Is calorie counting worth the time and effort?

If you’ve been on any sort of weight loss diet or been given any sort of advice by health and fitness professionals (including a nutritionist, dietitian or personal trainer), you’ve probably been advised to calculate your activity level on any given day and the number of calories you need to eat based on your energy expenditure to lose body fat. This last part is called calorie counting and it’s been a common strategy for a long time.

In fact, you’ve probably heard the saying ‘calories in vs calories out’. But seriously, is counting calories worth all of your time and hassle? 

After all, it means weighing your food, using an online tool like to calculate how many calories are in each food item, then collating all of that information to determine how much energy you consume in a day. And you have to do that over a number of days to get an indication of how many calories you eat on an average day.

Is calorie counting worth the time and effort?

Take it from someone who has tried to count the number of calories in meals, it’s a pain and can really take the enjoyment out of eating. 

Weighing every item of food you eat, finding the right item in your online tracker and recording everything is laborious, time-consuming and boring (unless you’re into that kind of thing).

Apart from the whole ‘it’s boring and time-consuming thing’, are there other reasons why calorie counting is a waste of time?

As a nutritionist, often clients expect one of the first things I’m going to speak to them about is their calorie intake if their goal is weight loss. But while the number of calories you consume is a component of your eating habits, it’s not always the key factor in your weight gain and needs to be considered in the context of your whole body health. 

Firstly, even if we know how much energy is in a food item before we eat it, which is virtually impossible, how can you possibly know how much of that energy your body is going to absorb and use? Here are just a few factors to consider:

  • As you digest food, you’ll use energy during the digestion process. Everyone is different.
  • The health and efficiency of your gastrointestinal tract (GIT) will affect how much of the energy from the food you eat is absorbed and used. Everyone is different.
  • Some energy will be excreted. For example, you can only absorb and use so much protein at any given time, so any extra is excreted through your urine. Everyone is different.

Research has shown that nutrition informational labels on food items can be inaccurate by as much as 25% either way. That’s a huge variance from what the label says and what might actually be in the food. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. The nutritional calculations of most foods aren’t performed in a lab with a bomb calorimeter. Food companies know it’s not cost-effective because not every ingredient they use from day to day will be exactly the same. Instead, they use the best estimate using accepted standards.
  2. Nutrient databases used can be outdated or inaccurate. After all, and other online tools rely on the public entering food label information into their system accurately!
  3. More energy from resistant starches and fibres (shown as carbohydrates on the label) is extracted by a bomb calorimeter then a human, so the information on a food label is a ‘best guess’.
  4. Not every food manufacturer and company measures the energy profile of food the same way. Some are more accurate than others.
  5. Let’s say you want the calorie and nutrient profile of a ‘medium-sized orange’. An online tool doesn’t take into account when it was picked (winter, summer, hot, cold, yesterday, three weeks ago, etc.), where it was picked (soil quality, latitude/longitude, sunny/cloudy, etc.), or how it has travelled from origin to store. These will all affect its calorie and nutrient profile.
  6. Animals all experience different dietary and living conditions. Even cows who only eat grass don’t eat exactly the same grass. No chicken, beef, lamb, pork, egg or milk product is going to be exactly the same as the next.
  7. There is a difference between a raw food and a cooked food. The amount of processing and cooking that has gone on before you buy the food will change its nutrient profile. The length of time, style (bake, boil, steam, etc.) and quality of your cooking skills will also play a part.

Bottom line, it’s impossible to know exactly how many calories are in the food you eat, how much of that energy you absorb, use and excrete, and how much energy you use to live and move. The margin of error in each of these areas makes calorie counting seem like a waste of time, right?

One of my issues with calorie counting is the emphasis on the number of calories in the different types of foods, not the food’s nutritional value. You can choose to eat 500 calories of ice cream or 500 calories of broccoli. Clearly, not all calories are equal and while they might provide your body with the same amount of energy, they are processed by the body differently. Refined carbs, for example, are going to provide quick energy and cause a surge in our blood sugar levels, but the “sugar crash” comes just as quickly. Whereas protein-rich foods keep us feeling full for longer and provide us with a sustained level of energy. 

