Many people choose to start calorie tracking as a means to lose weight or to feel more in control of their eating habits. While it may seem helpful, calorie tracking can leave you out of touch with your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues while also contributing to disordered eating habits.
If obsessive thoughts about calories, tracking, and food dominate your life, it may be time to break up with your calorie app. Learn more about why calorie counting may not be the best strategy to improve health and how to stop calorie counting for good by honoring your internal cues.
Why Doesn’t Calorie Counting Work?
Firstly, it’s important to understand why calorie counting is not an effective long-term tool. You’ve most likely heard the phrase “calories in versus calories out” in the context of weight management. This is based on the idea that if you eat fewer calories than you burn (i.e., a calorie deficit), you’ll lose weight.
While this can be true in the short term, the body has complex mechanisms in place to protect itself from weight loss. These include slowing the metabolism to conserve energy and increasing hunger and drive to eat.1
Long-term studies show that most people who lose weight on purpose regain the weight within five years, often regaining more than was initially lost. This is not due to a lack of willpower or adherence to the diet. Weight regain is seen even in those who strictly follow the diet long term.2
Even if calorie counting was effective for weight loss, it can be challenging to do accurately. The food databases in calorie apps often contain errors. It’s hard to correctly track your serving size and all the ingredients you use. Lastly, tracking your calories is time-consuming!
When Calorie Counting is Counterproductive
Calorie counting can have negative impacts on your relationship with food and your body image as well. Research shows that calories counting is associated with increased eating disorder behaviors and lower awareness of hunger and fullness cues.3, 4
If you track calories, you’ve likely encountered the following situation: you’ve already eaten your allotted calories for the day, but now you’re hungry for a bedtime snack. You try to ignore the hunger and go to sleep instead.
The opposite scenario also occurs: You are satisfied with what you’ve eaten for dinner and no longer feel hungry, but you have calories left in your daily goal. Instead of “wasting them,” you continue eating past the point of fullness.
Listening to external cues to guide your eating can make you out of touch with your body’s natural hunger and fullness signals while making you hyper-fixated on your food choices. Obsessive calorie counting can feed into disordered eating habits, like skipping meals, binge eating, or orthorexia.3
You may have difficulty enjoying social situations because you don’t have the nutrition information and you could potentially exceed your calorie goal. If you take a step back, you might realize that calorie counting is counterproductive to your health goals.
How to Stop Calorie Counting
It can feel scary to let go of the control of calorie counting. You may wonder how you will know the “right” portions to eat. You might be fearful about weight gain.
Working with a non-diet registered dietitian can be very useful for learning how to move away from calorie-tracking apps and tuning in with your body’s signals. There are a few strategies you can use to get started.
We live in a world of data and tracking. You can track calories, steps, weight, sleep, and more. All this information can be overwhelming and sometimes contributes to an unhealthy relationship with food and your body image.
The first step in stopping calorie tracking is to delete your tracking app from your phone. If this feels too scary, you can start by limiting your tracking to once per week, for example, before cutting it out completely.
Once you stop tracking, you may have the urge to start weighing your food or measuring your portions. These practices are similar to calorie tracking because they are external cues that dictate how much you should eat. You may also want to take a break from weighing yourself.
If you’re the type of person who likes collecting health data, consider a mindfulness food log instead of a calorie-tracking app. In this method, you can track what you ate and how you felt afterward. Note if you felt satisfied, were feeling any strong emotions while eating, or experienced any gastrointestinal symptoms.
Here is an example of a basic mindfulness food log with a few entries. Notice that it does not include detailed information about portions or calories.
- 8:00 am - breakfast sandwich (feeling satisfied and energized)
- 2:00 pm - leftover lasagna (felt very hungry before eating because lunch got delayed; still feeling hungry after eating)
- 3:00 pm - a few cookies, a granola bar, an apple (feeling a little overly full now; also feeling stressed from work; ate in front of computer)
Try Intuitive Eating
After giving up calorie tracking, you may wonder how to dictate what you eat and how much. Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach that can help you improve your relationship with food and pursue health improvements if desired.
There are a few primary principles of intuitive eating:5
- Listening to your hunger and fullness cues.
- Unconditional permission to eat the foods you desire.
- Honoring your health.
This shift to respecting your internal hunger and fullness cues rather than relying on external cues, like calorie goals, can be difficult. You can start by tuning in to your appetite throughout the day. Notice when you are feeling hungry. Identify which foods feel satisfying to you. Note the times you feel overly full after eating. This feedback can help guide future choices.
Using mindful eating strategies can help you be more in tune with your body while eating. Some examples include slowing down eating, limiting distractions, and savoring the food.
If you are recovering from an eating disorder or have spent years dieting, your appetite may be skewed or unreliable. This can sometimes make it challenging to eat intuitively, and you might consider reaching out to a non-diet dietitian for some support.
Aim to eat regularly throughout the day, avoiding large gaps between meals. When you are unsure what to eat, learn to listen to your body's needs.
Build Healthy Habits
If you want to improve your health and well-being, you can still focus on positive lifestyle habits without tracking your calories. For example, you can set realistic goals around choosing nutritious foods, moving your body, improving your sleep habits, or managing stress.
Research shows that building habits like these are more effective at improving health than intentional weight loss.1 Chances are, you’re more likely to stick to your goals if they are not tied to external measures like calories or weight.
The concept of “gentle nutrition” can be helpful here. Think about your diet as a whole. Are there any foods you feel like you could be eating more frequently? Practice adding nutritious foods to your diet rather than taking things away or restricting them.
The idea behind intuitive eating is that if we listen to our bodies, we will naturally eat a balanced variety of foods over time to meet our needs.5
Nourish Can Help
Here at Nourish, our registered dietitians can help you break up with your calorie-tracking app for good, all while building a positive relationship with food and helping you reach your personal health goals.
Visits are virtual and covered by insurance. Get started with Nourish today.
- Harris R. B. (1990). Role of set-point theory in regulation of body weight. FASEB journal : official publication of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 4(15), 3310–3318.
- Bacon, L., & Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight science: evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition Journal, 10, 9.
- Simpson, C. C., & Mazzeo, S. E. (2017). Calorie counting and fitness tracking technology: Associations with eating disorder symptomatology. Eating behaviors, 26, 89–92.
- Romano, K. A., Swanbrow Becker, M. A., Colgary, C. D., & Magnuson, A. (2018). Helpful or harmful? The comparative value of self-weighing and calorie counting versus intuitive eating on the eating disorder symptomology of college students. Eating and weight disorders : EWD, 23(6), 841–848.
- Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E. J. (2014). Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature review. Public health nutrition, 17(8), 1757–1766.
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