The Calorie Count
Updated: May 11
Have you ever really tracked your daily food intake? I mean weighed or measured every single thing you ate for the day then logged it in a tracking app? If so you know it totally sucks.
It can take hours to track a full day of food especially if you have to manually enter each component of your meal. Did you have oatmeal for breakfast? Or did you have oatmeal cooked with skim milk, two tablespoons sliced almonds, two teaspoons flax seed, chopped apple (one eighth an apple to be precise), and a teaspoon of honey. Just logging this meal will take you more time than it took you to cook and eat it!
And yet despite the cumbersome nature of calorie trackers, they continue to be a widely recommended tool for weight loss. This is because of the unfortunate credence that losing weight is just a matter of simply eating fewer calories than you burn. Too bad calorie-in/calorie out is a vast over simplification of our bodies’ intricate metabolic processes.
Imagine if a physical therapist told a patient to just put one foot in front of the other and start walking. No way! Because walking is a highly complex movement that requires strength, mobility, and stability. Ok yes, if you burn more calories than you take in you should lose weight. Until your metabolism adjusts to your decreased caloric intake. Or until you get so tired of being hungry that you go on a three-day pizza, beer, and ice cream bender . . .
Here’s some more reasons why calorie trackers are the worst:
They aren’t especially accurate.
That’s right. That last hour you spent estimating and logging every component of your dinner was kind of a waste. Americans are notoriously bad at estimating how much we’ve eaten. An evaluation of more than 35 years of reported intake data suggests study participants underestimated caloric intake by 20 to 30%. And perhaps even more problematic is when we overestimate how much we ate. (How many almonds was that?? I think it was more than a quarter cup so I’ll log half a cup to be safe.) This can lead to drastic under-eating, extreme hunger, and metabolic slow-down.
AND the FDA allows food labels to be off by up to 20%. So a 500 calorie meal may have had as many as 600 calories.
AND predictive equations that calculate our caloric needs aren’t very accurate either! Even the most advanced equations for resting metabolic rate can be off by 10%. Then we also have to measure how much we move every day which is pretty much impossible. And what about when we’re sick? On our periods? Got less sleep? All these things affect our metabolism daily.
They distract us from our food.
Whenever I think about calorie counting I always imagine my husband’s very Italian grandmother preparing dinner for her family. Did she measure out half a cup of pasta for everyone at the table? No freaking way! She cooked dinner and the family ate together and enjoyed their food. Calorie tracking is a distraction that takes us further away from mindfulness. Instead of sitting down to a meal and really tuning in to our hunger, fullness, and satisfaction we’re punching shit into our phone.
“Did you enjoy your salmon?”
“Umm . . . I enjoyed adding another serving of protein into my app.”
They don’t encourage nutritious choices.
How many times have you grabbed a 100 calorie pack of kind of gross cookies when you were hungry? Calorie counting has convinced us that a rice cake or popcorn is somehow “healthier” than trail mix or yogurt. There’s this awesome salad place in my neighborhood that I hit up at least once a week. Recently a friend told me she loved one of their seasonal options but tried not to order it too often because it has 700 calories. What a bummer! People are afraid to eat a totally nutritious and satisfying salad because of the calories. Pro tip: hearty salads aren’t to blame for the obesity crisis.
Friends. Put down your phones. Pick up your forks. And just enjoy your lunch!
Archer, Edward et al. “Validity of U.S. nutritional surveillance: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey caloric energy intake data, 1971-2010” PloS one vol. 8,10 e76632. 9 Oct. 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076632
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Labeling & Nutrition - Guidance for Industry: Nutrition Labeling Manual - A Guide for Developing and Using Data Bases.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/labelingnutrition/ucm063113.htm#how.
Frankenfield, David, et al. “Comparison of Predictive Equations for Resting Metabolic Rate in Healthy Nonobese and Obese Adults: A Systematic Review.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 105, no. 5, 2005, pp. 775–789., doi:10.1016/j.jada.2005.02.005.