Counting calories can be a great way to monitor your food intake but it’s not for everyone. The main risk with this method is reducing our calories too drastically by following a 1500 or 2000 calorie restriction recommended by the internet or an app. Someone who normally eats 3000 calorie would find it difficult to change to a 1500 calorie eating pattern overnight. If they successfully reduce their calorie by such a deficit they become at high risk for metabolic adaptation and weight regain (for more information on this refer to the post weight regain).
Counting calories can also lead to the development of eating disorders by encouraging an obsession with food intake. Consider Alice, who is a young professional just starting out her career. After a year at her desk job she realizes she is gaining weight, her doctor even told her she is now living with obesity. Alice decides to go on a calorie restriction of 1500 calories. After about 6 month she has lost weight and feels great but she’s hit a plateau. She decides she needs to lower her calories even more, she goes down to 1300 calories per day. When the second plateau hits 4 months later she decides to start exercising 30 minutes daily, which she is convinced will also improve her low energy levels. Despite her strict adherence to her calorie restriction and exercise she continues to hit plateau after plateau. It’s been 3 years since the start of her life changes and Alice is now consuming 700 calories per day and exercising 2 hours daily. She is exhausted and her job performance is decreasing, she is no longer living with obesity but she isn’t as small as she wants to be. Her friends and family don’t notice her eating behavior and since she doesn’t look malnourished her doctor only congratulates her on her weight loss. From obsessing over her food intake and her weight Alice is developing anorexia. For Alice it might go unnoticed for a very long time as she started with a heavier weight and isn’t the malnourished picture of anorexia. Her weight loss journey originally intended to improve her health backfired and caused her to develop an illness that can be just as devastating on her health as obesity.
Alice’s story is an extreme case but unfortunately this scenario happens more often than we think. Another, even more popular eating disorder that can develop by counting our calories is binge eating. This disorder is described as frequently consuming extreme amounts of food in one sitting while feeling like our eating behavior is out of our control. By counting our calories and causing extreme calorie deficit rapidly we put ourselves at risk simply because we become desperately hungry. At one point our brain signals for calorie dense food will take over. Sadly after a binge episode people tend to feel very disappointed in themselves, it leads to thoughts such as “I just don’t have enough self control” or “I lack willpower”. Those thoughts lead to stress and sometimes feelings of depression which in turn might exacerbate the developing disorder. Most importantly those thoughts are not true, it is not about willpower or self control but simply our bodies adaptive system for survival.
On the other side, calorie counting can be great to keep us accountable. Sometimes we don’t realize all the calories contained in our snacking. The problem is most people start a calorie restriction without knowing how much calorie they normally consume. If your considering this method take a week or 2 to keep a calorie journal or track your calorie intake in an app. This will help you in two ways, it’ll help you practice keeping track of your calories and let you know if this is a feasible option for you long term. It will also give you a baseline, if you find out you consume about 3500 calories per day going to 3200 or 3300 calories per day would be a great start. Simply keeping a food journal without counting calorie can also go a long way, you might notice specific times you tend to snack on calorie dense items and explore the root cause. Counting calories can also help you if you don’t know much about nutrition and appropriate serving size. For example, if you give yourself X amount of calorie for a snack and you want a nut bar. Counting your calories might encourage you to look at the nutrition labels and become aware of healthier options. Another example, if you only have X amount of calories to eat for a snack you might explore option you normally wouldn’t that will provide you a bigger portion like fresh fruits or vegetables.
If you are considering calorie counting as a weight loss approach, assess your relationship with food and your personality. It’s important to start with a healthy food relationship and maintain it through the process. Some personalities are more prone to develop eating disorders; do you tend to obsess over things? Do you have a history of an eating disorder? Finally, if you decide to count your calories and notice becoming obsessive or developing a distorted relationship with food, stop counting. Change is very difficult but you can still make it enjoyable, appreciate how the process of being aware of your food intake changes your view of certain food. Even try to analyze how that new found awareness changes your daily food habit.
Last piece of advice, if you’re constantly hungry, you’re restricting yourself too much!