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Why I Stopped Counting Calories

Once upon a time, I used to count calories like it was my job.

I counted calories in my head all day long. I was constantly doing math about basal metabolic rates and calorie deficits and calculating how much weight I should be losing in any given week. Some months, I even kept a detailed food diary of everything I ate (with the calorie estimates rounded up to be conservative).

But the numbers just didn’t add up. My brother joked that I was about to win the Nobel Prize for breaking the law of thermodynamics. I bought more diet books to find the Next Big Trick that would rescue me from my fat.*

* I was actually in the bottom half of the healthy weight range. And in spite of creating massive calorie deficits on paper, I wasn’t becoming skeletal – rather, I was moving ever-so-slightly down in the same damn range, or (more often) staying the same.

Brown Adipose Tissue

My first hint that the calorie in = calorie out equation was missing some important variable came when I was reading Fat Wars – yes, it was a fairly typical diet book and I definitely bought the recommended weight loss pills formulated by the author – but it mentioned something called Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) that changed my life.

Apparently, BAT was a kind of Anti-Fat – it was fat, but it was brown instead of white, and was hormonally activated to burn extra calories if we consumed a few too many in any given day.

BAT, it seemed, was a bona-fide loophole in the calorie formula – and if there was one, there had to be others.

Your Body is Smarter Than You

What I’ve come to believe over time is that the calories in / calories out formula is surprisingly useless for weight management.*

*I have a business degree, so I am not in any way professionally qualified to make this claim. This is just my opinion, based on personal research and experience.

It’s technically true, and it sometimes works in real life,* but it is not complete, because at the end of the day, your body can do all sorts of things to bring you to the weight it thinks you should be at. And you can only control a few of them.

* although not that often, since most diets fail. You can probably list many counter-examples of weight loss through calorie counting, and so can I. However, of people you know who have lost substantial amounts of weight AND kept it off for several years, how many also changed the content of their diet toward healthier foods? I would bet most are eating a more natural diet, not just "fewer calories”.

You can make yourself as miserable as you want bringing down your calorie intake, but your body can one-up you by slowing down your metabolism, turning off your BAT, and activating and de-activating hormones within your body that researchers are only just beginning to understand.

And it can make your hunger so acute that you will give up your first born child to take in more calories than your “diet plan” calls for. Not because you lack willpower, but because your body is smarter than your ego. It’s stronger and it’s more powerful and it has more tools at its disposal than you even know about.*

*My favourite source of information on this topic is the Whole Health Source – start with this post, and keep reading the archives.

The Silver Lining

Sure, I no longer hold the comforting belief that if I create a deficit of exactly 500 calories a day, I will be down exactly one pound next week  - but I can live with that.

My new rules for weight management feel much more liberating than calorie counting ever did, and one thing they don’t involve is ignoring hunger in an attempt to cut calories. This is a huge topic, but here are a few thoughts:

  • If we want to be at a healthy weight, we have to work with our bodies, rather than try to trick them into submission. Be nice to your body, an it will be nice in return.
  • The modern industrial diet based on processed foods seems to fundamentally break our metabolisms. Our bodies don’t like it.
  • Nourishment in food is more important than calorie content. Our bodies need nourishment (I am talking about the vitamins, minerals, etc. that food contains – not just carbs, protein, and fat).
  • Eating real food and eating intuitively can help to bring our bodies (and metabolisms) back to health, but we probably don’t have to be perfect about it. Personally, I aim for 80-90%. Mental health is important too.
  • There is almost no point in worrying about exactly how many calories were in your meal. So eat well, stop counting and start living!

I would love to hear about your experiences (it’s ok if you disagree). Do you count calories? Do you eat real food and maintain your weight pretty effortlessly? Are you in-between?

Related posts:

  1. My food philosophy in a nutshell
  2. Committed to Nonviolent Change
  3. Two Months

29 comments

1 Michele @ Healthy Cultivations { 11.12.10 at 8:39 am }

I absolutely do NOT count calories anymore. I used to be a slave to my calorie notebook, and then if I’d go out to eat and didn’t know precisely the number of calories, I’d get so agitated because the count wouldn’t be accurate. Seriously, it was not good.

Eventually, I learned that all I really need to do is pay attention at each meal. Healthy, normal portions of generally healthy foods at each meal… and the rest will take care of itself.

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Alina Reply:

I know what you mean about being agitated because of inaccurate calorie counts in restaurants. It takes so much of the pleasure out of trying new things!

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2 charlotte { 11.12.10 at 9:30 am }

AMEN! To all of it. Brilliant post. Like you, I did the calorie-counting thing for years. Decades. And like you, I have become convinced that it is not as simple as calories in/calories out like so many experts like to parrot. Everyone needs to read this!

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Alina Reply:

Thank you so much, Charlotte!

