6 Reasons to NOT Count Calories

At least once a week or so I get an email from a reader requesting the calorie count of one of my recipes or a suggestion that I include it at the bottom of all my recipes.

My response is always the same. Thanks for your suggestion, but I don’t believe in counting calories. And then I suggest they find one of the many websites that can calculate these things for them.

But I’ve been thinking a bit about my reasons for not buying into the counting of calories, carbs, fat or whatever. So I thought it was about time I put pen to paper – or fingers to the keyboard, to be more accurate.

6 reasons to NOT count calories

1. Counting calories takes the joy out of eating.
This is the biggest reason for me. Food, especially sharing it with loved ones, is one of the great pleasures that should enrich our lives.

2. Counting calories encourages you to eat packaged processed food.
I was talking to a friend recently who mentioned her teenage daughter has become very interested in nutrition and has started to keep an eye on her calories. But the sad part is she’s noticed that her daughter is more likely to choose food out of a packet than something fresh because she can easily tell how many calories she’s getting from the pack.

3. Counting calories doesn’t guarantee you’re getting the nutrients you need.
As with most of life, getting the quantity right doesn’t mean the quality is also where it should be.

4. Counting calories teaches you to ignore your natural satiety cues.
We’re all equipped with a system for our bodies to tell us when we’re hungry and when we’ve had enough. The problem is it tends to be quite subtle. Especially the ‘I’m full’ signals.

Wouldn’t it be better to slow down and relearn to let your body guide you?

5. Calorie restriction doesn’t work for maintaining weight loss in the long term.
In the book ‘Why we get fat’ Gary Taubes mentions study after study showing that limiting calorie intake doesn’t lead to lasting weight loss. But if you’ve tried calorie restriction for any amount of time, you probably already know that.

6. Counting calories doesn’t address the root cause of your problem.
We don’t just eat because our bodies need fuel. Sometimes it’s boredom. Sometimes it’s emotional stuff or one of countless other reasons.

Trying to use willpower and counting every calorie isn’t going to fix what’s causing there to be a problem in the first place. Talk about setting yourself up to fail…

So what’s the alternative?

For me the easiest way to make real lasting changes to how you eat and how you feel is to put it on autopilot. What do I mean by that? I’m talking about adopting a new habit of eating mindfully. It’s about slowing down. It’s about focusing on eating so you not only enjoy your food more, you can tell when you are full.

I’ve recently read an excellent book called ‘Foodist’ by Darya Rose. One of the biggest lessons I’ve had from the book is to focus on eating mindfully. Darya has a few tips for this but my favourite is…

How to eat mindfully

When you start to load up your fork for the next mouthful, check to see if you’re already chewing. If there’s food already in your mouth, put your fork down and focus on chewing and enjoying your mouthful. There’s no need to rush to swallow. Then once you’re done you can pick up your fork and get the next bite ready.

It’s actually harder than it sounds but it’s the best technique I’ve come across for fostering real mindful eating AND more importantly, maximum food enjoyment!

slow roast bangers-3

Slow Baked Bangers

These days with a little one in the house, I’m all about meals I can prep in the afternoon without much effort and let them cook away while I focus on feeding Fergal and getting him ready for bed. And even though spring is here, I’m still finding the oven to be my favourite cooking method because I can set and (almost) forget.

These sausages are a big favourite. But if bangers aren’t your thing see the variations below. Or think about trying a new butcher who takes pride in making their own sausages. Quality is key here!

