This time last year, I wouldn’t have eaten without carefully documenting the number of meals Calories I consumed and how much was left each day. I was eager to make changes to my body shape and improve my health, and had read that counting calories was the best approach.
Calorie counting is often considered an effective way to quantify nutrition. Apps like MyFitnessPal sleep They built their brands around determining how many calories in a Starbucks Grande Vanilla Latte (250) or banana you had for breakfast (105) for the stated purpose of helping users lose weight or make changes to their body shape. But is it really a healthy practice?
As with many trends emerging from the health and wellness industries, we need to critically assess both the promised benefits and potential risks. Self-proclaimed health experts on social media sites like Instagram and TikTok say weight loss comes down to calories in versus calories out. Depending on where you look, the research can deny or confirm the effectiveness of calorie counting. To find out the truth, I spoke to expert David Gaviria, a doctoral student in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
What is calorie counting?
A calorie expresses the nutritional value of a particular food or drink, but at its simplest, a calorie is a unit of energy. Calories are the units of measurement used to describe the amount of energy that is expended in a day (calories burned) or expended. They are essential to keeping us alive and keeping our organs functioning. Calories provide the body with energy to function and move, whether that’s breathing, running a mile, or digesting food.
It is true that in order to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume, and you can do this by changing your dietary habits and increasing your exercise. For many on their weight loss journey, practicing self-monitoring of every calorie consumed and burned in the day is an effective way to stay within a target calorie count to reach health or weight goals.
Calorie counting has really become popular as a result of diet culture, Gaviria said. While some people, such as athletes, may need to rely on calorie counting to ensure they are consuming enough energy to fuel rigorous exercise schedules, the goal has often been to manipulate weight status.
“Counting calories is not really a natural thing,” Gaviria said. “We eat food, not calories. And yes, our bodies convert food into calories that they use in daily functions, but it’s really just a quantitative way, or a number, of basically helping people maintain their diet or maintain their weight.”
What are the potential risks of calorie counting?
Although tracking your daily calories can be a tool for losing weight or making sure you’re properly fueling your body, it’s not an appropriate practice for everyone. For some, it has been linked to contributing to Eating disorders and an eating disorder.
This does not mean counting calories I can not They are beneficial, but they depend on the individual — including their health history, emotional relationship to food, and their own body. Risks can arise when counting calories, so it’s important to be aware of potential risks and warning signs to watch out for.
Accuracy is almost impossible
It’s notoriously difficult to keep track of your calorie intake accurately. For starters, it’s hard to know how many calories are in the food you’re eating. While there are many online guides to calorie counts for foods, getting accurate numbers is still not straightforward. For example, if you’re looking at the calories in 1/2 cup of rice, that number will vary if the rice is cooked or uncooked. It’s even more difficult for fruits and vegetables – if there are 110 calories in a banana, how big is that banana? With so many different sizes, each will have a different amount of calories.
“You have to know exactly what the calorie content of the food you’re eating is, and it’s hard to do that without being more precise by weighing and measuring things,” Gaviria said. “Not to mention it’s extremely time consuming, it takes a lot of brain space to be like, ‘Okay, if I need this meal, I only have 500 calories left, what meal can I make that’s going to be 500 calories?'” “
Besides trying to guess the calories in a given portion size and planning your daily meals down to a set number of calories, it can also be difficult to remember to keep track of every calorie.
Many forget to keep track of the oils or butters used for frying, the seasonings added to a sandwich or the dressing added to a salad. It’s easy to skip tracking full meals if you’re eating on the go. Even minor omissions can add up to 500 to 700 calories that don’t count.
Links to eating disorders and compulsive tracking
While many use calorie counting safely, the practice has been linked to causing food restriction beyond what is healthy or encouraging disordered eating. Calorie tracking is definitely not recommended for individuals with a history of eating disorders and weight or body disorders, as it can exacerbate symptoms and encourage a negative relationship with food.
One 2017 study found that of 105 people diagnosed with an eating disorder, 75% disclosed that they used an app (MyFitnessPal) to count calories, and 73% said they felt that app contributed to their eating disorder symptoms. While not all users of a calorie tracker experience unhealthy side effects, there is research to suggest that it can lead to a restrictive and unbalanced diet or may be associated with the pathology of elevated eating disorders.
“Some people think the research on calorie tracking shows it can put people at risk for eating disorders or compulsive tracking, but then there are some people who think the research shows it doesn’t,” Gaviria said. “I think it comes down to the individual and their particular circumstances. People need to take the time with themselves to realize whether or not this is a good process for them. And if they start doing it, and when they realize it is not a good process for them.”
When should someone stop counting calories?
It is possible that at some point, you may try to count calories either out of curiosity or to lose weight. If you decide to use calorie tracking regularly, as mentioned by Gaviria, it’s important to know when to stop.
Feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety are a sign that calorie tracking has become harmful and you should stop immediately. If you find yourself thinking about food a lot or worrying throughout the day about your future food choices and how they will fit into your calorie allotment, you should consider stopping. If you feel compelled to track calories while you’re cooking or eating, it could be a sign that you’re compulsively tracking.
The biggest indicator you need to stop tracking, Gaviria said, is if you’re asked to eat out and the first thing on your mind is your calorie window.
“If you start depriving yourself of social situations that you previously enjoyed because they won’t fit into your calories, that’s a big sign that you should reconsider what you’re doing,” said Gaviria.
Symptoms can also present physically, not just psychologically. Gaviria explained that if you suddenly don’t have an appetite during the day or lose your sense of hunger, it could be a sign that you’re not listening to your body. Lack of energy, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, and stopped menstruation are major signs of stopping. Sometimes it’s easier to recognize these physical signs before noticing what’s going on mentally.
Is there really a safe way to count calories?
Many find that counting calories is an effective way to maintain a calorie deficit and lose weight. CNET already has it A guide on expert-backed ways to count calories safely If you choose to do so, however, it is important to remember that body weight and shape are not the only indicators of your health. Indeed, there is Many other metrics that matter most to your overall health of weight, including genetics, access to health care and mental health.
If you choose to track calories, it will be healthy for you to understand that it’s not all. Any changes in your body take time and patience. If you track safely, you’ll still eat the foods you enjoy even if it means going over your calorie count, and you won’t feel ashamed. Instead of denying yourself, you can Consider what you choose to eat.
“There are healthy ways to do this,” Gaviria said. “But I think the moral of the story is to use calorie tracking in moderation while still allowing yourself to enjoy what’s important in life rather than avoiding the things that are important to you just because of the calories.”
Remember, health doesn’t need to be complicated. A healthy and nutritious diet can be achieved by eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Lean proteinsDrink water, get physical activity, reduce stress, and get plenty of sunlight. These key changes can leave you feeling healthy and you’ll start to notice a difference right away.
More about your nutrition:
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to provide health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.