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3 Tweets that mention Why I Stopped Counting Calories — Duty Free Foodie -- Topsy.com { 11.12.10 at 9:50 am }

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Charlotte H Andersen, Alina. Alina said: Why I Stopped Counting Calories: http://bit.ly/9ws326 [...]

4 beth { 11.12.10 at 10:45 am }

I used to drink a lot of soda, so one day I switched to diet and figured, making no other changes, that I’d automatically lose those “last 5 pounds” that I totally didn’t need to lose. (And then what, I wonder? Would I waste away to nothing if I didn’t start drinking regular soda again?)

I realized after a year that I was the exact same weight as when I was chugging corn syrup all day long. I thought I was doing a smart thing but my body was smarter.

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Alina Reply:

“I was doing a smart thing but my body was smarter” - love it!

I think your diet soda story is a *perfect* example of how magazines and experts give calorie-based recommendations that make no sense upon closer scrutiny.

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5 Lisa @ I'm an Okie { 11.12.10 at 12:53 pm }

Great post! You make a lot of great points at the end in ways that anyone could understand.

I used to count calories, fat greams, carb grams, and protein grams. I aimed for numbers of each and it was just hell.

Now, like you, I focus on putting healthy things in my body regardless of calorie count or anything else.

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6 Amber from Girl with the Red Hair { 11.12.10 at 3:32 pm }

Counting calories - and more specifically tracking my food intake - helped me lose 25 pounds. I really do believe that counting calories works however I also know there is a very fine line between counting calories and food disorders for some people.

I am still a casual calorie counter (I use sparkpeople). I say casual because I don’t count EVERYTHING (bites here and there) and I also eyeball what I’m tracking. 1/2 cup of yogurt? Ya, that looks about right ;) I do it because it really does help me maintain my weight and through MY personal experience I’ve discovered I start to GAIN weight if I don’t track.

Great post, though

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7 taryn { 11.12.10 at 3:38 pm }

how very timely! i was just googling things about how our bodies “calculate” (for lack of a better word) calories trying to find an article i read recently. the article states basically that recent research shows that one can vary one’s calorie intake (+/-) up to 600 calories per day without any significant changes in weight. i find it very interesting that our bodies don’t actually use calories in as precise a way as we might think, so we shouldn’t be slaves to our calorie counts!!

to be quite honest, my calorie counting has admittedly gotten out of hand as of late and i feel as though i am simply experiencing an out & out UNhealthy relationship with food (borderline disordered eating, i’d say). i am trying my best to shake it, and reading things like this can be very encouraging and inspiring, so thank you!

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Alina Reply:

Thank you for your comment, Taryn! I really hope that you find that healthy relationship with food - it sounds like you are on your way.

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8 Angela { 11.12.10 at 5:05 pm }

what a great topic! i don’t count calories, but i know the caloric content of almost everything i eat. (that way i’m not consuming a 600 calorie snack when i think it’s only 200.) i do believe the body *knows* what weight it wants to be at, that’s why people plateau, but i also don’t believe weight loss is as complicated as we’re trying to make it out to be. at the end of the day, you gotta use more calories than you’re consuming. (i lost 25lbs by doing this so i know it works.) of course there are biological issues that make it harder for some people, so i don’t believe there’s only *one* way of eating. you gotta find what works for you.

i too saw the article that Taryn was referring to. the reason you can maintain your weight and have that (+/-) 600 calories is because we tend to overewight one day, and undereat the next, whether it’s because we’re not as hungry or we consciously choose to. essentially, you don’t have to worry about your *daily* caloric intake as long as your overall lifestyle is in balance.

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Alina Reply:

Thanks, Angela! I agree that there is no *one* way of eating that’s perfect for everybody… but I do think that there is a range of eating styles that are reasonably healthy. When people are extremely overweight, I strongly doubt it’s a willpower or calorie mis-counting issue, though, but rather a question of a broken metabolism (their bodies “want” to be at the higher weight). For those people, reducing the size of their snacks is just not an easy fix.

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9 Ameena { 11.12.10 at 5:57 pm }

I haven’t heard of BAT until now…interesting idea!!

I used to count calories but I realized it was making me miserable, obsessed, and I wasn’t losing a pound. So I stopped and now I am thinner than ever and much happier. The obsession is over for me thank God!

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10 S @ extremebalance.net/blog { 11.13.10 at 12:36 am }

I’ve succeeded with calorie reduction, but usually because I was also gymming hard-core and who knows which was actually working for me? However, it’s liberating not to have to do math all the time. Bodies are made for fuel and motion—it makes sense that giving them both keeps them well, and closer to set point weights.

Obsessing is *so* exhausting!

