Calorie Counting: Helpful or Unproductive?
By Brooke Schohl, MS, RD
An abundance of information about the number of calories in foods is available on a daily basis – on food labels, diet tracking websites and restaurant menus, to name a few. But is counting calories an effective way to manage weight? Consider these guidelines before you start.
- Calories provide baseline information. If you are beginning a nutrition plan or trying to lose weight, getting an initial idea of daily caloric intake can be helpful. While calories are not the only determining factor of weight status, they certainly play a part. Consuming excessive calories on a regular basis leads to storage of fuel as fat in the body. Conversely, consistently consuming inadequate calories leads the body into starvation mode, where metabolism slows and the body holds onto fat for dear life. Neither of these situations is good!
- Calories only provide an estimate of intake. Much of the criticism surrounding calorie counting stems from the reality that calories are really only an estimate of the energy produced by food/drink. Translation — there is plenty of room for error in this measurement tool. Even when more intensive strategies are applied to calorie tallying (measuring and weighing), there is still variation in total calories produced.
- Calories are not the end-all measurement of dietary intake. Calories consumed relative to calories burned solely determine weight status, right? Wrong! There are several other factors to consider, one of the most important being resting metabolic rate (RMR). RMR represents the minimum number of calories needed to sustain vital body function, or how many calories one burns in a day. This number varies immensely among individuals based on fueling regime, exercise amount, and activity throughout the day. The higher the better when it comes to RMR. Interestingly enough, low calorie diets as well as high carbohydrate/low fat diets actually decrease RMR. Life Time Fitness Senior Director of Nutrition & Weight Management Tom Nikkola simply states, “the body is designed to conserve energy when it senses a shortage of incoming available energy.” Therefore using calorie intake as the sole measure of weight status is far from accurate.One should also consider macronutrient (carb/protein/fat) intake by percentage. As mentioned above, both low-calorie and high-carb/low-fat eating regimes prevent individuals from tapping into fat fuel stores. Sports Dietitian Bob Seebohar says that to truly be metabolically efficient, one needs to become less reliant on dietary carbohydrates and better equipped to utilize fat for fuel by consuming less carbs, more fat and adequate protein.
- Consider alternatives. An article in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization suggests that instead of tracking calories, people should consider decreasing portions to make healthy eating easier. Weight status is about the types of foods we consume as well as the portions. Restaurant portions have reached astronomical sizes, and this is what we are now accustomed to. By reducing intake at meals, people take in less energy overall — leading to better weight control in most instances.
- Consider longevity in this approach. Is counting calories on a daily basis realistic for you? Some people enjoy dietary tracking of foods and beverages, while others loathe it. If calorie tracking is not sustainable for you, maybe check in with a diet-tracking program one or two days a month to get an idea of where you fall on the calorie spectrum. Or even better — focus on developing the skill of intuitive eating. This strategy involves only eating when hungry and focusing on natural, whole food choices the vast majority of the time.
Remember, calories are only an estimate; however, they can provide helpful baseline information in determining fuel needs. Caloric intake aside, many other factors impact your body’s efficiency at metabolizing fuel. When it comes to fueling your body with the right food/drink, focus on whole, natural foods, minimal ingredients and portion control. Life’s too short to live and die by calories!
Brooke is a registered sports dietitian and the owner of Fuel to the Finish Endurance Nutrition Coaching/Destination Kona Triathlon Store in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is an avid triathlete, having recently completed her third Ironman. She integrates that personal experience and knowledge into developing customized, sport-specific fueling plans for her clients.