All About Calories, Part 2: Top 10 Reasons Not to Count Calories

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Last week’s article on whether calories count took on the problem of calories in general. The short version: yes, technically, they “count,” but that doesn’t make counting calories a useful plan for weight loss. This week, take a look at the top 10 reasons why calorie-counting doesn’t help, and what to do instead.

10. You’re probably off. Way off.

It’s a very well-known problem for diet researchers that people are absolutely terrible at estimating how many calories they eat – and the more overweight they are, the worse they’re likely to be at it. The typical underestimation is 10-45%, with an average of 30%. So if the average person thinks she’s eating 1500 calories, she’s probably closer to 2100. The more overweight you are, the worse you’re likely to be at calorie reporting: in this study, obese subjects underreported calories by 47% on average (on top of overreporting physical activity).

This study is even more telling. Researchers took women who claimed they couldn’t lose weight on a 1,200 calorie diet, and trained them how to track their calorie intake. They had all the women keep food logs, but also used very accurate metabolic techniques to measure how many calories they were really eating.

Almost all the women were severely overestimating their energy intake – one of them thought she was eating 1100 calories and was actually eating over 3000! On average, they were underestimating by around 50%. And these were women who were trained by experts and knew they were being evaluated based on how accurate their records were. So chances are very good that even if you think this doesn’t apply to you, it does (this study isn’t free full-text, but there’s a great detailed analysis here if you want the details).

To put it very simply, very few people are accurate calorie-counters. We tend to tell researchers – and Cronometer, and FitDay, and SparkPeople – what we think we should be eating, not what we actually eat. But unfortunately, our bodies keep an accurate log whether or not we write it down, so the end result is frustration: people honestly believe that they’re eating only 1200 calories per day, and get angry and discouraged when they still can’t lose weight, not realizing that they’re actually eating 2500+!

9. Calorie labels are inaccurate.

Even assuming that you’re in the very small minority of people who can accurately keep track of your portion sizes and write down everything you eat, all your efforts are still being undermined by the incredible inaccuracy of labeling laws. Just to give a few examples:

  • In this report, 19% of restaurant meals tested varied by at least 100 calories from the calorie count on the menu. Foods with the lowest stated calorie content (the foods you’re most likely to order if you’re dieting) were the most likely to actually contain more calories.
  • By USDA labeling laws, the calorie content of processed foods can vary up to 20% from the amount listed on the label. To put some numbers on that, think of an apple pie larabar. The label says 190 calories, but by law that could be as low as 152 or as high as 228 – and there’s no way for you to know.
  • If you think you can get around this by only eating whole foods, think again. For one thing, grass-fed meat is likely to have a different calorie value than the typical number in the USDA database: pasture-raised beef and chicken will be leaner, while pasture-raised pork is often fattier. Wild-caught salmon is substantially different from farm-raised. And even among fruits and vegetables, one “medium apple” could vary substantially. Calorie databases can only give you a rough idea.

8. It makes you hungry.

Calorie restriction is a deliberate attempt to eat less than your body needs to maintain its current weight, forcing it to use up its fat stores for energy instead. It’s basically a very mild form of self-starvation. Given that fact, it’s completely natural to expect feelings of hunger. Unfortunately, when you’re expecting to feel hungry, chances are pretty good that you will!

Take a look at this study. The researchers tested restrained (dieting) and nonrestrained normal-weight women with either a high-calorie or low-calorie drink before a meal. Some of the drinks were labeled correctly, but on others, the labels were switched (so a high-calorie drink got a low-calorie label and vice versa). The dieters – but not the normal eaters – felt hungrier after a drink labeled as low-calorie regardless of how many calories it actually contained.

This one makes it even clearer. Study subjects who got either a high or low-calorie liquid meal “reported hunger more in accordance with belief about caloric value than actual value.” And in this study, just calling a food “healthy” made subjects feel less satisfied afterward (as opposed to calling it “tasty”).

