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Should You Count Calories?

nutrition Jul 02, 2024
Should You Count Calories? | Arangio

I was on the phone with a coaching client, "Betty" (not her real name), and we got on the topic of nutrition, which is a big challenge for her.

Betty, a 50-year-old executive, wanted to lose about 30 pounds, yet "nothing seemed to work."

"Life's too short for all this calorie-counting madness," she said.

She explained that even thinking about calories was driving her bonkers, and it was sucking the joy out of eating.

So she decided to throw that calorie-counting app and food scale out the window (figuratively, of course).

Betty decided to trust her body and listen to its hunger and fullness signals.

Of course she would still try to make healthy choices and all that, but she's "not going to let numbers dictate her life."

If Betty wants a cookie, she's gonna have a cookie, and she's gonna enjoy it like there's no tomorrow.

And if that cookie happens to have a gazillion calories, well, she'll just dance it off later.

I asked Betty how this no-calorie-counting approach was working for her right now.

She described feelings of frustration as if she was in a holding pattern, still 30 pounds over her ideal weight.

"Life's too unpredictable to be counting every little calorie," she said.

I responded: "Well, the pro of tracking your calories is that you know exactly how many calories you're eating. The con: you know exactly how many calories you're eating!"

So is it possible to enjoy every bite of food without worrying about those pesky numbers? 

Should You Count Calories?

Counting calories, on the surface, seems like a straightforward way to manage your weight and achieve your health goals.

It provides a quantifiable measure of energy intake, allowing you to track your food consumption and make adjustments as needed.

You’ve probably heard the old saying, “a calorie is a calorie.”

Is this really true? Are all calories the same? And should you count calories?

Truth is, a calorie is not always a calorie.

We can all agree that drinking 1,200 calories in juice and soda pop is a lot different than eating 1,200 calories of high-quality protein, healthy fats, and fiber-rich carbs.

Even coffee is not built the same.

The venti mocha frappuccino from Starbucks has 500 calories. This is a full meal's worth of calories hiding in plain sight that will sabotage your nutrition, your weight, and leave you feeling confused and frustrated when the scale keeps going up.

On the other hand, a cup of plain black coffee is just five calories.

This is why you need to know one thing:

Although the amount of calories you consume is important, the quality of those calories is equally meaningful.

For example, if you’re looking for fat loss, a research-proven strategy is to eat a certain amount of unprocessed foods (like good quality protein, healthy fats, and organic vegetables).

You'll be less likely to suffer from metabolic syndrome if you limit low-quality foods (processed foods, sugar, and heavily-refined foods) and control your calories.

A Harvard study analyzed studies looking at quality of foods vs. the quantity.

Researchers discovered that food quality does indeed matter, especially when it comes to weight loss.

Data from 120,000 healthy men and women showed that "weight gain" foods like potato chips, sugar-sweetened beverages, and processed meats caused the biggest increase in fat.

The top "weight loss" foods were nuts, seeds, vegetables, whole grains, fruits, yogurt, and lean meats.

Another significant finding:

Scientists determined that, while calories are important, consuming more high-quality food, and less low-quality food, encouraged study participants to consume fewer calories overall.

Pros of counting calories

Bodyfat is burned in the kitchen. Know that fat loss always did and always will boil down to calories in versus calories out.

Low carb, keto, and other styles of carb-manipulation is simply another way to control calories.

If you just can't seem to see your abs through that layer of belly fat, why not just take the time and effort to count your macros for fat loss and crunch the numbers (at least one time).

Practice mindful nutrition by tracking your meal plan using an app, spreadsheet or old-school composition notebook.

And then take immediate action and follow the plan for at least four weeks, but ideally 13 weeks. You will undoubtedly see measurable results.

If you're still not convinced, here are a few more reasons to count calories:

  1. Awareness and mindfulness: Counting calories encourages awareness of the nutritional content of different foods. It helps you understand the energy value of what you consume, making you more mindful about your dietary choices. This awareness can be a powerful tool for achieving fat loss or maintenance of your current bodyfat. 
  2. Portion control: Counting calories can assist in portion control by providing guidelines on appropriate serving sizes. It helps prevent overeating and promotes a balanced intake of macronutrients. By monitoring portion sizes, you can develop healthier eating habits and maintain a better balance in your diet.
  3. Customization: Counting calories allows for customization of your dietary plan. By tracking your calorie intake, you can fine-tune your macronutrient ratios to suit your individual needs and goals. Whether you aim for weight loss, muscle gain, or improved athletic performance, counting calories can provide a framework for tailoring your nutrition plan.
  4. Insight into caloric needs: Counting calories can provide valuable insight into your personal caloric needs. It helps you understand how your body responds to different energy intakes and aids in creating a calorie deficit or surplus when necessary. This knowledge can be empowering and assist in achieving your desired physique or performance goals.

While counting calories can be a useful tool, it's important to consider the potential drawbacks and limitations.

Cons of relying solely on calorie counting

I'm on a new diet where I count calories. Turns out, the only thing I'm good at counting is the seconds until my next cheat meal.