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11 kelsey@snackingsquirrel.com { 11.14.10 at 11:13 am }

brown fat really fascinates me! its amazing to see if in the future they can create something or find a specific way to activate the growth of brown fat. for now, weight training and healthy diet seem to be the best way to protect the loss of it and potentially stimulate it as well <3

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12 Mike { 11.14.10 at 2:44 pm }

Hi Alina, couldn’t agree more. Even when food is in abundant supply, wild animals don’t get fat, and neither do we, unless we don’t have / can’t process the nutrients to burn off the fat. It’s all about fixing your metabolism and while you can forcibly lose weight by reducing calories, I doubt it’s healthy or sustainable.

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13 Shanna, like Banana { 11.15.10 at 10:24 pm }

Hi Alina! I do count calories during the week…it’s the only way I can hold myself accountable. On the weekends when I don’t count, I seriously gain 3 lbs on Fri and Sat alone! Ugh. I know there is a happy medium, but I’m still looking for it ;)

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Alina Reply:

Shanna, are you sure that you are actually gaining 3 pounds of fat on the weekend? That would be a lot of work for your body to gain and lose every weekend! Daily weight fluctuations could be due to so many things … personally, I stopped the daily weighing thing because these meaningless little fluctuations were upsetting me for no real reason.

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14 BIOCHEMISTA { 11.16.10 at 12:02 am }

I have actually never heard of brown fat…Now you have me intrigued..

Although I’m always weary of a “magic bullet”..

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Alina Reply:

I don’t think brown fat is the only mechanism our body has for regulating fat mass … it’s just one of the ones that we kind of understand. I think our bodies have multiple tools to bring us to energy balance (besides gaining or losing weight), like increasing/decreasing body temperature, etc. But a healthy body will usually want us to be at a healthy weight, if that makes sense, and that’s why health should come before calories.

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15 @lissansky { 11.16.10 at 6:51 pm }

Hey Alina!
OMG 5 years ago when i weighed 30lbs less, I totally used to count calories, and even kept a calorie journal just like you! but then it got just too time consuming, and I gave that up eventually. What i found most effective back then was going to the gym 5 days a week - that kept the weight off from 2002 to 2007, then it went downhill once my job got stressful and i was too tired for the gym regimen.

Now however, I recently lost my entire 9lbs of pregnancy weight gain (i’m only counting the fat related gain, not the baby related stuff that i lost automatically in the first few days) in 7 weeks. In this case it was due to a calorie deficit, but only because i’m breastfeeding which apparently takes 600 cal/day. So, basically, once I stop breastfeeding i’ll actually have to improve my diet and exercise regimen if i even want to stay at the same weight. Except, because I already rarely eat junk food or sweets, almost always eat only whole wheat and don’t consume any pop, for me it’s a lot more difficult to loose weight because there’s nothing to cut out - there’s only portions to reduce (and maybe increase % of fibre intake) and workouts to add… reducing portions requires careful planning (not getting to that extreme hunger state) and workouts require time. It’s a tough road ahead, but I still look forward to one day again fitting into my size 3 pants!

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16 Kath { 11.20.10 at 4:06 pm }

I just found your blog and was delighted by such a great post!

I’m still roughly counting calories, but it got much better, and I want to let go of it completely because I feel how much it interferes with intuitive eating. And I’ve also experienced that it doesn’t work how it should.

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Alina Reply:

Thank you so much, Kath! I am glad you liked the post. I think the two reasons you just mentioned are the two major arguments against it.

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17 LG { 12.01.10 at 12:24 pm }

Thanks very much for this post. I have tried to stop counting on and off for some time now…have been doing it for at least 10 years now - all through my 20′s. It seems like an obsessive compulsive thing, but I’m going to give quitting another try. Just for today, you know? It’s good to break it down into smaller-sized goals. I’ve been the same happy weight for all this time, so why not?

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Alina Reply:

Hi Lauren,
Thank you for your comment and good luck with quitting! In terms of stopping, everyone is different, but I try to focus on how generally nutritious my foods are, and that helps me a lot. We had an amazing seafood chowder last night with a lot of cream and calories in it, but I think of the benefits of seafood, and focus on that. This approach has made me eat better but also lets me relax with counting.

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18 Ashley Craft { 12.08.10 at 5:40 pm }

I just came across your blog and I am so glad I did!!

This is an awesome post! I stopped counting calories and switched to “real” food a few years ago… and my body has been much happier! A few extra college pounds fell off… and then some! (142 lbs in 2008, now 121 lbs) And, I am mentally much happier… no more obsessing over calories! I really do believe that our bodies are intelligent, and that we should trust and listen to them.

I love your quote about “working with your body, not against it.”

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Alina Reply:

Thank you for your comment, Ashley. I really believe that when we treat our bodies with respect and have nourishment as our #1 priority instead of calories, our body figures things out. It’s nice to hear about your positive experience!

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19 Carrie (Moves 'N Munchies) { 12.10.10 at 8:26 am }

i love this! thank you for sharing.. i’ve been caught in the calorie counting rut many times and I need to free myself!

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