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Do You Have to Count Calories to Lose Weight?

10 min read
Do you have to count calories to lose weight
Sarah Jackson Damuth post Reviewer Sarah Jackson Damuth post Reviewer
MS, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified LEAP Therapist

Have you heard the phrase, “Calories in, calories out”?

This mantra is commonly associated with weight loss. However, the question remains, is sticking with a calorie restriction-based approach the best method for weight loss?

Read on to learn more.

Table of Contents

Are calories accurate?

A large calorie, or kilocalorie, is a unit of energy that a food or drink provides.

Our body utilizes the energy we obtain from food to power all of the essential processes necessary for survival, from muscle contraction to the synaptic activity needed in order for you to read this article. 

We consume energy through food and drinks while expending energy through physical activity.

Most of the energy–50 to 80%–a human body uses is for basal maintaining vital functions like breathing, heartbeat, and digestion.

From a scientific perspective, a calorie is defined as the amount of heat needed to increase the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. 

From a nutrition point of view, a calorie, such as that we see listed on nutrition facts labels, is actually a kilocalorie, or kcal. However, nutritionwise, a calorie and kilocalorie are interchangeable and equal 4.18 kJ of energy. 

Unfortunately, calorie counting itself is not often accurate, and here is why:

The 4-9-4 method of calculating calories is not 100% accurate

Food manufacturers add an estimate of calories per serving on nutrition fact labels per the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA). This governing body requires that the calorie estimate be calculated from food components using the Atwater system.

The Atwater system employs the 4-9-4 method, which stands for energy values of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. The energy value of protein is 4 kCal per gram, fat is 9 kCal and carbs are 4 kCal per gram. 

However, these numbers are accurate only under standardized conditions, as the system tends to overestimate energy availability from some diet patterns.

Nutritional labels are not that accurate either

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows for nutritional labeling to be off by up to 20% of calories. 

Our bodies don’t absorb all the nutrients

Moreover, your body might not actually absorb all the calories you consume. Your gut bacteria, the method of cooking, the digestibility of a particular product, and other factors influence how many calories you will eventually extract from your meal.

Just look at the caloric value of the same product cooked in different ways.

calorie counting

Needless to say, nutrition labels don’t always take those factors into account.

Caloric intake is still widely used, potentially because it provides a convenient method of comparing different foods.

3 Possible pros of calorie tracking and restriction

Calorie tracking is often associated with intentional caloric restriction when dieting and wanting to create an energy deficit. There are both benefits and drawbacks to consider in regard to calorie tracking. Let’s begin by diving into the main pros for keeping track of your calorie intake. 

Supports weight loss

Counting calories and creating a calorie deficit may provide substantial benefits to weight loss, according to some researchers. 

A randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial assigned participants to a 1500 to 1800 calorie diet for men and a 1200 to 1500 calorie diet for women.

At a 12-month follow-up analysis, the individuals had a statistically significant weight-loss rate (−8.0 kg in the time and calorie restriction group; −6.3 kg in the daily calorie restriction group).

The most significant weight loss was observed during the first three months of the trial.

Increases accountability

According to some studies, counting calories, especially when shared on social networking sites, can significantly increase self-efficacy and accountability when trying to improve overall health.

Even when simply using a calorie tracking app, many people experience motivational feedback and helpful social networking to create community and supportive communication.

Potentially increases lifespan

Some studies have demonstrated that caloric restriction, which often occurs when an individual is tracking their calories, significantly impacts aging. 

Caloric restriction is associated not only with weight loss and a decrease in fat mass but also with a delay in age-related decline in functioning. 

However, we need more research using human subjects to estimate the effect of calorie counting and caloric restriction on aging. 

Calorie tracking can be a good choice for an individual looking to learn about the nutritional contents of the foods they like to eat. Counting calories brings awareness to appropriate serving sizes and macronutrient content. This can aid in weight loss in the future.

If you think that calorie tracking is the way to go for you, try a weight-loss app. Calorie counting helps you total your calorie intake and outtake to always know whether you are in a deficit. 

4 Cons of calorie tracking

Now that we have discussed the main benefits of calorie counting, let’s move on to the downsides. 

Increases the risk of eating disorders or disordered eating

A primary concern for calorie tracking is the increased risk of eating disorders or disordered eating. Constantly keeping track of calorie intake can create an unhealthy relationship with food. In fact, a recent study showed that for 73% of the participants, using calorie counter apps contributed to their eating disorder.

Calorie-tracking applications can trigger, continue, or worsen eating disorder symptoms. This includes increased concern about eating, a greater extent of dietary restriction, binge eating, and more. Tracking caloric intake compulsively may negatively impact emotional health, which can lead to feelings of shame and guilt around eating. 