Enough for 2
4 onions, peeled & quartered lengthwise
4 thick sausages
1 cup red wine
1 cup stock or water
a few sprigs of thyme, optional
3-4 handfuls baby spinach to serve

1. Turn your oven on to 150C (350F).

2. Pop onions, sausages, wine, stock or water and thyme, if using an oven proof pot.

3. Bake for about 2 hours turning the sausages about half way if you get the chance to.

4. Serve on a bed of baby spinach.

VARIATIONS
short on time? – crank your oven to 220C (450F). Should be done in 45 mins.

vegan / vegetarian – replace sausages with vegetables such as a sweet potato, parsnip, carrot, beets, potato, eggplant or mushrooms. You may need to adjust the cooking time. Serve with nuts for extra protein and crunch.

different meat – chicken thighs or drumsticks work well and will cook in about the same amount of time. Osso buco or lamb shanks would be my red meat choices. They’ll need a lot longer, 4-5 hours. And you might need to add more liquid if it’s drying out.

alcohol-free – just replace with stock, water or tomato purée or a can of tomatoes.

onion-free – replace onions with a mixture of other aromatic veg such as celery and carrots.

different herbs – thyme is my fav here but rosemary or sage or a few bay leaves will be lovely too.

Video version of the recipe.

With love
Jules x

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{ 23 comments }

Marcia@Frugal Healthy Simple October 1, 2013 at 7:55 am

Such great ideas – to eat mindfully, think about satiety, enjoy your food.

Here’s the problem: it doesn’t work for everyone.

I have to count calories to lose weight. There. I said it. I am a 43 year old mother of two. I have lost weight a few times – once in my early 30′s (fat), once before my first pregnancy, and once after my first pregnancy. I still have 30 lbs to lose after the second pregnancy.

I do not lose weight without counting calories. I wish I could. At my age and activity level, I have to strictly count and keep it at about 1500 calories a day.

1. Counting calories takes the joy out of eating.
Yep, sure does.

2. Counting calories encourages you to eat packaged processed food.
I do not find this to be the case for me, but it was true the first time I lost weight – because it was easier, to start.

3. Counting calories doesn’t guarantee you’re getting the nutrients you need.
No, you have to meal plan for that. But if you are counting calories, you are meal planning anyway.

4. Counting calories teaches you to ignore your natural satiety cues.
I find that it actually helps me to reset my natural cues. It’s hard to go from overeating to eating the right amount without resetting.

5. Calorie restriction doesn’t work for maintaining weight loss in the long term.
It’s the only way to lose weight in the first place, however.

6. Counting calories doesn’t address the root cause of your problem.
Sometimes it does. Sometimes stress causes you to overeat. Counting calories is a wakeup call. Or in my case, the “root cause” this time around has a name: Daniel.

In fact, if you look at the National Weight Control Registry (of which I’m a member – they don’t kick you out for pregnancy weight), you’ll find many ways people maintain weight loss. Including counting calories.

http://healthland.time.com/2011/10/21/long-term-weight-loss-is-possible-how-successful-dieters-do-it/

Matt October 2, 2013 at 7:49 am

Marcia and Jay, I really encourage you to read ‘Why we get fat’ by Gary Taubes. Jules has mentioned it several times. It provides compelling evidence that all any healthy person needs to do is count carbohydrates, not overall calorie intake. It’s so liberating!

Jay - The Moodie Foodie October 1, 2013 at 8:13 am

Hi Jules,
Firstly let me say that I LOVE your site and your approach to nutrition – it’s simple and healthy and tasty as all get out. But I would like to address some of your comments regarding counting calories. Sure, it’s not for everyone and some people find it too restrictive, but for many it’s a great way to keep healthy.

1. I think that counting calories actually allows many to enjoy food. It puts a safeguard around something they love to do (eat) knowing that they are getting the most out of what they need.

2. I definitely agree with you that some go for packaged food because they haven’t learnt how to work out what’s good and what’s not yet. All of my recipes have nutritional counts on them – calories, fat content, fibre etc – and you’d be hard pressed to find something packaged. It’s all about educating yourself about good options and getting as much fresh produce into your diet as possible.

3. I absolutely agree with you that counting calories doesn’t mean that you are getting what you need in a day, a week, a month. Not all calories are made equal and you need to learn a little to get what you need. It’s far better to have 200 calories of chickpeas than 100 calories of white bread – boosting vitamins and minerals, fibre and leveling out your blood sugar with low GI options for example.

