There seems to be a bit of discord in the fitness community. Of course, it is all friendly and informative debate. However, the divide still stands. Should we count calories and macronutrients or not? Well, it is not so cut and dry. There are plenty of pros and cons to each lifestyle and we’re here to outline some of the basic ideas behind why each lifestyle – because that is what it is – might or might not work for you. The main thing we want to outline here is that whether or not you are for counting calories, your healthy eating habits must be ingrained into your daily life. How you go about it might only be different.
Counting Calories and/or Macronutrients
Counting calories has been an age old trick for those on a quest to lose weight. It has been engrained in all of us that calories in should equal calories out (through exercise, activity, and basic bodily function) in order to maintain weight, and calories in should be less to lose. This makes mathematical sense, right? True. However, the body is much more complex than just this and there are plenty of other factors that go into good nutrition than just calories. That is why some rely on macronutrient counting. This is when people count protein, carbs, and fat, making sure to consume the perfect ratio which will result in weight loss. Of course, there is a slight calorie deficit, but these ratios are said to optimize weight loss and perfect for taking the attention off calories, making sure you ingest the proper amount of nutrients all day. For example, you might feel and look healthier if you are making sure to have protein (i.e. chicken, turkey, eggs, etc.), carbs (i.e. oatmeal, rice, quinoa, etc.), and fats (i.e. avocado, nuts, coconut oil, etc.) daily then if you decided you were going to have cereal and “nutrition” bars for every meal as long as they amounted to 1,500 calories.
But even this, is it a sustainable way to live? Decide for yourself.
Counting Calories Pros
1. Great for Beginners
Counting is great for someone beginning their journey to health. As long as they are making an active effort to eat well-balanced meals with real, whole foods, then this lifestyle will help give them a sense of what an appropriate portion size is. Many are very used to the abnormally large portion sizes especially popular in the U.S. and might have absolutely no idea what a reasonable plate size even is. Once someone starts adhering to a more normal portion, you might just see the pounds drop.
2. (Almost) Guaranteed Results
When you are counting calories, try not to cut too much. Yes, this might be counterintuitive, but you should first attempt counting the calories you eat in a regular day – when you are not on a diet. If you find that you are taking in 2,500 calories daily with little to no exercise, you might find that all you need to do is cut down to 2,000. This simple mathematical (yet hypothetical) situation is bound to lead you to results. I cannot stress the importance of not dipping down to 1,200 calories right away (or ever) enough. Unless a doctor has sat down with you, looked you in the eye, and told you that you need to only consume 1,200 calories/day then this is NOT necessary. A registered nutritionist would not even recommend this low number to many people who are sedentary from 9-5. However, if you only dip down slightly (and make sure to track it), you will lose weight without ruining your metabolism.
Similar to the first pro, counting calories and macros helps keep you aware and accountable. If you hypothetically have two slices of cake or eat an extra thousand calories you won’t have the “oh well, it was my intuition” fallback excuse. If you have an app such as MyFitnessPal and you make yourself stick to your daily calorie goal, then you are less likely to have too many indulgences. No one wants to be in the red!
Counting Calories Con:
1. Obsessive Behaviors
Calorie counting can sometimes go from being a simple tool on your journey for health to a self destructive weapon that takes over all aspects of your life. Sometimes, individuals find that they can’t ingest anything without it being accounted for (literally). And, eating out? It makes many calorie counters slightly paranoid. If you can’t have a meal out with your friends once in a while without having an anxiety attack, then perhaps it is a sign that this has gone too far or isn’t for you.
2. Short Term
When I discuss the very short-term aspect of calorie counting, I like to turn to our wonderful ancestors: the cavemen. Firstly, I have never seen any scientific evidence of an obese caveman and secondly, they did not count calories. As a matter of fact, those cavemen were pretty svelte and never counted a single kcal! When you are born, there is no parenting handbook that tells parents, “Well, you better make sure to teach your kids how to count calories or they, too, will face obesity.” Being healthy and counting calories are not symbiotic. While you can reach health by counting calories, it by no means is the end all be all. Tracking everything you eat is boring and time consuming, meaning you will probably lose motivation to do so 10, 5, or maybe even a year down the line.
3. No Guarantee of Nutrients
This is applicable mainly to those who only track calories and not macronutrients. If you are only counting calories, it means you are no longer interested in the overall picture of health and wellness. This obsession with “losing weight” and “getting thin” can only take you so far. If you don’t physically feel good, what is the point of it all, anyways? You want to have energy to work out, you want to build muscle, and you want healthy bones and organs. Do not think you can get away with eating “diet” food around the clock and feel good!
Not Counting (i.e. Intuitive Eating)
Intuitive Eating has gotten a lot of attention, especially in the past year. This system of eating is said to liberate people from dieting, hunger, and tiredness. In addition, eating intuitively can also improve quality of life. By spending less time worrying about calories, you can actually go ahead and enjoy your food. Once you fine tune your ability to sense your body’s signals such as hunger, thirst, etc. you can become a healthier, happier you. Sounds simple but of course, there are two sides to every story.
Not Counting Calories Pros:
Eating when you are hungry, drinking when you are thirsty. There are normal, everyday action and reaction occurrences that happen in the body. Once you honor them, you will feel truly satisfied, it is as simple as that. This can be sustained long-term and takes up less time and math. Who even likes math anyways, right? This is truly a lifestyle. Just make sure what you reach for is real food and your body will thank you. Also, learning how to differentiate between true hunger and emotional eating will be the best tool in your arsenal.
2. Less Stress
As stated earlier, calorie counting can come with a lot of stress. Intuitive eating is actually supposed to put your mind at ease. If you want to grab a bite of sushi with your friends on a Saturday night, you won’t feel so guilty because it might/might not fit into your daily calorie “budget”. Honor your body’s cravings in a reasonable manner.
3. Long Term Weight Loss
Unlike calorie counting’s bad reputation for rebound weight gain, intuitive eating is more likely to lead to long term results. While the process may be slower, the fact that you are not on a set, restrictive plan will mean that you are less likely to burn out or feel trapped! Slow and steady always wins the race.
Not Counting Calories Cons:
1. Lacks Guidance for Beginners
If you throw someone in the woods without the proper tools to for him/her to navigate, it will be hard for them to find their way out. Same goes for intuitive eating. While intuitive eating can benefit many, the person must be willing to learn about proper nutrition and clean eating first. Implementing these principles will lead to better results. It is much more satisfying to reach for a full meal than a candy bar, after all.
In the same vein as my previous point, overeating is very possible. Many might originally decide that this gives them a free pass of sorts. Similarly, under-eating can also happen, especially if this person has suffered from eating disorders or restrictive diets in the past. The best advice is to study up on nutrition and intuitive eating books. There are plenty of resources out on the market today.
3. Typically Takes Longer
While calorie counting gives you a rough estimate of how many pounds you may lose in a few weeks, intuitive eating is not so cut and dry. The journey usually lasts longer and sometimes motivation is lacking when you don’t see immediate changes. The key is to keep on keeping on. Once you stay true to yourself and make a real effort to eat mindfully, the rest will fall into place.