When it comes to losing weight, many people assume that they have to count their calories. Although your food intake does matter, focusing strictly on calories can actually end up being detrimental to your health; in fact, it can even hinder your weight loss goals. One study published in the journal JAMA found that subjects who cut down on their intake of sugar, refined grains, and highly processed foods lost more weight than those who calculated all their calories. Instead of obsessing over numbers, there are other healthy ways to help you get fit. According to the experts, here’s why you shouldn’t count calories, and what you can do instead.
It can lead to unbalanced meals.
You may have heard the phrase “calories in, calories out,” but that mindset can be deceiving. “It gives people the false interpretation that they can eat anything as long as they’re burning off those calories,” says Kelly Chase, certified holistic health coach and Aaptiv trainer. “The calories in need to be made up of nutrient-dense, whole foods—not unhealthy foods, such as processed foods or sugars. We need to be eating well-balanced meals consisting of vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, whole grains, and proteins.”
It can be dangerous.
Your health depends on more than just your weight. Unfortunately, trying to count calories can negatively affect other areas of your health. “If someone is experiencing any hormonal or metabolism challenges already, going into a deficit could only mean more harm than help,” says Chase. “I advise anyone looking to make a change to their bodies to seek support from a medical professional or health coach.”
It can hinder muscle growth.
When you’re working out and trying out new habits, you might want to be gaining muscle, as well as losing weight. Eating too few calories means that you may not be building the muscle you want. “The question then is, ‘Do I follow a caloric deficit to lose weight, or do I eat in maintenance or in surplus to gain muscle?’” says Chase. “This can be contradictory, confusing, and frustrating. We need to have a healthy relationship with food. When our bodies are put under stress, they hold on to unwanted fat.”
It can cultivate a poor relationship with food.
You might be focused just on what you look like, but your mental health matters, as well. “Counting calories shifts the focus from the actual food and places it on its caloric value,” says Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, CLC. “Rather than looking at the nutrients [that] the food can provide, counting calories places value on the energy that the food delivers. This can lead to dangerous restrictive eating patterns.”
It can increase your intake of unhealthy “diet” foods.
“When the focus is on the calorie, there is an increased risk of turning to diet foods and beverages that deliver the promise of fewer calories,” says Feller. “Yes, these products are calorie-controlled. But, they often have additives, fillers, and preservatives to replace the calories that were removed, while maintaining taste and mouthfeel.”
It’s not sustainable.
You might be okay to count calories for a short amount of time, but it’s not always effective in the long run. “For some, counting calories is not a sustainable activity or way of life,” says Feller. “It requires strict adherence with no deviation from the plan. This is simply not in line with many peoples lives and cannot be maintained in a pleasurable way over time.”
What To Do Instead
Instead of counting calories, there are a number of healthier ways that you can get in shape and lose weight.
Aim for balance.
Eating the right balance of foods is important. To make sure that you’re getting all the nutrients you need, try the plate method. “With my clients, I focus on half the plate consisting of non-starchy vegetables, 1/4 protein, and 1/4 carbohydrates,” says Haley Hughes MS, RD, CDE. “This is a great way to control portion sizes and measure visually, instead of having to track every calorie.”
Learn portion sizes.
Hughes also strongly encourages clients to actually measure foods out a few times to see what the portion size looks like. “Most of us tend to underestimate things, like how much cereal we pour in the bowl or how many handfuls of trail mix we are eating,” she says. “I suggest starting with reading the nutrition label and figuring out whether the portion size is right for you.”
Opt for whole foods.
Quality often matters more than quantity. Make sure that you eat a steady intake of whole and minimally-processed foods that are both flavor-rich and nutritious. “I also like to remind my patients that it’s not about one single meal, but rather intake over time,” says Feller.
When it comes to weight loss, try to focus more on what types of food you’re eating rather than how many calories they contain.