I get asked pretty often these days about nutritional information for my recipes. “How many net carbs are in this?”. “How can I reduce the fat?”. “How many servings does this make?”.
And, honestly, the truth is: I don’t know. I don’t count calories. I don’t track carbs. And I seriously couldn’t care less about how much fat I eat. Macros, SCHMACROS.
I don’t often list servings, either, for the simple reason that I have no idea what a “normal” portion size is. Not that I believe that to be a problem. It’s just that I know how to eat intuitively, for me – and only me. My nutritional “normal” is probably different to yours – and I really don’t ever want to tell someone what or how much they “should” be eating.
I didn’t used to be this way. Like pretty much every other woman on the planet, I have a fantastically checkered past when it comes to food, nutrition and… diets. I went on my first diet before I turned 11. I started counting calories not too much later. I had detailed logs of everything I ate, or didn’t eat. I’d write the words “fat failure” underneath days with intakes I deemed unacceptable.
And that carried on for YEARS. It got even worse with access to the internet and the plethora of tracking sites and apps that became available. I would set weight loss goals on those things that required me to eat a calorie range that was almost always under 1000 a day. I would convince myself that if I just had some damn WILLPOWER that I could stick to these grandiose plans for self-destruction. Except, of course, that the issue of my lack of diet success wasn’t willpower or its absence. It was the simple and predictable natural response to years of deprivation – my body refused to lose weight and for good reasons. I was malnourished. And I was always hungry.
Eventually, you know what happened? I realized that I had been chasing this dream of “thin” for the majority of my life. And I hadn’t gotten anywhere.
That was my wake up call. I was sick of being sick. I was tired of being tired. And I had really, really had enough of being hungry. Which is what kickstarted my own journey into real food and, later, Paleo.
These days, I eat real food. I’m not scared of fat anymore. I don’t believe carbs are the devil. I gave up years of vegetarianism. I’ve learned to love my body as it is and treat it with respect. Which means plenty of nourishing nutrient dense foods. And no calorie counting. On this site, or in my head.
I’ve never felt or been healthier. I’ve learned a lot along the way. So here is my take on…
Counting Calories: Why I Don’t (and You Shouldn’t, Either)
Energy Isn’t The Answer
Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy. If you give your body energy, then it should – in theory – keep on keeping on. And most of the time, it does. But is just providing energy enough? That’s the problem with counting calories. Your body isn’t just interested in quantities of food. It wants and needs nutrient dense whole foods to really thrive and be at its absolute best. 2000 calories of grass fed meats, vegetables and fruit is going to do a lot more for your body than 2000 calories worth of hot dogs and soda – but calories don’t show you the difference.
Sure, your body can run on sub-par food choices for a while. For some people, that could even be several decades. But eventually those food choices will catch up with you: we need to pay more attention to the actual substance of our food, not just the numbers attached to it. Counting calories makes you focus on quantity, but your body is way more interested in the quality of the calories you consume. Counting calories can mask the difference.
Less Is Definitely Not More
When most people think about counting calories as a way of “getting healthier”, they inevitably mean that they’re trying to CUT calories from their daily diet. But, guess what? Eating fewer calories isn’t necessarily healthy eating, despite how often we see that message. If you’re still eating junk food, but just less of it, you may end up losing weight, but you certainly won’t be gaining health. If you’re cutting calories by using artificial sweeteners or low fat options, you’re essentially filling up on food like things that are not contributing to your nutrition. So counting calories isn’t really helping you with your quest for health at all.
Then there’s the small question of the “right” number of calories: how do you decide what the “right” number of calories is? There are plenty of tools out there that will tell you what the “correct” number is – but those numbers aren’t foolproof. Everyone’s body is different: cutting down on calories isn’t necessarily the road to success
Stress, Anxiety & Guilt, Oh My!
Even with the best of intentions, counting calories can totally backfire. What do I mean? Well, the more attention you pay and time you spend on tracking calories, the more time and attention you may find yourself needing to give them. To make sure you’re being accurate. To make sure you’re not forgetting anything. Taking the time every day to track, journal and log the food you ate may seem like no big deal at first. But counting calories creeps up on you: it starts to take over more mental and emotional space as you begin to rely on tracking and analyzing all of your food choices to maintain your sense of achievement or self worth.
In short, counting calories can steal time and joy from your life. It makes you focus on quantity rather than quality and leaves you feeling miserable any time you deviate from whatever “healthy” plan you’re on. So instead of helping you, calorie counting makes you a slave to the numbers. It makes you feel stressed and guilty when you do something “wrong”. Calorie counting long term can make you feel guilty about eating or even fearful of food. No, thank you! Wouldn’t you rather not waste all that time and energy on something that makes you feel bad about yourself?
