the flip side, tracking calories can be tedious and is usually not sustainable long-term. Tracking calories could lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and should be avoided if you have a history of disordered eating. Deciding whether or not to count calories is a personal choice. Considering your specific goals, diet history, and relationship with food can help you determine what’s best for you. Discuss calorie counting with your doctor or registered dietitian to ensure it’s implemented safely.

About the Author
Perry Nix, MS, RD, LD

Perry Nix is a Clinical Dietitian and Nutrition Writer. She has experience providing health education in public health, corporate wellness, and clinical settings. Her passion is breaking down complex nutrition information into bite-sized pieces that are easy to digest and apply.

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