Nov. 20. 2020
Nourishment
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of NS and Creator of The Method

We’ve all been on one of those diets or plans where you have to count calories and track everything you eat.

While that might work for some people as a short-term fix, that’s not realistic to maintain 365 days a year for your whole life.

Not only does counting calories not support you in living a healthy and balanced lifestyle, but it may also contribute to more stress, unease, confusion, and overwhelm with food.

If you’re surprised to hear that we, as Registered Dietitians, don’t recommend counting calories, keep reading to learn why we don’t believe it is supportive and how it can take you further away from your goals and lasting eating habits.

7 Reasons to Let Go of Counting Calories and Shift to Forming Balanced Eating Habits

1. Counting Calories Isn’t Practical for Daily Life

Most of the time, we’re not eating in situations where it’s possible to track every ingredient, use measuring cups, or even know what’s actually in the dish.

We go out to eat, we eat at our friends’ or our family’s homes and we eat nourishing whole foods that aren’t packaged with calorie amounts. That’s what normal life looks like! That’s why counting and tracking calories don’t work for our everyday lives, and why it becomes cumbersome or impossible to keep up with.

For example, think about what happens when we become accustomed to eating in food situations where we’re always counting or tracking calories. What happens when we’re in one of the above listed social settings?

Often times people strictly counting calories will try to avoid said social situations altogether, or refrain from eating to prevent themselves from getting “off track”. If they do decide to participate, they’re left feeling frustrated and confused because they don’t have the skills needed in order to navigate their food choices.

The moral of the story, counting calories simply isn’t realistic.

2. It Overlooks the Nutritional Value of Food

Another big problem with calorie counting is that it overlooks the nutritional value of any given food item — calories don’t tell you how nutritious a food item is.

With a calorie counting approach, you can eat 2,000 calories from processed food or 2,000 calories from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

Calorie-wise they’re the same, but nutrient-wise, they’re very different. Your body needs calories for energy, but it also needs vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Only looking at calories in a number-based way misses a major piece of what contributes to your health and wellbeing.

In addition, counting calories can also lead you to avoid nutritious foods because they’re “high calorie”. Rather than seeing an avocado or a handful of cashews as a filling, nourishing food item, you may start to view them as high-calorie foods to avoid.

This not only wrongly guides you away from eating nourishing foods, but it can also lead to you developing an unhealthy relationship with food; one where you’re fearful of some foods simply because of their caloric content.

3. Calorie Counting Can Make You Obsessive and Lead to Disordered Eating Behaviors

Oftentimes, when we’re working with clients who have previously calorie counted, we also see that they have an unhealthy relationship with food, and in many cases disordered eating behaviors.

Unfortunately, in today’s society, many disordered eating behaviors are considered socially acceptable, or “normal,” so you may not realize that these behaviors may be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food.

Here are a few examples of disordered eating behaviors:

  1. Yo-yo dieting
  2. Making up for “bad” foods eaten or “burning off” calories
  3. Skipping meals
  4. Anxiety around eating certain foods
  5. Rigid nutrition or fitness routines
  6. Extreme feelings of guilt or shame
  7. Obsessing overweight or body image
  8. Feeling out of control around food
  9. Keeping up with every nutrition trend

When you’re counting calories, it can be too easy to develop these unhealthy eating behaviors. Because you’re so focused on eating a specific amount of calories per day, it can lead you to constantly think about your food choices. It can also cause you to turn to exercise as a way of burning-off calories or cause you to skip meals to make up for going “over” your designated calorie amount.

Being so controlling over your food ultimately leads you to feel more out-of-control around food. It can feel like eating well is really challenging to maintain, which overall is very negative for your physical and mental health.

4. It Causes You to Ignore Your Own Body and Needs

Our bodies send hunger signals to tell us specifically what we uniquely need. Your hunger signals are your body’s way of telling you what it needs to feel and function at its best. This may be that it needs more energy (food) or that the portion of food you ate was too much (feeling stuffed).

When we’re not in-tune with these cues, it can be easy to overeat or under-eat because we’re following strict portion guides instead.

