Healthy eating (and maintaining an ideal body weight) is part of life for many people, and there are gobs of ways you can go about it. Counting calories is one well-known strategy for many — after all, if you're taking in fewer calories than you're burning, you should lose weight, right? After all, the Centers for Disease Control has a whole page on the topic. Well, although this has been a basic tenet of weight loss and healthy eating in the U.S. for decades, there is some recent research that shows it may not be the best way to go about it. Here are the pros and cons of counting calories with a few experts who have experience and knowledge on their side.
While it does make sense that caloric deficits can lead to weight loss, these little units of measurements aren't the whole story according to Dr. Paul Sacher, registered dietitian and Slimming World chief research and development officer.
"Anyone who has been on a traditional diet or counted calories will know just how miserable feeling hungry and deprived can make you, and even someone with strong willpower is unlikely to be able to sustain this type of plan for any length of time," he explains.
Rather than relying on basic math and looking at the caloric content of the foods you eat, it's important to look at other factors within the foods themselves. "Instead of counting calories, looking at food through the lens of energy density (the calories per gram in a food) and satiety (how filling a food is) will allow people to eat a long list of everyday foods that are low in calories and highly satisfying freely without weighing, measuring or counting," he says.
In other words, the more satisfying a food is, the more likely it is to keep you full for a longer period of time, which results in a huge win — you don't have to number-crunch every bite that passes your lips, and you can lose weight without feeling like you're going to starve to death. Sacher notes that foods that are more satisfying include items like grains, pasta, fish, lean meats, eggs, fruits, vegetables and potatoes.
Haley Hughes, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, says calories do matter, but not necessarily from a straight number standpoint. "Counting calories is not always the perfect solution for weight management," she notes. If someone focuses on a strict calorie count, they're not looking at the bigger nutritional picture and how your food affects not only your weight, but your health.
If you focus on calories only, your diet may be lacking important components that, if they're missing, can negatively affect your health — namely, heart-healthy fats, fiber and protein. "When is comes to general health, it's important to eat a variety of foods that accommodate your body's functional needs and energy expenditure," she explains.
On the other hand, it's possible that you really have no idea how many calories you're consuming every day, and calorie counting may work for you, says Pam Sherman, a certified personal trainer with 21 years of experience. She says that calorie counting "in the old days" (with pen and paper) has now evolved with the proliferation of smartphones and health/fitness apps, such as My Fitness Pal, which makes calorie counting easier than ever. She says through all her years of experience, she's never had a client lose weight successfully without keeping a journal or using such an app.
"People usually are shocked by how many calories are in things like a coffee drink or a restaurant meal," she says. "Tracking gets them honest about what and how much they eat."
So, yes, calories do matter from a basic standpoint — if you're hoping to lose weight, you should strive to consume fewer calories than you burn. But it may not be the perfect answer you're looking for, and cutting calories may leave you nutritionally deficient — it's important to find a balance that works for you. Also, there may be other strategies that work better (such as time-restricted feeding, where you only eat during certain hours of the day).
The bottom line is that calories do matter, but you don't necessarily have to count them down to the very last crumb.
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