Studies link calorie counting and self-weighing with increased eating disorder severity in college students. Conversely, calorie counting was also correlated to decreased intuitive eating, which is listening to the body’s natural hunger and fullness cues to dictate when to eat, what to eat, and how much to eat. 

It is not recommended to count or track calories if you have a history of eating disorders or disordered eating. Instead, speak with a registered dietitian about your health and weight goals. 

Short-term influence

While we have established that counting calories can help you effectively lose or maintain weight, many studies show this may be short-lived once calorie tracking stops. 

When an individual loses weight, biological mechanisms in the body can resist that weight loss. These mechanisms include decreased metabolism and increased caloric intake. Therefore, simply reducing calories typically only has a short-term influence.

Over the long term, yo-yo dieting or crash dieting can actually make weight loss even more difficult due to changes in metabolism. 

Neglects the importance of diet quality

Another main disadvantage of counting calories is focusing on the caloric value rather than the quality of the food, regarding density, satiety, and digestion.

For example, a candy bar may have fewer calories than a hearty green salad. Still, the salad’s nutritional value is much higher and would likely be more filling and satisfying to eat. So for that reason, it’s important to look at the nutrient density of the food, not just the energy or calorie density. 

For long-term and sustainable weight loss or weight maintenance, consider the quality of the food instead of purely focusing on caloric value. 

For instance, consuming foods high in added sugar, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts, and breakfast cereals, can contribute to weight gain and obesity. Compare this to consuming fruits high in natural sugar, which contributes to decreased weight gain.

Tendency for under-reporting

Calorie counting is typically done through a web-based or mobile application. Users can log their activity, water intake, and caloric intake.

However, this method is self-reported by the user, and unless the individual has a nutrition education background, there is a potential for under-reporting. Consequently, it is often difficult to accurately represent energy intake when the data is self-reported.

So, does counting calories help lose weight? The answer and alternatives

The answer: it depends.

If you are at the beginning of your weight-loss story, you may benefit from calorie tracking as it helps you learn more about your food, labels, and the nutritional value of your meals. Additionally, tracking calories while you are on a calorie deficit may discipline some people and help them maintain their diet.

Calorie tracking also works great for organized people as a way of documenting their efforts and progress and also identifying what modifications they need to make to reach weekly goals. 

Still, those who can’t stick to the habit and feel anxious about listing everything they eat can find other options. Plus, as mentioned above, calorie tracking will bring more harm than good if you have a history of disordered eating or eating disorders. 

Overall, it’s not that necessary to count calories to lose weight, but you need to control them. The way of doing that is up to you. You can opt for calorie tracking or the alternative options below.

How to control calorie intake without counting or tracking calories

You can control your calorie intake and improve your nutrition by changing calorie counting with these tricks that enhance your diet right away.

👉 Focus on incorporating more nutrient-dense foods over energy-dense ones

Nutrient-dense foods are high in nutrients compared to calories, while energy-dense foods are high in calories compared to the nutrient content. This is one of the weight control habits that are easy to adopt yet effective to eat fewer calories.

👉 Limit portion size

Avoid over-eating by limiting portion size. Eat off of a smaller plate to make you more mindful of how much you are eating, even if you need to consume a second helping as a result.

👉 Emphasize fruits and vegetables

Rather than focusing your meal on the starch or carbohydrate choice, such as a bowl of pasta or rice, make the majority of your plate fruits and vegetables. They not only help you feel full and satisfied but eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can prevent nutrient deficiencies. 

👉 Eat lean protein

Protein helps boost every chemical reaction in the body and helps you feel full at meals. Opt for lean proteins, including poultry, fish, and plant-based protein sources, such as tofu.

👉 Cook meals at home

Cooking your meals at home is not only enjoyable and creative, but dining in can also help reduce calorie intake and lose weight. When dining out, portion sizes are often larger, entrees are focused on starches typically, and the food contains more sodium and fat. Cooking at home allows you to control every ingredient in your meal and prevents you from eating processed foods.

👉 Drink plenty of water

Staying hydrated can help with weight maintenance or loss through reduced caloric intake, especially if you substitute sugary beverages with water. 

👉 Try intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting limits the eating window rather than what you eat. Although you still need to balance your diet during IF, controlling fasting and eating windows might be easier than calorie counting.

👉 Practice mindful eating

Mindful eating is the act of focusing on your eating and intentionally listening to your hunger and fullness cues. Put away your technology and eat slowly. Notice every flavor and ingredient while also appreciating your food. This will allow the time necessary for stretch receptors in your stomach to signal to your brain that you’ve had enough!

Disclaimer This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!

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