Calories Don’t Care About You…
That’s the thing. Counting calories can’t tell you anything about your health. Calories are just numbers. They can’t tell you what your body needs. Your body’s needs are going to depend on so many other things: activity levels, how well you sleep, whether or not you have any nutritional deficiencies or hormonal issues. All of those things play a vital part in your overall health.
What do calories do? Nothing. What can counting calories do for you when it comes to assessing or improving your health? Zilch!
…But Your Body Does!
Believe it or not, your body is perfectly capable of running the show. It can tell you how much to eat, what to eat and when – if you just stopped overanalyzing everything in your mind first. If you nourish yourself with nutrient-dense whole foods, your body will thrive. You won’t have to count calories or track macros or depend on apps, trackers or websites to tell you what, when and how to eat. Why? Because you will learn over time how to listen to your body. You won’t be ruled by cravings or emotional eating because your feelings won’t be bound up with food.
Once you strip the processed food from your diet and begin to nourish yourself with real food, you won’t have all the chemical nasties in your system that mess up your metabolism and hunger signals. Know what that means? You won’t need to count calories to know when you’re hungry or have had enough for the day. Hoorah!
What do you think? Do you count calories? Or track macros?
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I’m in so much agreement! I hate it when I see people talk about “fooling” the body into doing things. Products to “trick” your body into feeling full, eating breakfast and 5 tiny meals a day (well, maybe for some, but not for everyone), and generally just disrespecting and not listening your body. Eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty and do both with real, nourishing foods! Your body really does know best and if you try to trick it into doing what you want it to do, you’re bound to fail.
I couldn’t have said it better!
All so very well put! And well timed for me, as I recently just noticed that I haven’t thought about a calorie in months. Focusing on food that makes my gluten sensitive tummy happy & helps my body function well has inadvertently rewired my brain to bypass the “omg-that-was-so-fattening-I-hate-myself-for-eating-that-I’m-a-fat-cow” region that most of us women in the Western world seem born with. And since food no longer equals guilt, I enjoy it more, and my body is happy with it too. Surely no one could argue that isn’t a plus!
I’m struggling here. Not with your post, but with some of the advice I’ve been getting from the paleo community. A couple of well respected paleo bloggers advised me to count my calories, because I’m not as lean as I’d like to be. One of them said he bet my cals were too low and that I should to raise them to 2,000, the other person wasn’t clear; he simply said to count them. I don’t get it. I was so excited to be free from the counting! and now this:(
But.. how do you FEEL? I honestly wouldn’t rely on other people’s ideas of what is right for you. Because they simply don’t know. How are your energy levels, your moods? And how long have you been trying to “lean out”?
I was just talking about this to a friend the other day. When I was on Weight Watchers everything that I consumed had a ritual around it. Log it, calculate the points, make sure it’s correct, see where I am for the day blah, blah, blah Also, every waking minute food was on my mind. What am I eating, when will I eat again, how many points is that, is it worth the points, blah, blah. Tracking points became a game, how low could I go in a day…how insane is that? Since I started Paleo, I don’t get those crippling hunger pains like I used to, and when I do get hungry, I can delay eating without becoming a raging lunatic. I don’t think about food until it’s time to eat. I always have food with me and when I don’t it’s easy enough to grab some jerky or nuts to hold me over. I no longer view food as the enemy. It is no longer comfort, it is purely nourishment. It is so nice not to be consumed with thoughts of food all the time…..
YES! I totally understand what you mean – I got to the point where I would follow that insane process and then RE-DO everything in case I made mistakes. Exhausting! I’m so pleased to hear that you are experiencing food freedom 🙂
Loved this post!! I can totally relate after struggling with weight & having tried diets in my younger years, as well as being a slave to calorie counting for over 5 years. I finally broke free of it just over 2 months ago after discovering the Whole 30 & the Paleo lifestyle. Definitely life-changing! 🙂
This is so great to read! YAY TO FREEDOM!
I wish I could send this to everyone I know! It seems like all the people around me are obsessed with losing weight and counting calories, eating so-called ‘healthy’ low-fat, processed foods. I just want to shake them and yell “This is not health!”. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to get people to listen to you when you talk about real food and listening to your body–I’ve tried it. It’s been so ingrained in society that counting calories= losing weight. The only thing to do is be a good example and hope they can see the change in you when you are kind to your body.
