I have a confession to make (keep in mind that I’m a dietitian). I rarely, if ever, look at the calories on a food label or menu board. In fact, I intentionally avoid it. I would be hard-pressed to tell you the calories in my ice cream last night or oatmeal this morning. I also don’t know what my ‘ideal’ calorie intake should be. And if you and I were having a conversation about nutrition, calories would be the last thing we discussed.

Why is this? We are consistently encouraged to be mindful of our calorie intake, whether that be through the calories on a menu or the app on our phone. While a general awareness of calories can be helpful for some, making them front and centre can have negative outcomes. I’d like to invite you to consider some calorie counting cons along with an alternative approach. 

#1 - Calories don’t consider quality

The calorie content of a food tells you next to nothing about its nutrient quality. If high-calorie foods are considered a poor choice, then avocados, salmon, nuts, cheese and a host of other nutritious and delicious foods should be left at the grocery store. There are many high-calorie foods that are full of nutrients. As well, adding a high-calorie food to a less-preferred, nutrient-dense food can transform the taste (e.g. salad dressing). You’ll miss out on many nutritious foods if you base your food choices solely on calories.  

#2 - Calorie counts are inaccurate

No matter how diligent you are in tracking calories, you will never get an accurate count. Consider all the factors that affect how our bodies use and absorb the calories in food, such as the following:

  • how a food is cooked
  • the amount of fibre in food
  • the energy your body uses to break down different foods
  • the bacteria living in your gut
  • your age, gender, rate of metabolism, etc.

Furthermore, food labels and the calorie counts of restaurant meals can’t be 100% accurate. In fact, Canadian food labels can underestimate calories by up to 20%. This simply recognizes that no two apples, almonds or avocados are the same.

#3 – Calorie counting won’t always cooperate with your hunger and appetite

While you may be able to make a noble effort at counting calories, what happens when your hunger and appetite don’t cooperate? Do you ignore your hunger because lunch shouldn’t be more than ‘x’ number of calories? Or do you restrict the foods you’re craving (what your appetite wants) because it’s too high in calories? One of the dangers of counting calories is that the numbers may start to override your body’s internal cues.

And there’s more

In addition to the challenges above, consider these negative effects of counting calories:

  • certain foods may be deemed ‘good’ while others are deemed ‘bad’
  • social activities may become less enjoyable and even difficult, whether this is because restaurant food is typically higher in calories or you have no idea how many calories are in the seven-layer dip at your friend’s birthday
  • the value of your day may become based on how many calories you eat · your food restrictions may lead to cravings and binges

Is there an alternative?

One of the positive aspects of tracking calories, or other methods of tracking such as counting macros or keeping a food journal, is that it can increase awareness of the food you eat. Being mindful of your food choices is an important part of eating healthfully. However, mindfulness around food can and should take into account more than calories. We mentioned hunger and appetite above and, along with fullness, these cues are an integral part of making mindful food choices.

  • Hunger – This may present as a grumbling sensation in your stomach, or as light-headedness, irritability, lack of focus, etc. Learn how to identify hunger. ·
  • Fullness – A hunger scale can guide you in the transition from hunger to fullness.
  • Appetite – This may come along with hunger, or you may experience it outside of being hungry. This is okay. At times, you will have the desire to eat without the sensation of hunger (e.g. dessert after dinner). In these instances, carefully consider what it is you’re craving. Once you’ve identified this, start with a small portion and savour it, being mindful of when you start to feel satisfied. Check out this great article on returning to the joy of eating for more info.

It is important to acknowledge that tuning into these cues can be very difficult if you have a history of dieting or disordered eating. If this is the case, consulting with a dietitian can be a good first step.

Bottom line

A general awareness of calories may not be harmful to you. However, obsessing over numbers will have negative consequences. Strive to take a mindful approach to eating by tuning into your hunger, fullness and appetite. You may find that calories become a thing of the past.

AFLCA Members

Are you looking for practical nutrition tools for your clients? Log in to the AFLCA Members section of the website and order free resources today! Great options to compliment this blog include The Hunger Scale.

 

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Kristina Isaac, RD.

Registered Dietitian

Kristina (BSc, RD) is a registered dietitian and blogger for Nourish Move Thrive. She enjoys finding creative, fun and simple ways to communicate the science of nutrition.

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