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The Problem with Counting Calories

With the new year, some of you may be considering counting calories as a means to feeling lighter and better. Whilst I think calorie counting has its place and can be useful, especially short term, there are some major disadvantages.

I'm not saying don't do it. My real question to you is - is it worth the work, FOR YOU?

I had a client who was religiously weighing all the components of the meals she was creating in order to accurately asses the calories she was eating and to lose weight. It resulted in frustration, disappointment and feeling stuck - we tried a different way and she continued to lose weight via eating more, and without having to spend all that time counting calories. I often ask my clients, do you want to be counting calories in ten years time? If the answer is no, is it worth exploring a more sustainable and enjoyable method?

Here goes. Here are the problems with counting the calories you put in your body.

1. Calorie counts that you find on packaging are imprecise, and can have up to 50% error in them! They are simply averages based on some lab tests and might not be anywhere near the calories in the actual serving or portion size you are having.

2. We don't absorb all the calories we consume. A lot of the food we eat can be simply not be digested and pass straight through our guts. This can be up to 10% error.

3. How you prepare the food changes its caloric load. If you cook the food, chop or blend it, or if it's more ripe, then this can increase the amount of calories your body can absorb from the food. This can be up to 90% error!!

4. Individuals absorb calories uniquely and variably and is dependent on your gut bacteria. This shouldn't be a source of frustration. You are a mass of trillions of cells all working together for your good and survival. How brilliantly cool is that?! No wonder you don't fit some generic formula!

5. Many people aren't great at eye-balling portion sizes - that splash of oil to cook your dinner in, that quick snack for elevenses, the leftovers off the kids plates - it can be very easy to drastically underestimate the calories you are consuming.

Total these errors up, and you might find you are eating 25% more or less calories than you think you are!

And that's just one side of the story. Let's look at the problems with counting the calories out e.g. how many calories you burn over the day.

1. Calorie burn estimates are imprecise. The exercise equipment at the gym might show you a number of calories burnt, as might your personal trainer using a formula, as might your fitness tracker. Formulas, however, again are lab averages. They use data such as your gender, body weight, age and approximate activity level. Fitness trackers can have between 9-23% error in them!! I used to get very frustrated if I ever tried to track calories using my fitness tracker, as I just could not stay within the calories it told me I was burning! I wasn't putting on weight, so it was clearly inaccurate, but I found it a really negative and unhelpful thing to focus on - another stick to bash myself with because I could't stay within the numbers! I am also NOT saying that they are NOT useful - because fitness trackers generally bring more awareness to activity and nutrition than you may usually have, which is a great thing.

2. Individuals burn calories uniquely and variably. Your genes, epigenetics (how external factors influence which genes are expressed or not), the amount of brown fat you have, your sleep and your hormones can all influence the way in which you burn calories. For example, not getting enough sleep (more on this in coming weeks) can decrease the amount of calories that you burn by 5-20%!! And if you are a woman with a menstrual cycle, then you may burn more calories daily at certain points of your cycle. The error involved with this can be up to 20%

3. What and how much you eat - if you eat more, you burn more. This is called adaptive metabolism, and it also works in reverse. If you eat less, you burn less. It's a safety strategy in the body to stop your starving - again, great, thanks body, it totally has your best interests at heart!! With what you eat, something called the thermal effect of food comes into play. Ever had the meat sweats?! Protein required the most amount of energy to break down, with 20-30% of the calories in the food are used to digest it. These factors can cause up to 20% error.

4. Your weight history. This is linked to the point above. If you have ever dieted or lost weight, then your metabolism will have adapted down to the decreased amount of food. That person therefore might need fewer calories to maintain than a person of the same weight but who has never dieted.

So yeah, in total, there's another 25% error in calculating calories out.

So if you're feeling frustrated with counting calories or wondering why it's not currently working for you, don't worry! It might be due to one or multiple of the reasons above.

There is another way, and it is NOT complicated. Next week, I talk about the fundamentals of good nutrition.

AND you can also check out of group coaching plan (12 weeks of fitness, nutrition and mindset coaching) to go deeper and learn more about this.



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