I've been on a healthy eating kick lately, but I've gone the "try hard to make better choices" route rather than counting calories this time. You see, counting calories to lose weight can leave you frustrated—and can lead to unhealthy eating patterns if you're trying to fit in calorie-rich things like ice cream or a glass of wine when you've only got a limited number per day. The last time I tried to keep track of my calories, I quit in less than a week because it literally took all of the fun out of mealtime and, well, that's kind of a sin in my book.
I felt a little better about ditching this method when I heard that experts are saying that this counting habit may not actually be the best way to keep weight off. "When you eat the right quality and balance of foods, your body can do the rest on its own," explains David Ludwig, MD, an endocrinologist, researcher, and professor at Harvard Medical School, who's also the author of Always Hungry? "You don't have to count calories or go by the numbers." To learn more about the history of calorie counting, how to do it, and both the pros and cons, keep reading.
The History of Calorie Counting
It's actually funny to think about why we began counting calories since it's so commonplace now. It all started in the early 1900s when a scientist named Wilbur Atwater discovered that by using a special machine, you could find out how many "calories" were in a food by measuring the ash and heat to see the quantity of energy released into the air. When the methodology and terminology appeared in diet-related books, calorie-counting as we know it caught on.
How It Works
Where to start? Perhaps the simplest way to count calories is to find a daily calorie goal calculator online. By taking into consideration your sex, height, weight and goal weight, it will tell you an estimated number of calories you should consume each day to hit that number on the scale by a certain date.
In order to track your calories going forward, you can use an app like My Fitness Pal, which has logs of common foods and drinks and the calories associated with them. By clicking through, you can quickly select the food you're eating and log your calories (most of these apps also have a calorie goal calculator built-in).
Another option is to go the old-school route and keep a calorie journal, but it will take you much longer to look up each food or drink you have one at a time.
It can teach you to be mindful
When you have to take the time to analyze a label for calories or scan an ingredient list, you get to take a step back and realize if you're really hungry. Calorie counting also enables you to become conscious of what's actually in the foods we eat on a regular basis (for example, olive oil contains 120 calories in just one tablespoon).
"It can be a very eye-opening exercise and help people become more mindful when it comes to eating," says Ken Immer, president and chief culinary officer of Culinary Health Solutions, a company that helps individuals find their ideal diet.
You can build positive habits
Writing down what you're eating—in a positive way—has been proven to allow people to lose twice as much weight. After all, words don't lie, and there's no way to hide that splurging you did (although sometimes a splurge is a good thing).
"Food diaries aren't there to tell you what you are or aren't allowed," says physician and obesity expert Yoni Freedhoff. "A food diary is simply a source of information to help inform your decisions, as well as an incredibly powerful habit-building tool."
You have choices
Your daily calorie allotment lets you play decision maker as to how you'll use your calories, whereas other meal plans like Whole30 or keto can be very limiting. Craving some ice cream or potato chips? You can have it, you'll just have to make up for it at another meal.
"It's the total daily calories that are being monitored, not the specific type of food," says Joan Salge Blake, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. "If you want a scoop of Chunky Monkey ice cream, you can enjoy it."
However, the flip side is that by consuming higher-fat foods, you're going to have fewer calories to use the rest of the day, and if you're not careful, you can be eating in an unhealthy way (see more on that below).
It's not extremely accurate
The thing is, those calorie calculators are not always on point. Experts like registered dietician Abby Langer say that you need to know your basal metabolic rate in order for calorie counting to be effective—and that requires being hooked up to a machine to test your oxygen and carbon dioxide measurements (no, this is not part of an app). "You really are playing with arbitrary numbers," says Langer. "If even the 'gold standard' machine can be wrong, then why let some app or equation determine how much you should be eating?"
Calories are not equal
Comparing calories in different types of foods is like comparing apples to oranges. "If you think about it, your body is going to feel a lot differently after eating 100 calories of gummy candy than 100 calories of avocado," says Jessica Cording, a New York–based RD. And even though foods like avocado can be high in good-for-you fats and aren't especially low in calories—one cup equals 234 calories—we should actually be making space for these foods in our diet. This is why counting calories doesn't always work.
If we prioritize low-calorie foods, then we can end up foregoing necessary nutrients.
It can make eating "joyless."
According to Immer, counting calories can cause us to start labeling certain foods "good" or "bad." "It's important to keep our relationship with food a very positive one," he explains. "These associations can ruin our outlook on something that we cherish in life, and that's unsustainable." It can also cause us to form unhealthy eating habits (example: bingeing on cake and not much else all day), so it's definitely something to keep on your radar.
Immer says that when it comes to calorie counting, it can work for individuals who are able to stay positive throughout the process. "Healthy and effective calorie counting is a totally personal experience," he says. Before you start any type of calorie counting, consult with your primary care physician first. Diets are not one-size-fits-all, so if this method doesn't work for you, your doctor will help you find one that does.
To read next: simple tips for a flatter stomach.