So many things have taught us to disconnect from our own bodies and focus on external factors, such as:

  • Counting calories, macros, or points
  • Fasting
  • Eating until your plate is clean
  • Eating a specific portion size from a diet or plan
  • And so many more

A great example of an eating style where you’re listening to your own body and your body’s needs is mindful eating. With mindful eating, we focus on developing a strong mind-body connection with compassion and non-judgment. This allows you to understand what works uniquely for your own body and accept that what works for one person may not work for you.

This is why so many diets, plans, and trends don’t work — because they are one-size-fits-all solutions and ask us to follow specific guidelines or rules without tuning into having you tune into your own body to see if it’s working for you.

When you are more in tune with your own body, you build the confidence to know what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat based on your unique needs.

If you find this really challenging and it’s something you’re ready to focus on, sign up for our free workshop where we’ll walk you through our mindful approach to nutrition that guides you towards having more balance, peace, and confidence with your eating habits.

5. If You’re Using Calorie Counting to Manage Your Weight, You’ll Likely Regain It

We hear from individuals time and time again through our community on Facebook and Instagram that they really want to create long-lasting eating habits and have a positive relationship with food, but they want to lose weight first, and then they’ll shift to a more sustainable solution.

They say, “I’ll just count calories for a short period of time until I reach my goal weight. Then I’ll make new maintainable eating habits.”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for a number of reasons. First, if you use restrictive habits to reach a specific weight, that weight won’t be maintainable for you unless you continue with those restrictive habits. 

I have a hunch that if you’ve dieted or calorie counted before, you’ve likely already experienced this. One of our members who shared why she joined shared this exact experience. She said, “I was at goal weight for about twenty minutes before I started to regain and had to start all over.”

Studies show that dieters end up gaining weight back within 12 months — because they’re focused on making short-term changes to see results, but not on long-term behavior change. And unfortunately, weight gain can pull many people back into dieting and the start-and-stop cycle. 

You can also continue in this cycle if you don’t ever reach the goal weight you set for yourself. You may try a different diet or trend because that one “didn’t work,” saying that this next one will be your last.

You can see just how easy it can be to fall back into the start-and-stop cycle.

Then, not only have you still not created eating habits that support you on a daily basis, but you also may feel guilt or shame that impacts your mental wellbeing and can lead you towards unhealthy eating behaviors, sacrificing your health and wellbeing to achieve a specific number. 

So instead of telling yourself that you’ll calorie count until you reach your goal weight, commit to practicing a sustainable approach to nourishing yourself well that doesn’t include dieting.

When you’re able to make long-lasting changes, create consistency beyond 30 days, and find what works best for your body, you’re able to reach and maintain a weight that’s natural for your body to maintain.

6. It Doesn’t Solve the Underlying Problem

If you’re currently thinking about counting calories, something leads you to believe this would be a good choice for you and your health. In our experience, someone often chooses to count calories because they want to lose or gain weight.

While calorie counting may help you to adjust your weight temporarily, it’s a short-term, “band-aid” solution that doesn’t address the underlying problem. In our coaching, rather than addressing the symptom (which in this case is simply being at a weight you’re uncomfortable with), we like to uncover what’s causing you to be uncomfortable with your current weight.

After working with thousands of clients, we’ve found that there are likely one of three reasons that may cause this discomfort. In our coaching, we focus on addressing the cause, which then allows us to find a much more supportive solution.

The three most common reasons why people want to lose or gain weight are as follows:

1. Not having eating and lifestyle habits that support your individual needs

If you’ve chosen to abide by a diet or eating style that simply isn’t right for you, it will often lead you to a weight you are uncomfortable with.

For example, say you heard from an influencer, friend, or website that you should eat a certain way despite the fact that you inherently enjoy eating a different way. Let’s say for this example we’re talking about a strict paleo diet.

If you’re unable to eat things that you enjoy simply because someone else says so, this will often lead to a harmful on-and-off, all-or-nothing, pendulum style eating cycle that can lead to unintentional weight gain or loss.

Additionally, if you have lifestyle factors that are being neglected, you may also experience the same thing. Take stress or improper sleep cycles for example. If we’re constantly stressed and not managing it well, and therefore also not sleeping well, our eating habits, in turn, can become erratic and out of whack.

You need to do what feels right to you and your individual body!

2. A health condition is present. 

Another potential reason you may not be at a weight you’d like to be at is because of a health condition. Our health can influence weight fluctuations, therefore it’s important to understand what’s happening in your own body to know how to support it.