Remember, macronutrients offer our body’s much more than just energy:

  • Protein is required for every cellular function, its the building blocks for cells, muscles and hormones, and it improves satiety. 
  • Fats provide essential fat-soluble vitamins vital for the nervous system, hormone production and cell structure. They offer slow-releasing energy and protective anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Carbohydrates provide an easily accessible fuel and also contain fibre which is food for your gut bacteria. In balance with protein, complex carbs are a sustaining source of energy.

In many ways, macronutrient balance is more important than your ability to count calories. Of course, you can rely solely on counting calories to achieve weight loss, but it’s important to consider your overall health and the long term implications of neglecting macro and micronutrients. 

Is there a positive reason for counting calories?

Yes, there is a place for counting calories, especially in weight loss. I believe this is mostly to do with understanding the calorie content of foods and your portion sizes. 

While we know online trackers won’t give you an exact reading, they can give you an idea of your food intake and the nutrient breakdown. So when deciding what to eat, they can be a helpful resource to compare various foods that you may be thinking of eating.

They can be a helpful tool for increasing your knowledge and awareness about what is in the food you eat and can help you make informed choices about what foods you should and shouldn’t eat. 

Keeping a food diary, in general, can help you identify patterns and behaviours in your eating habits so that you can make some beneficial changes. This doesn’t necessarily require you to track your caloric intake, but instead consistently record the types of foods you are eating, the portion size and when you’re eating.

In fact, research shows when people keep a food diary, they are more mindful of what they’re eating and make healthier food choices, leading to a healthy diet long-term. 

Is there a better way to manage your diet than calorie counting?

Calorie counting can be laborious. Just like recording other measurements like weight and heart rate, it can cause you to become borderline obsessive. I believe measuring your food portions shouldn’t require logging into myfitnesspal or carrying a set of scales in your back pocket. 

All you need is something that you carry around with you every day no matter where you go…your hand.

To calculate portion sizes, here’s what you need to do:

  • Quality Protein: 1 palm = 1 portion
  • Vegetables: 1 fist = 1 portion
  • Complex carbohydrates: 1 cupped hand = 1 portion
  • Healthy Fats: 1 thumb = 1 portion

That’s it. That’s much easier than trying to calculate everything using measuring devices and online technology! Here’s a little more information to make meal prep a little easier for you.

Protein Sources: meat, fish, eggs, poultry, dairy (if tolerated), quinoa, hemp, nuts, seeds
Portions: men – 2, women – 1 (with every meal)

Vegetables (non-starchy carbs) Sources: Broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, zucchini, kale, rocket, silverbeat, capsicum, cucumber, etc.
Portions: men – 2, women 1 (with every meal)

Carbohydrates (starchy and fruits) Sources: Banana, apple, orange, berries, potato, oats, rice, pumpkin, sweet potato, beetroot, quinoa, legumes, wholegrain bread and pasta
Portions: men – 2, women – 1 (with meals before and after your workouts)

Fats Sources: Olive oil, nut oil, butter, nuts, avocado, coconut products
Portions: men – 1, women 1 (with most meals)

If you were to prepare 3-4 meals per day using this formula, you’ll get roughly the same amount of calories from your diet as you would if you’d used the measuring utensils, scales and online tools. Of course, this is just a starting point. By no means am I suggesting that men should eat twice as much as women. Not all men will be able to eat that much food, and some women may need to eat more. There are many factors that will require you to increase or decrease the amount of food you eat on any given day. These include your…

  • Size
  • Daily energy expenditure (are you sedentary or do you move most of the day)
  • Gender
  • Body type (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph)
  • Body fat and muscle composition
  • Health status
    …just to name a few.

The calorie content of food and weight loss programs based on a calorie deficit don’t take into account all these individual factors. This is the benefit of individually tailored nutrition that considers all aspects of your health and wellbeing from your hormone balance, digestive function and body composition to stress and lifestyle commitments. 

Remember, nourishing our bodies with quality wholefoods should be enjoyable. We shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by tracking our calorie intake or get caught up in overanalysing the numbers. If you feel deprived or can’t function on a nominated caloric intake defined by a weight loss program, it simply isn’t a sustainable way to achieve weight loss. 

If you are struggling to get on top of your weight or want some personalised advice on how you can better support your overall health and wellbeing, book a nutrition consult today. There’s no better time to optimise your health!

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