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Counting calories to lose weight: Does it work?

Nutritionists and dietitians share their real thoughts about calorie counting, as well as what they recommend.
Calorie Counting
Focusing only on calories can encourage bad eating habits and distract someone from focusing on getting nutrients, dietitians said.Oscar Wong / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Calories have long been thought of as one of best ways to keep track of your food intake and maintain or lose weight. But some nutritionists say that common belief isn’t necessarily true.

Licensed dietitian and nutritionist Keri Glassman said that, in general, people should avoid counting calories because it encourages people to focus on the wrong things.

“I absolutely never have people count calories,” Glassman said. “It can create unhealthy habits. It can work against you, for the majority of people.”

Her biggest problem with the method? It takes the focus away from nutrition.

For example, a person who's counting calories could eat a bag of low-calorie cookies and a can of calorie-free soda and feel happy they’ve consumed a small amount of calories, when in fact they’re not giving their body the nutrients it needs to feel full or energized. Even worse, they could be consuming unhealthy ingredients.

“You can say diet soda has no calories, but we know that people who drink soda are more likely to be overweight than people who don’t,” said Glassman, referring to scientific research on the topic.

“That’s not even getting into the other details, like how the artificial sweeteners still make you crave sweets, they still affect your insulin levels,” she added. “They might affect your microbiome which affects your hunger hormones.”

Research has also found that when you restrict your food intake drastically, your metabolism can slow down. So significantly counting calories could have the opposite effect of what you're after.

Glassman also noted that it’s hard to count calories when you’re out to eat, as you don’t know all of the ingredients in a meal, making it even more problematic.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian, nutritionist and author, was also wary of the calorie-counting method.

“Counting calories has not shown to be a great way to actually manage weight,” she told TODAY. “In fact, a recent study ... found that it didn’t matter how many calories participants consumed, rather the fact that they ate whole foods.”

What you should focus on instead

If you’re looking for a helpful way to maintain or lose weight, Glassman said you should focus on eating “whole, real foods,” or unprocessed, unrefined foods.

“If you eat a variety of vegetables, fruit, healthy fat and lean protein and even a little bit of whole grains or high-fiber carbohydrates from foods like potatoes, you’re going to get the right proportion of nutrients,” she said.

Many nutritionists say this method of “clean eating” can help you feel more energized and even maintain, lose or gain weight without compromising nutrients.

One young woman lost more than 90 pounds by following this type of food plan and eliminating fast food. Another woman lost some 140 pounds by combining exercise, eating healthier foods and finding a support network.

“If you listen to your body, avoid eating fast and are conscious of what you're eating, that’s the bigger, the more important thing for managing your calories than counting,” she said.

Kirkpatrick encourages her clients to focus on how what they're eating to fuel their bodies.

“Determine the best breakdown of macronutrients (fat, protein, carb) for you. Eat a whole foods diet 90 percent of the time, and stay away from processed foods, stripped white grains. Avoid sugar, syrups and excessive alcohol,” she said.

When calorie counting might work

Though both health experts suggest generally avoiding calorie counting, there are times when it could be helpful.

Glassman said that the method can help people who constantly overeat. Looking at the amount of calories a meal has can be a good benchmark, she said. For example, thinking twice about eating a flaxseed muffin that looks like it’s healthy, but upon closer examination has 600 calories and 15 grams of sugar.

She added that focusing on eating “whole, real foods” is the most important thing. Foods like nuts and strawberries can make for healthy snacks, while protein sources like salmon and chicken with vegetables can be great meal staples.

If you're trying to be more mindful of the number of calories you eat, Glassman said you could start with this benchmark: Adult females who are sedentary need approximately 1,800 calories per day, while moderately active females need approximately 2,000. She added that you can use this free online calculator to give you an estimated goal.

Adult males, she added, who are sedentary need about 2,200 calories per day, while moderately active need about 2,400.

And if you're trying to lose weight, a pound is equal to 3,500 calories, so people can lose weight by trimming calories from their diet. To lose about a pound or two per week, you can cut 500 calories a day, Glassman added. But there are ways to do this that don't sacrifice nutrients, taste or hunger.

According to Kirkpatrick, counting calories as part of intermittent fasting done on occasion (once per month) could be beneficial, citing research that suggests intermittent fasting can help in weight loss and decrease risk of chronic disease.

Still, she said that focusing on the “quality not quantity” of food is the most important thing for anyone trying to live a healthy lifestyle.

“View food as fuel, not entertainment,” Kirkpatrick said.


This article was originally published in 2018.