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The pros and cons of calorie counting

Are you trying to lose a little weight? Calorie counting is hailed as one of the many paths to weight loss, but the jury is still out on whether it is the healthy way to reach your goals.

The scoop on calorie counting
Woman logging her calories

Counting calories is a hotly debated topic in the world of health and wellbeing. Some people swear by this method, claiming that it educates dieters on how to make better food choices and helps them reach their weight loss goals.

On the other hand, critics believe that calorie counting leads to neuroses in that the dieter becomes obsessed with thinking about food and ends up losing all sense of enjoyment. When it comes to calorie counting, both sides have valid points, but experts generally agree that its effectiveness depends on the person.

What is calorie counting?

Calorie counting diets rely on recording the nutritional value of every morsel of food that goes into your mouth. Calorie counting is based on the idea that in order to lose weight, you must be eating less “energy” than you burn off (through exercise or the natural metabolic process). Basically, our bodies convert the calories ingested from food into sources of fuel. However, if a person eats more calories than they actually need, the metabolism process slows down and those calories end up being stored as fat. While metabolism is a very complex process, calorie counting is one way that dieters try to monitor their calorie intake.

Pros of calorie counting

Keeps you accountable

By forcing you to think about what you’re eating, calorie counting keeps you accountable. It’s been proven that if you have to record every single thing you eat, you’re more likely to make better choices. After all, no-one wants the guilt trip that comes with reading through a food diary or an app that details your daily chocolate indulgences! The key? If you don’t want to write it down, it’s probably not a good idea. This works really well if you have someone else monitoring your food intake, such as a personal trainer.

Leads to better choices

Calorie counting involves familiarising yourself with the nutritional value of food, which can both help you make better choices and steer you away from others. For instance, when you realise that the Lindt chocolate ball you’re craving is 60 calories — an amount that would take 15 minutes of brisk jogging on the treadmill to burn off — you might reconsider. You also might search for a lower calorie and, thus, healthier option, all the while learning more about nutrition.

Motivates you to exercise

The calories burned during workouts can be subtracted from your daily calorie limit. In a way, measuring your workouts serves as a reminder that every single bit of exercise you do brings you one step closer to your weight loss goals. It can also help motivate you to exercise more on a day when you may have overeaten. For instance, if you are on 1200 calories a day (which is a good number for women trying to lose weight), but you’ve reached 1500, a workout worth 300 calories will help you finish the day in a calorie deficit.

Takes out the guesswork

By recording every meal and exercise session, you’re going through the motions that will help you lose weight. You’ll realise that every day counts and when you start seeing results, you’ll be motivated to continue. Calorie counting really can fast-track your nutrition and exercise and enable you to reach your weight loss goals quicker. But make sure you maintain a healthy approach — anything under 1200 calories a day is considered starvation.

Cons of calorie counting

It can become obsessive

This method can quickly become an obsession, as dieters get addicted to thinking about what food and exercise they can do in order to end the day on a calorie deficit. In fact, knowing too much about the foods we eat can alter our “intuitive eating”, taking the joy out of eating. For instance, some calorie counters will automatically see an apple as 200 calories, rather than seeing it as the healthy, natural and tasty fruit that it is. In addition, people with addictive personalities may push themselves further, eating less and less calories until their body is in starvation mode.

All calories are not created equal

When you count calories, you are counting energy as well as macronutrients like protein, carbs and fat. However, micronutrients such as vitamins and fibre are often ignored in favour of thinking about the “bad” stuff. As such, calorie counting might lead you to think that lower calorie foods are better — and this is not always the case.

Whole foods often have higher calories because they contain healthy fats, the type of fat needed to nourish our body. For example, fresh avocado is loaded with healthy fats and nutrients, but contains more calories than low fat mayonnaise. If you take calories at face value and always choose processed options marketed as “low fat”, you could be missing out on the nutrients that your body craves.

It’s anti-social

It’s no secret that calorie counting is a tedious task, and one that can lead to anti-social behaviour. For it to work, you have to commit to weighing and logging everything you eat. It makes sense that calorie counting works best when you prepare simple yet nutritious meals yourself. When calorie counters are placed in social situations, they may find themselves stressed, guilty, or unwilling to eat. No-one wants to sit next to someone who spends their time picking at their food and playing around on My Fitness Pal! To curb guilt and cravings and enjoy a proper social life, allow yourself to indulge in a “cheat meal” once a week.

More about eating and dieting

How to remove processed food from your everyday diet
Get the facts on the raw food diet
8 Diet mistakes

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