Does Calorie Counting Work for Weight Loss?

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Does Calorie Counting Work for Weight Loss?
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If you want to lose weight, there’s an unlimited number of weight loss plans, companies, and articles that will encourage you to count calories to reduce your intake. Some of these plans claim to use other methods to achieve weight loss, such as restricting portions; using a traffic light system of green, yellow, and red foods; or limiting carbohydrates or fats. 

But, behind all of the programs is some type of calorie counting and restriction. 

Calorie counting may help you lose weight if you reduce your calorie intake consistently over time. That said, counting calories is a time and energy suck, and may even cause you emotional harm. 

Instead of counting calories, we offer other strategies — that actually work — to improve your overall diet quality and health so you can achieve a healthy weight without all the drama.

Calorie Counting Can Work for Weight Loss, But Does it Last? 

To lose weight, you generally need a calorie deficit over time, which means that you take in fewer calories than you need to maintain your weight. Counting calories is a method you can use to be more aware of your daily intake.

Calorie counting can lead to greater self awareness of what you’re eating, which might prompt you to make changes that improve your diet. Most successful calorie restriction plans include some kind of self monitoring, often with an app, online program, or a paper log.

Self monitoring, which typically includes tracking or counting most of what you eat and all of your exercise, can help people reduce calories and lose weight. One analysis of 2,113 people in a weight loss program found that those who logged food for at least three days and had at least an hour of highly active exercise per week saw clinically significant weight loss for men and women. People who used food logs five or more times per week for a higher percentage of weeks had higher levels of weight loss, too.

Consistent calorie restriction does generally promote weight loss. In the CALERIE study, 218 people were randomly assigned to either a 25% calorie restriction diet or their typical diet. The people who were assigned to the calorie restriction group were offered education but also monitored their calorie intake while participating. Those in the calorie restriction group maintained 12% calorie restriction and 10% weight loss over two years.

But, long-term weight loss maintenance from structured calorie restriction programs is not as successful. A meta-analysis of 29 long-term weight loss studies found that participants maintained about 23% of the initial amount of their weight loss, or an average of about 6.5 pounds at the four- or five-year mark. Overall, participants in these 29 long-term studies maintained an average weight loss of ~3.2% from their initial starting weight. The authors of this analysis note that a high level of physical activity is associated with maintenance of weight loss long term.

What stands out about these study results: These are really structured studies with a lot of support, and even then, people who are clinically obese end up maintaining 3% of their weight loss after several years. This amount of weight loss likely has no real impact on their health.

Issues with Calorie Counting

Does Calorie Counting Work for Weight Loss?
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Though counting calories may help you lose weight if you eat fewer calories than you use each day, it’s not an easy process and has many potential drawbacks.

Issues with calorie counting include:

  • May be harmful to mental health or even lead to an eating disorder. In a study of 493 college students, people who reported using calorie trackers had higher levels of eating concerns. The study findings showed associations between using calorie and fitness trackers and eating disorder symptoms. It’s unclear, though, whether these individuals already had tendencies toward disordered eating behaviors or if using the trackers triggered all symptoms. Additionally, students were using the trackers on their own, without help or context from a qualified professional. 

  • Can damage your relationship with food. When counting calories, you might avoid foods that are high in calories or where the calorie amounts are unknown. Some people obsess about counting every bit of food that they eat, which takes mental energy away from much more important tasks and life activities.

  • You can lose touch with what it means to honor your hunger. Instead of fulfilling a craving or eating a balanced and healthy meal, some people end up eating the same foods or a more rigid diet because they have the calorie amounts memorized. This reduces your ability to eat intuitively and with joy. 

  • It might not improve the quality of your diet. Low-calorie foods aren’t necessarily nutritious or filling. A 12-ounce can of soda and a mozzarella cheese stick and small apple both have about the same amount of calories. The food snack provides protein, calcium, fiber, and potassium while the can of soda has little nutritional value.

  • Counting and tracking calories is tedious and time consuming. It’s difficult to maintain in the long run, so you’re better off learning healthier habits.

  • It’s imprecise. Even if you’re tracking all of the foods you eat and measuring all foods and liquids correctly, you still might not have an accurate count of your daily intake. The United States Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, doesn’t consider the Nutrition Facts label to be out of compliance unless the food contains 20% more calories than the label states. What’s more, fitness trackers and calorie counters on fitness equipment provide estimates of energy burned that are often inaccurate. Research also shows the amount of energy you burn in one workout can vary from device to device. The takeaway: Energy consumed and energy burned are estimates at best.

