Calorie counting applications such as My Fitness Pal, Lose it!, Noom, etc. have been popular for quite a few years now. Many people use them as a tool for tracking their calories throughout their weight loss journey. At first glance, these applications seem quite user-friendly and useful for the intended purpose. You only have to enter your age, sex, weight, height, physical activity and they provide a recommended daily calorie intake based on your goal to maintain, lose or gain weight.
Pretty easy and inoffensive, right? However, these applications can be detrimental both to physical and mental health. Here are 5 reasons why calorie counting can be an unhealthy practice.
1. They are inaccurate at determining your energy needs
Determining your energy needs is much more complex than just plugging in your age, weight, height and physical activity in an application. For instance, sleep, hormones levels, stress, genetics, body composition such as muscle mass, medications, medical condition and history of dieting are a few other factors required to determine your energy needs. Eating the amount of calories dictated by an application is therefore inaccurate.
Moreover, our energy needs vary daily according to many factors such as our previous food intake, sleep, stress and physical activity. Therefore, eating the same amount of food prescribed by the application everyday would make little sense. Think about it, does your car require the same amount of gas each time you use it to go to work? The answer is no and the same goes for your food intake.
In addition, the calories that you plug into your application are not precise numbers. This is because, federal regulations in Canada and the US allow a +/- 20% margin error for the numbers on the nutrition labels. For instance, if you are aiming at eating 1200 calories as determined by your application, you could actually be eating 960 or 1440 calories.
2. They make you more disconnected from your body’s signals
As mentioned earlier, our needs vary from day to day. And to reflect those changing needs, our hunger and fullness cues will vary accordingly. However, when you are fixated on calorie counting, you will be disconnected from your body’s signals.
For example, on one day, you might be left with only 200 calories “allowed” for dinner. You might eat the 200 calories but you might still be hungry after. As a result of under-eating, you will be thinking about food sooner rather than later. You might feel sluggish, more irritable and have more cravings for foods such as cookies, chocolate, chips, crackers, etc.
3. Calorie counting could trigger an unhealthy relationship with food
In some instances, it will undoubtedly be hard to stick to the recommended caloric intake. Therefore, when that happens, you might feel guilty for not having enough “will power” to resist the temptation to eat. You might compensate those “excess” calories by forcing yourself to work out, thereby punishing yourself for simply listening to your body’s needs and cravings.
You might also find yourself working out just to be allowed to “earn” a food as if you needed a reason to deserve that food. Physical activity can therefore become a chore and something that you start dreading.
Also, you will deprive yourself from eating some foods you might be craving for merely because of their high caloric content. Due to the deprivation, those foods become forbidden and, as result, cravings for those same foods increase. Eventually, you will give in to your cravings and binge-eating episodes could occur, bringing its load of guilt, anxiety and shame.
4. You might miss out on some nutritious foods
When calorie counting, you might prioritize low calorie foods and might want to exclude higher caloric foods. However, by doing so, you might be forgoing on some nutritious foods such as nuts, fatty fish such as sardines and salmon, avocado or seeds. Yes, those foods are higher in calories than a low fat yogurt, rice cakes, or a 100 calorie fibre 1 bar but they are nourishing for your body. They provide good fats which can help decrease inflammation, blood cholesterol levels and contribute to making you satiated for a longer period of time.
On the other hand, when prioritizing the low calorie foods such as the 100 calorie snack bar, you might feel hungry soon after since the latter is low on fibre, proteins and good fats. As a result, you might feel like eating more afterwards because the low calorie foods would not have been satiating enough.
5. You might forgo on the pleasure of eating
Using calorie counting as the sole factor to make food decisions can make you focus on minimizing your calorie intake. As a result, you might end up making food detours. So what exactly is a food detour?
Let’s say you have a piece of strawberry shortcake in the fridge and you really want to eat it. However, because of the fear of going over your quota of calories, you decide to eat some strawberries instead. Your taste buds being unsatisfied as you might still be craving for something sweet. You eat an apple, hoping that it will satisfy your sweet tooth. That was still not satisfying and you decide to eat a low fat yogurt. But that was also not good enough for your taste buds. In the end, you finally “give in” and eat the cake. However, by that time, you already feel so full from having ingested all that food. You blame yourself for busting your calorie intake and tell yourself that you won’t eat any sweets for a while.
In that case, the strawberry shortcake is not the culprit. It is the restrictive behavior that made you do all the food detours and eat more than you would have if you had chosen to eat the cake right away. It is important to remember that we not only eat calories and nutrients but we also eat for pleasure.
While calorie counting could originally be viewed as a way to control your food intake, it eventually becomes the opposite as it takes control of your life. You always have to think about what you should and should not be eating to stay within the recommended calorie intake. And that can become draining.
Instead of relying on an external device to make your food decisions, try to trust your body and the signals it’s sending you. You wouldn’t necessarily rely on a thermometer reading to know if you should wear a jacket or not to go outside. You will simply rely on whether your body feels cold or not to put on the jacket.
The same goes with your food intake. You can adjust the portions according to your hunger and fullness signals. Also, try to ask yourself what would feel enjoyable and satisfying instead of relying solely on the caloric content of foods.
Being more connected with your body can undoubtedly help you achieve food freedom and have a healthier relationship with food. It will free up so much headspace, time and energy that can then be redirected to other spheres of your life. It’s worth giving it a try! And if you need a little help to accompany you in your journey, feel free to contact us!