Calorie Counting: Recipe for Success, or Stress?

Calorie Counting: Recipe for Success, or Stress?

By Stephen Brenna, Pn1, Pn2, PPSC

Calorie Counting: Recipe for Success, or Stress?

No topic sparks debate in the diet and nutrition space quite like "tracking," aka calorie or macronutrient counting. Some camps demonize calorie counting as outdated and ineffective; an archaic form of torture for the struggling dieter. Others view C.I.C.O. (Calories In vs. Calories Out) as gospel, insisting that achieving results requires measuring and weighing everything one consumes down to the gram.

As is often the case in our modern social media world, when it comes to tracking, a reasonable balance gets pushed aside in favor of polarizing extremes. Can tracking calories and macros be helpful? Definitely. Can it be taken too far, to the point of unhealthy obsession? Yes. These two things can be true at the same time, imagine that!

Below, we'll look at the cases for and against food tracking, followed by a discussion of how we can find a healthy balance between the opposing ends of the diet spectrum.

The Recipe for Success

Many of those in favor of calorie counting view weight loss as a pretty simple equation: Burn more calories than you eat. That's it and that's all. Overweight? That's because you eat more than you burn. And how do we know how much we're eating and how much we're burning? We track it!

If changing the number on the scale was as easy and straightforward as that, it's hard to imagine we would still see millions of Americans struggling mightily to get their weight under control. It's far more complicated than that, but at the same time it really IS that simple.

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy can never be created nor destroyed, only transferred to another form. And many people are transferring far more food (energy as calories) into their mouths than they are transferring energy into work (those same calories as physical activity).

Logically, it makes sense then that in order to lose or gain weight, we need to keep track of our caloric consumption and make adjustments up or down depending on our goals. We need to know what's going in, what's going out, and budget accordingly just like a bank ledger.

You aren't "guess-timating" how much money is in your paycheck or how much goods or services cost. So how can you do the same with your caloric consumption and expect any results?  You can't, and that's why you need to keep track.

The Recipe for Stress 

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who view calorie counting as a fast track method to developing an unhealthy relationship with food. They argue that a narrow focus on calories and macronutrients is excessive, restrictive, and can become borderline obsessive. It removes the fun from eating, and is tedious and time-consuming.

For some individuals, namely those with a history of disordered eating patterns, food tracking can trigger highly uncomfortable feelings and anxiety around eating. They may find themselves preoccupied with thoughts about food outside of meal times, and experience stress when they enter restaurants or the grocery store 

In addition to the potential for creating a neurotic obsession around calories, there's also a high chance of user error when it comes to measuring and weighing food. Is it weighed raw, or cooked? What if there's a bunch of ingredients combined together? Do I need to track the glass of iced tea I had? The accuracy of many people's food logs is questionable at best, so how valuable is the data really?

There are plenty of ways to measure progress beyond how many grams of protein someone is eating. If we simply focus on good food choices, the rest will take care of itself.

The Middle Ground

There are valid points made on both sides of the calorie counting argument. It's accurate to say there is a high likelihood of user error when it comes to weighing and measuring food, especially if someone is new to the practice. In addition, tracking can trigger very real feelings of discomfort and anxiety for some people.

It's also accurate to say that most people have no idea how many calories they're consuming on a daily basis, and may also be uninformed when it comes to the caloric density and macronutrient breakdown of many foods.

Research has shown that our recall of what we've eaten is generally very poor, and we tend to significantly underestimate the amount of calories we've actually consumed. Were you aware that a single ounce of almonds (about a small palm full) contains 165 calories? Most people aren't, and these are the types of realizations that can be made fairly quickly once someone begins tracking their intake.

Having the numbers right in front of us in black and white quickly increases our awareness of what we're eating, even with inaccuracies in tracking. It allows us to make much more educated adjustments, and course correct faster when we begin to veer off track.

The manner in which food tracking is framed can be the difference between it being burdensome or enlightening. If tracking is viewed as a temporary exercise to help make targeted corrections and build sound intuition around food choices and portion size, its value becomes obvious.

Can someone continue to track indefinitely? Of course, but the goal should be to get to the point where one can largely eat intuitively, and continue to maintain their health. Tracking can always be reintroduced later as a tool to dial things in if someone has specific goals they're looking to reach.

It's also important to keep in mind that nailing your daily calorie or macro goals is not the end all, be all measure of progress. Tracking is simply one of several objective progress indicators we may look to (in addition to body weight, body fat percentage, etc) to ensure we're moving in the right direction. Subjective progress measures like energy levels, sleep quality, mood, and how clothing fits are all valid as well and should be considered alongside objective measures.

So if calorie counting sounds like your own personal nightmare, perhaps this will help you see it from a different perspective. When it comes to tracking, hold on loosely, but don't let go.

If you cling too tightly…1980s music fans, you know the rest.