Should you count calories to lose weight?
Though you need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight, in my opinion, there are some individual factors to consider before you decide to count calories.
Who shouldn’t count calories:
If you’ve ever had an eating disorder, or have had a preoccupation with weight, calories, dieting, or excessive exercise to burn calories, it’s probably not appropriate to count calories. When food and calorie counts start to take up too much mental space, it can interfere with the joys of eating and living. In this case, taking another approach to your health and wellness would be better. Even if your goal is to lose weight, there are other ways to go about it that would be healthier for you than a calorie count method.
If you’re tracking your exercise, then you may be better off giving the calorie counting a rest. First off, calorie tracking apps estimate the calories you should be eating to lose or maintain weight, but they’re just that: estimates. And second, experiments with fitness trackers reveal they overestimate the number of calories you burn working out—especially if you’re participating in tough workouts. (They’re better at estimating walking.) So if you’re tracking your workout and then eating every last calorie allocated to you without thinking about whether you’re hungry or full, it’s possible that you’re eating more than you need, and therefore, weight loss would stall (or worse, you’d gain weight). In this case, you should work with a dietitian who can help support your exercise and eating goals.
If you’re not paying attention to the quality of foods you eat, then I’d suggest that you skip calorie counting and focus more on quality—even if your goal is to lose weight. One small study examined the impact of eating whole foods compared to processed ones, with the only difference being the level of processing. The two meals consisted of cheese sandwiches, with one made using cheddar cheese and whole grain bread and the other made from American cheese and white bread. Calories, carbs, fat, and protein composition of the meals were the same, and the same participants were evaluated after eating each of the meals on different days. Researchers found that the post-meal calorie burn was almost 50% lower after eating the processed cheese sandwich compared to the whole foods one, suggesting that the quality of foods is more important than the calorie level. In other words, it takes less work for your body to digest processed foods so you get a metabolic edge by eating more whole foods. Other studies have reported similar findings.
Who should count calories to lose weight?
In my opinion, if you want to lose weight, it’s more important to be calorie aware than to count calories. Still, some people find counting calories incredibly helpful. If you’re someone who likes some structure, counting calories might help you lose weight. In this case, you might use calorie counts as a rough guide, selecting quality foods that make you feel great, but staying within your target range. I’ve also found that some people find it helpful to turn to calorie counting if they’ve put on some weight and want to determine where their eating habits may have loosened up. In this case, tracking foods and calories may provide useful feedback.
Keep in mind that if you’re counting calories, it’s still important to continue to tune in to your own appetite. Are you comfortably full? That means that after you eat, you’re satisfied and energized, not sluggish. If you have lingering thoughts of food or intense cravings, it’s possible you’re over-relying on calorie counts and not eating sufficient amounts or the right foods to meet your body’s needs, which can make it difficult to lose weight.