Agreed! You’re right, though, in that we can sadly only be examples – no amount of talking can change people’s minds unless they are truly looking for change. It’s a long journey to break those habits, too, since they accumulated over time. But it can be done! 🙂
I can’t even remember exactly when I stopped counting calories…..I guess, once I started eating meat, veggies, good fats and some fruits, my mind just realized that it didn’t matter anymore. I don’t binge on roasted chicken or sautéed green beans or apples so why on earth would I need to count or account for them. If I want two apples in a day, that’s what my body wants and I wouldn’t even dream of restricting that!
I used to count calories like no one’s business, and to be honest, I still know how many calories are in a lot of foods. That being said, I do NOT count calories anymore, nope! Waste of my time. I have better, more important things to worry about and deal with – I just enjoy eating, and eat the healthiest things out there – if you’re doing that, you don’t need to count calories AT ALL!
Since 5th grade I have counted calories off and on, yo-yoing with my weight. I’ll have what I call “seasons” of “dieting.” I’ve lost up to 25 pounds this way and always, always, put the weight back on. Counting calories is what I obsess over. I’ve been counting calories for a month now and not seeing results like I usually do. I have a fear I will overeat if I don’t count calories but there are many signs (like this) telling me I shouldn’t. So I’m stuck between doing what I have done for over ten years or starting something new and it’s scary.
It IS scary, because it’s changing your routine. But you said it yourself: it doesn’t work. So why not try a different approach?
I was just considering counting calories then I came across this. I’d really rather not waste my time searching the calorie content of every single thing I eat. I don’t do processed food, I can’t even remember the last time I pulled something out of the freezer and tossed it in the microwave or oven. I don’t add sugar to anything, and only eat whole wheat. I have recently increase my water intake by quite a bit. Going from a couple glasses a day to 160z the moment I get out of bed then all day long as I sit at work. I have gained quiet a bit of water weight. I know my body is trying to determine if it is safe to release some of its water stockpile but I am going on two or three weeks and I just feel huge. Drinking more water has made me realize I’m not as hungry as I always think I am. But starting my day with 16oz of water is an immediate pound gained each day. I guess I think maybe I am drinking too much water. I haven’t been as active as I like to try an be. So many things have come up this month between being sick then having modem issues that impact completing my homework assignments. I plan on starting fresh this next week now that I am feeling better and can get back on my full time work, school, & mom schedule. I’m sure that will help with the water retention. But I am going to Florida in 20 days and don’t feel even a fraction of progress.
I think everyone should make their own choices about what they put in their bodies, and I think you bring up some fair points about why it doesn’t work for you. That said, here’s why *I* choose to count calories and continue to do so:
* It helps me remain conscious of what I’m eating and (more importantly) how MUCH I’m eating. Portion sizes are out of control in restaurants, and when live in a culture where it’s polite to clean your plate, so a lot of us have very skewed views of how much we actually need at any given meal. We tend to rely on visual cues (ie–the plate being clean, the burger being gone, etc.) to tell us when we’re done. And while I believe that our bodies are perfectly capable of knowing when we’re full, many people aren’t used to listening to those bodily clues. Paying attention to things like calories/portions helps us rethink about how much we’re putting in our bodies.
* Many people are incredibly misinformed about how many calories are in certain foods. We snack on nuts all day (which are healthy, right?) and then wonder why we’re gaining weight. For me, there’s a comfort in educating myself about what I’m putting in my body.
* For some people, setting calorie goals is stressful and causes anxiety, but for others (like me), laying out a plan and being structured in the way I eat is freeing–I’m one of those people who tends to thrive when I’m practicing discipline (in any aspect of my life). If I “fail” at a goal, it just encourages me to try harder the next day. For me, counting calories has actually been a way to help me view food more objectively and remove the “emotional” aspect from my eating habits. I’m trying to be better about seeing food as fuel, not as a “reward” or “guilty pleasure,” and watching calories has helped me be me more analytical about what I’m putting in my body.
As I said above, I think everyone should have the right to make their own choices about food. But I don’t think we should be telling people how they “should” or “shouldn’t” make those decisions. Does counting calories stress you out? Then don’t do it. But counting calories DOES help some people have a healthier relationship with food, and I don’t think we should discourage anyone from practicing a healthier lifestyle just because a certain method didn’t work for us.
Hi Hayley, thanks for your detailed response, I appreciate it. If I wrote this post now, I definitely would put more stress on why this works for me personally. When something works for you, I guess it can be hard to see the other side, particularly since it was never possible for me to count calories in a way that wasn’t unhealthy or that made me unhappy. I do agree with what you say about people not being used to listening to bodily clues, it is something that happens over time.
It’s really interesting what you say about how counting calories has helped you separate food from emotional responses like guilt, since it’s the opposite experience for me personally, but it’s good for me to see the flip side and hear from somebody who finds counting and tracking to be as freeing as I find NOT doing so is. Thanks again for the thoughtful response.