So let’s take a look at what this says about a typical calorie-counting dieter:

  • She tries to cut calories to 1500, but considering how inaccurate we all are at counting, she’s actually eating more like 2000.
  • But she believes she’s eating 1500, so she feels hungry, because she expects to feel hungry on 1500.
  • The end result: all pain, no gain. She gets all the hunger of a diet, without the benefit of the weight loss. And because she feels so hungry, she’s more likely to give up in frustration and overeat later.

It’s easy to see that this is a terrible weight loss strategy! Most people can do this for 3 or 4 months, but you’d have to have absolutely iron discipline to make it work in the long term.

7. Your baseline is probably skewed.

Everyone’s heard of the 2000-calorie diet. That’s supposed to be what healthy people need to eat – despite the obvious silliness of having just one standard for everyone. Since it’s an average, men tend to assume they need a little more, and women tend to assume they need a little less. So for weight loss, most people take 2000 and subtract a more or less arbitrary number of calories to come up with 1500 or 1800 or something in that range.

But did you know that the 2000 calorie number is actually totally imaginary? You can read about this here: the short version is that it’s an estimation based on guesswork and surveys, and then rounded down in order to deliberately underestimate everyone’s calorie needs. The committee actually thought that giving an accurate number would somehow give us all permission to overeat, so they decided to lie instead.

So how many calories to weight-stable people actually need? Normal, healthy adult men need roughly 2700, and healthy adult women need around 2400. Those numbers are based on accurate measurement of how much people actually eat (using a technique called doubly-labeled water), not just surveys that give people the opportunity to lie and underestimate.

If you don’t believe this, or don’t believe it applies to you, you can use the equation from this study (free full-text) to figure out your personal requirements. All you need to plug in is your height (in centimeters),  your weight (in kilograms), your age, and your sex.

The upshot: if you’re basing your calorie restriction on anything like a 2000-calorie baseline, you’re probably severely underestimating your body’s actual needs. That’s called starvation, and it isn’t healthy – so don’t do it.

6. It encourages you to see “low-calorie” as a synonym for “healthy.”

Another insidious danger of calorie-counting isn’t obvious at first. It only shows up later, in the tendency to start conflating “low-calorie” with “healthy,” as if calories were the only aspect of a food that mattered. This is called the “health halo” effect: whatever particular aspect of food you’re looking at, whether it’s calories, fat, nutrients, or anything else, you’re likely to make snap judgments about food based entirely on that one number, and miss out on the bigger picture.

This has been documented extensively with “low-fat” claims, but it’s just as true for “low-calorie.” And “restrained eaters” (research-speak for “dieters”) are more sensitive to external cues than normal eaters, so if you’re trying to restrict calories, you’re at a very high risk of falling into this trap.

Say for example that you start out intending to have some olive oil and vinegar on your salad. But after looking up the nutrition facts, you realize that just 2 tablespoons of that will cost you 200 calories: ouch! On the other hand, if you take the lite dressing from the grocery store, you’re only out 50 calories, so you can “afford” an afternoon snack later. That makes the grocery-store dressing look really tempting, but take a look at the ingredients:

Water, balsamic vinegar, soybean oil and extra virgin olive oil, sugar, salt. Contains 2% or less of each of the following: spices, garlic powder, caramel color, xanthan gum, sodium benzoate and sorbic acid and calcium disodium edta (used to protect quality), propylene glycol alginate, gum arabic, natural flavor, sulfur dioxide

The only reason why you’d think that dressing was better for you than oil and vinegar is that you’re focused on calories to the exclusion of everything else. But calorie-counting is like that: it tends to keep you zoomed in so tightly on calories that you start eating processed junk because not only is it lower in calories, but it’s also easier to count those calories when it’s right there on the label for you.

5. It makes you stressed.

In this study, researchers assigned healthy women to one of four groups:

  • Monitoring only: these women tracked, but did not restrict, calories.
  • Restricting only: these women got 1200 calories per day delivered to them as prepackaged meals. They didn’t have to count anything.
  • Monitoring + restricting: these women had to stick to 1200 calories, but had to plan their own menus.
  • Control: no monitoring or restricting.