For example, you may have a particular disease state you’re aware of that that you’re simply unsure of how to manage through food and lifestyle. Or you may possibly be struggling with disordered eating habits that can cause spikes and/or drops in weight.

Regardless of the condition, it’s always important to take a look at the whole picture from the inside-out rather than simply focussing on weight alone.

3. Body image challenges.

The last common reason why many people may want to adjust their weight is body image challenges. You may be at a weight that is very natural and comfortable for your body to maintain, but you may still feel as though you need to lose or gain weight.

If you use restrictive eating habits, like calorie counting, to try to adjust your weight, your body won’t be able to maintain it. You can end up experiencing weight fluctuations that are not only harmful to your physical health but also deepen the severity of any body image challenges you may be experiencing.

Unfortunately, counting calories doesn’t help you overcome any of these causes. All of these require you to practice a more mindful approach to nutrition where you can cultivate a more positive experience with food, build greater awareness of your body’s unique needs, and integrate eating and lifestyle habits that will support you in your daily life.

7. Counting Calories Takes the Joy and Pleasure Out of the Food Experience

Any type of dieting can take the joy and pleasure out of the food experience.

If you know me, you’ve likely heard me say this before, and it’s worth repeating: food is more than nourishment. It’s tradition, culture, pleasure, and joy, and it’s okay to celebrate the many roles food plays in our lives!

Every day, I cook meals that not only nourish my body but also make me so happy and filled with joy to experience.

Food is such a powerful way to bring nourishment and joy into our lives, but unfortunately, so many diets are really strict, rigid, and completely ignore this “life/joy” element. They can make you feel as though cooking is a chore, that you’re meals are unsatisfying (both on a hunger level and also an emotional level).

They may cause you to view food only as a means to an end, or can cause you to “look forward to” the next time you “can” eat that food you’ve been restricting. This undoubtedly causes a lot of stress and puts quite a bit of mental energy towards what you should or shouldn’t eat.

How You Can Eat Well Without Counting Calories

By now, you may be wondering what a more supportive way to nourish yourself would be instead of counting calories.

There are a few key pieces to focus on, and we cover these during our free workshop! Sign up to discover the practices you need to adopt in order to let go of calorie counting and integrate new eating habits into your life that are more supportive.

To give you a taste of what to expect, here is a brief overview of what’s needed to nourish yourself well in a balanced and supportive way.

1. Cultivate a Positive Relationship With Food

Simply put, it’s not possible to create nourishing, supportive, long-lasting eating habits when you have an unhealthy relationship with food. A mindset focused on short-term fixes, like counting calories or any other type of diet plan, prevents you from making the most supportive choices for yourself.

First, you have to actively work to reframe the way you think about food. You have to determine the purpose food has in your life, and how it supports your health so that you no longer get caught up in the quick-fixes.

2. Eat Well-Balanced Meals

When we’re talking about nutrition and caring for your wellbeing, we want to make sure that you’re nourishing yourself. At the same time, we don’t want anyone to feel that eating healthy is difficult, time-consuming, or taking away from the joy in life.

That’s why we use a really simple template — the Foundational Five Elements of nutrition — to make it easy for you to look at your plate and know you have a well-balanced meal, without needing to follow strict rules or count anything.

This template ensures each and every meal is packed with all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients your body needs so you can feel satiated (full), energized, and well-nourished so you can tackle your day and know that you’ve cared for your health.

The Nourish Meal Template is made up of a variety of nutrients to refer to whenever you’re creating or building a meal. It’s made up of five elements of nutrition:

Protein + Fat + Starchy or Sugary Carbohydrates + Non-Starchy Carbohydrates + Flavor Factor

3. Tune Into Your Own Body to Guide Your Food Choices

Portion sizes are individual to each and every person on any given day. Dinner yesterday maybe a little smaller than it is today – and that is perfectly fine!

Understanding portion sizes involves so much more than just knowing the numbers or hard facts, it’s about becoming in-tune with your body.

Taking the time to determine what portion sizes are right for you in alignment with your health and wellness goals can make all the difference in how you feel and function daily.

In order to find your unique portion size for any given meal, you have to learn how to read your body’s hunger and fullness signals to guide your food choices.

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