Seriously, there are some legitimate concerns with calorie counting:

  1. Inaccuracy and variability: Despite the prevalent belief in the precision of calorie counts, they often have a significant margin of error. Calorie values on food labels can be imprecise, and even with accurate labeling, variations in preparation, cooking methods, and individual metabolism make it challenging to determine precise calorie counts. The process can become overwhelming and time-consuming, leading to frustration.
  2. Nutrient quality: Counting calories focuses primarily on quantity rather than quality. This approach can lead to prioritizing processed, low-nutrient foods that fit within the caloric limits, rather than focusing on nutrient-dense choices. Nutrient deficiencies may arise if the emphasis is solely on staying within a predetermined calorie range, potentially compromising overall health and well-being.
  3. Food obsession and psychological impact: For some individuals, counting calories can trigger an unhealthy relationship with food. Constantly monitoring and restricting intake can foster an obsession with numbers, leading to anxiety, guilt, and a negative mindset towards eating. Food should be enjoyed, not reduced to a mathematical equation.
  4. Metabolic adaptation: Your body is incredibly adaptive. Consistently eating at a specific calorie level may lead to metabolic adaptations, slowing down your resting metabolic rate and making it harder to achieve sustained weight loss or gain. Relying solely on counting calories without considering other factors, such as food quality and meal timing, may hinder long-term success.
  5. Sustainability and lifestyle factors: Counting calories can be cumbersome and impractical for many people. It may not align with their lifestyle, social events, or cultural practices. Constantly tracking and calculating intake can become tiresome and detract from the enjoyment of eating, potentially leading to a disconnection from natural hunger and satiety cues.

If you hate counting calories, just choose fresh and unprocessed foods when you are preparing your weekly meals.

With a little trial-and-error, you may be able to say goodbye to calorie-counting temporarily until you get stuck.

Truth is, counting calories can provide valuable insights and serve as a helpful tool for some individuals to get unstuck.

It can promote awareness, portion control, and customization, aiding in weight management and goal attainment.

However, it's crucial to balance this approach with an emphasis on nutrient quality, psychological wellbeing, and overall lifestyle sustainability.

Cheat Sheet: How Popular "Diets" Work

Popular diets work by restricting certain foods or food groups, controlling portions, and emphasizing specific macronutrient ratios to achieve desired health or weight outcomes. 

Use this helpful "cheat sheet" to decipher these famous diet strategies.

Diet name: Keto

How it works: Nearly no carbs in diet with high amounts of fat and moderate protein.

Why it works: Puts you in a caloric deficit.

Diet name: Intermittent Fasting

How it works: Eat only in a smaller "eating window" while fasting for the remainder of the day.

Why it works: Puts you in a caloric deficit.

Diet name: Paleo

How it works: Consume only unprocessed foods that "cavemen" would have eaten.

Why it works: Puts you in a caloric deficit.

Diet name: Low Fat

How it works: Eat lower-fat foods, so most calories come from protein and fat.

Why it works: Puts you in a caloric deficit.

Diet name: Weight Watchers

How it works: Eat controlled portions based on a point system.

Why it works: Puts you in a caloric deficit.

Diet name: Sugar Free

How it works: Avoid foods with added sugar and limit foods with naturally high amounts of sugar.

Why it works: Puts you in a caloric deficit.

Diet name: Whole30

How it works: Consume only whole foods and eliminate sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, soy, and dairy.

Why it works: Puts you in a caloric deficit.

Diet name: The Next Diet Craze

How it works: Some rule which is touted to be simple yet groundbreaking. Often marketed with a book or supplement line.

Why it works: Puts you in a caloric deficit.

Remember, human nutrition is a complex interplay of various factors.

While counting calories can be part of a well-rounded approach, it's essential to prioritize whole, unprocessed foods, listen to your body's hunger and satiety signals, and cultivate a positive relationship with food.

Whether or not you count calories, I've never met a successful person who did not take imperfect action.

Now, more than ever, I keep reminding my clients (and myself) that thinking isn’t doing.

Regardless of the reason, you cannot steer a stationary ship.


Because a stationary ship is, well, stationary. It's not moving. 

And you’re not going to move anywhere unless you pull up that anchor.

My humble recommendation when you don't feel like doing something positive (smart training, mindful nutrition, getting a good night's sleep, etc.) is to “act against it.”

The moment you feel like doing nothing, at that time, it's incredibly important that you do something.

The take-home lesson is to act. To move.

Because you can’t go anywhere while you’re standing still.

Action breeds motivation.

Which can feel scary, I know.

Especially if you don’t have a direction.

If you need help moving, reach out to a friend, to a family member, or to an experienced coach.

I know from experience how difficult it can be to ask for help; but I also know how lonely it can be when you feel stuck.

All human beings crave connection and community.

Regardless of how you do it, it’s time to start moving.

Because you cannot steer a stationary ship.

Hope this helps,

Coach Joe



Joseph Arangio helps 40+ men and women get leaner, stronger, and happier. He's delivered over 100,000 transformation programs to satisfied clients around the globe. If you want to lose weight from home, with the best online longevity personal trainer, or you want to visit the best age-management personal trainer in the Lehigh Valley, you can take a free 14-day trial.

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