The researchers found that monitoring increased psychological stress, but restricting increased physiological stress (cortisol levels) even when the subjects felt no psychological stress. So in other words, your body is still stressed out by dieting even if you don’t feel unhappy about it.

Chronic stress is bad news. It deranges everything from your gut flora to your skin to your immune system. If you’re stressing over your diet, it’s undoing at least some (if not all) of the health benefits of the diet itself.

Workout log

4. It’s a risk factor for compulsive exercise.

The natural companion of calorie restriction is cardio. After all, the catchphrase is “Eat less, move more,” not “Eat less, and sit on the couch.” So when most people start a diet, they also start trying to increase their calories out, by virtuously spending hours on the treadmill or elliptical trainer, or some other form of calorie-burning activity.

None of these things are bad in themselves – exercise is generally good for you and even the much-demonized cardio isn’t anything to be afraid of if you know your limits and don’t let it turn into a chronic addiction. But if you start exercising exclusively for the purpose of burning calories, you’re likely to cross the line into overdoing it very fast.

This study says it best: “Exercise and food regulation were often ‘traded off’ against one another, with increased exercise used to compensate for decreased dietary restraint.” This is the familiar pattern of exercising to “burn off” the calories in dessert. Unfortunately, it also meant that the subjects had some pretty disturbing answers when asked about their exercise habits. They showed symptoms both of addiction and of compulsion. To quote one of them:

“I often think that if I…became ill or I had an injury that would prevent me from exercising, would be just the worst possible thing that could happen in my life!”

This is a married woman with two children. And the “worst possible thing” that could happen to her is not a divorce, not a child becoming ill, but having to skip the gym.

This is not healthy. Compulsive overexercise is a serious health problem – it can cause all kinds of metabolic issues, not to mention overuse injuries (if you “can’t” take a day off from running to nurse a sore knee, that sore knee is going to get a lot worse very quickly). And that excessive exercise in turn cycles back to disordered eating: in this study, young women who exercised for the primary reason of “working off food, losing weight, or changing their appearance” had much higher levels of eating disordered symptoms than women who exercised for other reasons.

The upshot: exercise to feel healthy and strong, to build muscle, or to enjoy time with your friends. Do not exercise to “burn calories,” to “make up for” eating something you regret, or to “earn” your food. If you don’t care about calories in the first place, it’s a lot easier to take a healthy attitude toward the gym.

3. It doesn’t address the reasons why you overeat.

Nobody woke up sometime in the 1980s and just decided that obesity sounded fun. For any given overweight person, there is a reason why he or she is overeating relative to his or her body’s requirements, and chances are it’s not “because I want to be fat.”

That reason might be personal trauma (eating for comfort after the death of a loved one); it might be a twisted protection mechanism (“if I’m fat, nobody will want to date me and I won’t have to fear the heartbreak of a breakup”); it might be habit (“I’ve always eaten this way and change is too hard”). It might also be hormonal derangement or deregulated hunger cues caused by years of junk food and a sedentary lifestyle. It could be anything.

This has actually been studied, and the results are nothing but supportive of the commonsense idea that people tend to overeat for very compelling emotional reasons – reasons that aren’t addressed at all by calorie-counting. For example:

  • This study looked at the role of stress in overeating. The conclusion: “high levels of stress alter the biology of stress and appetite/energy regulation, with both components directly affecting…risk of weight gain and obesity.” In other words, stress creates a biological drive to overeat, and overeating does actually reduce stress in the short term.
  • In this study, the worse subjects felt before a test meal, the more junk food they consumed. They were eating for comfort – and it worked.
  • In this study and this one, young people who had lived through the death of a parent were more likely to be obese and suffer from metabolic syndrome, respectively. This suggests the logical conclusion that grieving children might turn to food for comfort.