  • The amount of calories a person needs each day is difficult to determine, even for highly trained clinicians. Calorie needs are based on many factors, including a person’s age, sex, weight, height, metabolic needs, and activity level. It’s difficult to predict accurately how many calories you should eat to maintain your weight or to lose weight sustainably since everyone is different.

  • You don’t digest all of the calories in a food. For example, indigestible (or insoluble) fibers pass through the body without breaking down. These fibers can be found in certain whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Also, people may digest different amounts of calories from the same types of foods depending on the makeup of their gut microbiota, which is a complex system of bacteria found in the intestines. 

RD Recommendations: What to Do Instead of Calorie Counting

Does Calorie Counting Work for Weight Loss?
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Though tracking food intake and counting calories may help you lose weight, we don’t recommend this strategy due to its many potential downsides. We do recommend logging meals, snacks, and drinks for certain time periods so you can get an idea of what, when, and how much you consume (not to count calories, but rather to learn how you can improve the quality of your diet). This can also provide helpful insight to share with a personal trainer, health coach, or registered dietitian you’re working with. 

Instead of focusing on calorie restriction to lose weight, try some of the following nutrition and lifestyle tips. They may help with weight management and — more importantly — will promote better overall health regardless of weight outcomes.

  1. Consider using MyPlate, or Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate as a guide for healthy eating at meal times. Using the plate method can teach you appropriate portion sizes without measuring or weighing any foods. These methods also encourage greater intake of vegetables and smaller portion sizes of protein and starchy foods.

  2. Increase the amount of fruits and vegetables that you eat. The 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest 2.5 cups per day of vegetables, or about 5 servings per day, and 2 cups of fruit per day. If you’re not there yet, start small and try to increase your intake by a serving or two per day. Try adding spinach, celery, or kale to a smoothie, or make a weekly vegetable-focused soup to use for lunches or as a side at dinner. 

  3. Do some prep work each week. You don’t have to meal prep every item that you’ll eat for the week, but even spending an hour on the weekend or a weeknight preparing foods can help you stay on a healthier path. After you get home from the grocery store, wash and chop your vegetables so they’re easy to add to meals or eat raw as a quick snack. Cook a large batch of whole grains, like brown rice or quinoa, to keep in the refrigerator for the week. Use these cooked grains as a base for a grain bowl or as a fiber-rich addition to a veggie-filled salad. 

  4. Make extra batches of nutritious foods while you’re cooking a meal. Roast an extra tray of vegetables when you’re already cooking dinner, or cook an extra batch of protein foods (black beans, shredded chicken breast, seasoned tofu) to help make a quick dinner later in the week. 

  5. Include protein at every meal to increase satiety, or feelings of fullness, which will give your meals more staying power. Instead of a meal of rice and vegetables, add sauteed chicken or black beans. At breakfast, include eggs or a tofu scramble instead of only having oatmeal or toast.

  6. Eat more mindfully. Aim to sit at a table or another peaceful spot for meals. Allow yourself at least 10–15 minutes to enjoy a meal without distractions. Even if you’re eating alone, try to put away your phone and avoid multitasking.

  7. Work on the timing of meals and snacks. Try to eat every few hours to avoid overeating at the next meal or grabbing a snack that you might not have chosen otherwise.  

  8. Cook more at home. Decrease takeout and convenience foods, which tend to have larger portion sizes. Restaurant food also often contains more butter, oil, and sugar than you would use if you cooked a similar meal at home.

  9. Limit sugar-sweetened drinks such as soda, sweet tea, juices, and sugary coffee drinks. Aim to drink more plain water, sparkling water, unsweetened or herbal teas. Limit the amount of sugar that you add to your coffee drinks, or try a plain latte or cappuccino. 

  10. Avoid alcohol. It has negative health effects and heavy drinking is associated with obesity. Instead of a cocktail, try a mocktail or a glass of kombucha. A mocktail recipe can be as simple as a glass of sparkling water with a splash of cranberry juice and a squeeze of lime. Try fun garnishes to make mocktails more enjoyable, such as a sprig of fresh rosemary, a few basil leaves, or a twist of lemon or grapefruit.

  11. Get enough sleep. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends seven or more hours of sleep per night for 18- to 60-year-olds. A 2008 review of 36 publications found that shorter sleep durations appear independently associated with weight gain, especially in younger people. 

The Bottom Line

Counting calories isn’t always accurate, might remove joy and intuition from eating, and may even cause harm to your mental health. There are many ways to improve your overall diet quality and even reduce caloric intake without counting calories or tracking your food intake strictly. Try other goals first, such as increasing the number of servings of vegetables that you eat, improving your sleep, or optimizing your cooking routines to eat a more nutrient-dense diet.