Why Counting Calories is Bullshit (for me)


On Mother's Day I posted on FB a picture of what I got from my kids.  They gave me loads of chocolate with the nutritional information blacked out. I was thrilled and posted it, along with the sentiment that "counting calories is bullshit".  This post is inspired by a conversation I had with a loved one who didn't agree with that sentiment. In our subsequent conversation, I assured my loved one that yes, it's true, people can do whatever they want with their own bodies.  And yes, everyone is on their own journey.  And yes, counting calories might be "working" for some people. (But what does "working" mean?)  I do agree that there is no one right way to do anything for anyone. And my work is all about helping people listen to their own inner guidance to help them make decisions and to trust their bodies above anyone else's opinion. So I explained all that, but at the end of the day, I have to say that I still think counting calories is bullshit and I'll tell you why.  What I will caveat that with is - that's totally fine if you disagree!

From the pure dieting perspective, counting calories is bullshit because it doesn't necessarily lead to a reduction in weight assuming that is the goal.  Even if you know how many calories is in something, (and I am being very generous in assuming that is known), your body is processing each food differently all the time. Your body processes differently at different times of day, different times of the year, when you are in a good mood or a bad mood, whether you have just been active or sedentary, whether you are fighting disease or stressed or maintaining status quo.  There are so many factors that go into the burning of the calories, that counting them is futile. Even different foods digest differently. Eating less than you were eating before might cause you to lose weight in the short term, but it's not counting the calories, a subtle difference.  If it were counting the calories then why is it that some people go on to maintain the lower calorie diet and gain weight back anyway? Calories in = calories out is a myth. There is no way to be that precise with our eating.  Not to mention that two people eating the exact same calories can have entirely different experiences with body size and weight.

Second, why would a person be counting calories in the first place? People count calories because they want to lose weight.  Why do they want to lose weight? Because they don't like how they look, or they don't like how their body is functioning  or because they have a health condition that they think losing weight will help solve.  When somoeone says they have found something that "works" they are drawing a direct line between the behavior (counting calories) and the perceived result (smaller body).   In reality, some people simply have smaller bodies and the decisions they think they are making to "control their weight" are not doing anything in particular.

Digging deeper, if you don't like how you look and you want to lose weight,  this gets my hackles up right away (assuming humans have hackles).  Why don't you like how you look? What's wrong with the way you look? Who told you it was wrong? What are you believing that makes you think it is wrong? Who are you trying to please? Why aren't you good enough being you? I agree this one is really hard to wrap our heads around. The world tells us we should look a certain way to be desirable and we are all raised to think this way.  We even judge other people on the basis of how desirable we perceive them to be based on our conditioning.  But from a deep inner knowing place, this behavior is troublesome because you aren't listening to your own inside voices, you are listening to the opinions and judgments of external influences.  It's going to be very hard to find happiness if you look outside, decide you don't fit a norm and then start counting calories in an attempt to change that.  So I think counting calories is bullshit here because trying to lose weight to satisfy the cultural norm is giving away your power.

Now I'm sure someone may then say - "but I don't feel good inside, it has nothing to do with other people".  If that were true, and you lived on a deserted island, would you count calories? Would you be concerned with changing your size just for yourself? Yeah - I didn't think so.  Chances are high that you are really changing your size to please other people and only you can decide if you are okay with it. For me personally, that's bullshit.

Ok - so now let's say that you are having trouble going up stairs or your body feels uncomfortable and you want to count calories to lose some weight.  This makes sense.  However, first we have the problem already mentioned - that counting calories is a very imprecise science.  And then we have the added problem that people who lose weight often gain it back plus more.  So weight loss is not recommended as the goal.  The goal should be to improve how your body functions and feels through movement, sleep, relaxation, activities that bring you joy, foods that nourish and satisfy and listening to what your body needs when it needs it.   You don't have to lose a pound to make your body more comfortable and so - all together now - counting calories is bullshit.

And last - let's say you have diabetes and your Doctor has recommended weight loss.  There is a paradox that many don't know about where people of higher weight are associated with longer survival in many diseases. Taken from Linda Bacon's article Weight Science - Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift  (a must read!)


"obese persons with type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and chronic kidney disease all have greater longevity than thinner people with these conditions. Also, obese people who have had heart attacks, coronary bypass, angioplasty or hemodialysis  live longer than thinner people with these histories. In addition, obese senior citizens live longer than thinner senior citizens."  So why is weight loss recommended for people with these conditions? If you find out, please let me know.

In the case of disease or preventing disease, the patient is better off working on those healthy habits listed earlier that focus on listening to the bodies own cues and not on trying to lose weight or counting calories.  Again, the weight cycling itself is associated with more illness than leaving the weight alone.

The truth is - your body knows how much it needs and wants to eat to function optimally .  Your body can be trusted. It doesn't need a monitor. It doesn't need to be told what to do and frankly, it really hates that and will fight you like an over tired toddler at naptime to get back to where it wants to be or to be left alone. If you are eating intuitively, and in tune with your hunger and fullness and satisfaction (with satisfaction really being one of the most important parts) then you don't need calorie counting at all.  Your body does it all for you.  It's genius.

In the end, I am hard pressed to come up with one example of how counting calories is beneficial.  It's not a reliable measure, it's a product of diet culture, it perpetuates hyper focus on the thin ideal, it doesn't help you lose weight, it can't be controlled or maintained, it encourages a level of perfectionism that is not attainable or realistic and leads to eating disorder behavior, it causes stress on your body (which can make you gain weight as you desperately try to figure out how can I be gaining weight when I am only eating XXXX calories??) It's a dead end road.  And yes, all stores and restaurants should remove their calories listings immediately. No one needs to see that.  Think of the children.

Do you have a different opinion? Do you have an example of how it "works" to count calories or why it could be beneficial? What does "works" mean to you? I am always open to learn and would love to hear your thoughts.