If someone is overweight, it means that these reasons (the need for comfort, the need for stress reduction, etc.) have already come up against willpower and the desire to be thin, and they’ve already won. Comfort is a basic human need. People eat for comfort because it works. You cannot just take away that comfort without changing the problem. A better strategy would be to find the reasons why you overeat, and address those: you might just find that the calories take care of themselves.

2. It doesn’t account for nutrient partitioning.

“Nutrient partitioning” just means whether a given calorie is used for fuel or stored as fat. This is the big premise of the low-carb idea. In people who are severely insulin resistant, carbohydrate calories are preferentially stored as fat, even though the person’s organs are actually starving. This person doesn’t need to reduce total calories; he needs to get those calories to where they’re so desperately needed (his liver, brain, and other organs) and stop storing them as fat.

If you embark on a 1200 calorie diet in this state, you’ll probably lose some weight (or at least, gain it more slowly). After all, you can’t store calories as fat if they aren’t coming into your mouth in the first place. But that doesn’t heal your metabolism; now you’re just starving your muscles as well as your organs. Thinking about what kind of calories you’re eating, rather than just how many, is a much better way to tackle the real issue.

1. It doesn’t work in the long term.

This review of diet studies said it best: “Dieters who gain back more weight than they lost may very well be the norm, rather than an unlucky minority.” Calorie-counting can take off pounds in the short term, but in the long term those pounds come right back, usually with some friends along for the ride.

Even if you’re willing to weigh and measure everything to ensure accurate portion sizes, and deal with the hunger, the deprivation, the stress, and everything else, this should give you a reason not to do it: all that sacrifice ultimately won’t get you what you want.

Calorie log

The exceptions

For every rule, there’s at least one exception. And the advice against calorie counting is no different.

Exception: Ex-Dieters

If you have starved yourself in the past, you may have to count calories to make sure you’re getting enough. It’s very well-documented in eating disorder treatment programs that chronic restrictors have a skewed idea of how many calories are in their food, and counting for a little while may help you re-set. This should be temporary, but sometimes it helps in the short term.

Exception: Athletes

Athletes who want to compete at a very high level (especially strength athletes) may also have to count calories to make sure their food intake is adequate to support their training.

What to Do Instead

At this point, hopefully you’re convinced that counting calories is not the way to go. What you really need for sustainable weight loss isn’t calorie counting; it’s a diet that…

  • Addresses hormonal and metabolic problems (if they exist), thus making sure food is used for energy rather than being stored as fat.
  • Does not make you hungry, stressed, or miserable.
  • Encourages a holistic view of health, rather than nudging you towards unhealthy food choices just because they’re low in one “bad” category (e.g. carbs, fat, calories, etc.).
  • You can see yourself following in the long term.

Nobody’s claiming that Paleo is perfect, but it certainly works a lot better than calorie-counting to hit these key needs. A few tips to help you really tweak the diet for weight loss without counting calories:

  • Go easy on the nuts. They aren’t all that great for you anyway, and they’re easy to overeat without realizing it.
  • Eat sitting down, in a quiet place, without distraction. Turn off the TV; get away from your desk. You can’t tell when you’re full if you aren’t paying attention to your body.
  • Think long term, and be prepared for a temporary weight gain. You may have a learning curve as you re-learn how to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness signals. Don’t panic. It may be a good idea to weigh yourself only once a month (remember: long term!) to avoid getting hung up on day-to-day fluctuations.
  • Fill at least half your plate with vegetables, and don’t be afraid of the starchy ones. It’s fine to eat carbs, even if you want to lose weight.
  • On the other hand, also consider ketosis. This is not necessary for everyone, but may be helpful if you have metabolic issues with carbs (Type 2 Diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or a similar condition).

And most importantly, find a way of eating that you think you could keep up for good. This avoids the #1 problem with calorie restriction: weight regain after the diet ends. Losing 35 pounds and keeping it off beats losing 50 pounds and regaining 60! Figure out how to make Paleo work for you in the long term, and you’ll thank yourself 5 years down the line when the weight is still off.

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