4. I’m not sure I have any natural satiety cues:) Honestly, I don’t! So I keep an eye on what I’m eating so that I know I’m staying on track. Again, it’s that safeguard that keeps me balanced.

5. I’m not sure that calorie counting (or monitoring shall we say) is all about calorie restriction. Sure if you are trying to lose weight you probably need to restrict calories for a period of time but once you’ve found a happy medium between calories and exercise and you feel comfortable with where you’re at, it’s a matter of maintaining not restricting.

6. No, counting calories doesn’t address the root cause of any eating problem but it does help you get back on track. If you’re an emotional eater like me, you need some tools. Good cooking skills (like you teach on StoneSoup), some basic nutritional knowledge and ways of changing your favourite recipes so that you can have that burger, lasagne, brownie or cheesecake and feel good about (which is what I teach on The Moodie Foodie).

Thanks for the post, it made me think a lot about nutrition and staying balanced and still enjoying food. Oh, and YUM to your Bangers recipe. I know what you mean about getting good food on the table with a little one in the house. Who would have thought that something so small could cause so much disruption (and so much heart aching joy)!

Jay
xo

April October 1, 2013 at 9:33 am

I feel like the two comments above missed your point. Probably because they’re too invested in the calorie counting method.

Jules, I agree with you on every note.

Mallory @ Because I Like Chocolate October 1, 2013 at 9:44 am

This may be my favorite post you have ever done. I could not agree more. Especially regarding the fact that it takes all of the fun out of eating! I’ve given thought to becoming a dietician in the past but food can’t merely be reduced to the nutrients that are in it. Unlike other animals, we eat food to enjoy it. That’s why I’m now pursuing psychology so I can help people to develop healthier RELATIONSHIPS with food.

Caroline Albert October 1, 2013 at 10:06 am

I’d like to return back to address all the points, but for now although short on time, I want to write and represent the voice of those out there who know just my position. However, first off I want to say, Jules, that understand and respect your point of view. It is however a point of view and there is something that needs to be brought to light. Here is one article to read on another lens for viewing things:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130916103352.htm

My discovery is that sometimes stomach receptors need time to heal for satiety signals to work properly again. It is uncertain how long this will take, but I’m hopeful focusing on gut health, nutrient-rich foods, and healthy habits will eventually bring things back. It has been many months of diligent consistent effort, and I am slowly seeing results. In the process I have been careful of portions, “volumize” sometimes (adding low-cal fillers in to make my meals more satisfying), and in doing this I sometimes employ a rough calorie count which helps me maintain my healthy body, allowing my stomach receptors to heal. Several years ago I never registered full. Studies tell me it happened from too many wrong foods in my diet that actually damaged my stomach receptors. I craved wrong foods, and the more I ate them the more I craved them, eventually never feeling truly satieted. Then when I switched to no labels, no bad stuff/white stuff, gmo, and etc etc – - I slowly morphed into healthy. Unfortunately, however, satiety cues continued to not register. It has been a long road and portions along with general calorie counting assist me tremendously. It is great for those who can mindfully listen for full and stop. But for those of us who never truly register full, we need to employ various techniques, and there is nothing wrong with that. This includes calorie counting.

Susan Stone October 1, 2013 at 10:26 am

This is a very interesting post. I do watch my calories, and the balance between proteins and carbs. For me it does not mean that I’m drawn to more processed foods. I don’t like processed foods, and I do like to cook and eat real, fresh food. There is definitely more to eating in a healthy way than counting calories. Over the years I have learned that my body functions better with higher levels of protein and lower levels of fast carbs. I check out recipes on a nutrition calculation site, so I can make sure that a serving falls within the calorie range I want, and has acceptable levels of protein, carbohydrates and fiber. It does take some time to do that, but once it’s done I can plan my meals better. To date this is the best way I have found to get rid of my excess weight and maintain a healthy weight (in addition to exercising fairly regularly), and to be satisfied with less food than I think I want. I like the concept of eating mindfully, but I can tell you that it will take some doing to learn it, because I am frequently distracted – my husband likes for us to do crossword puzzles while we eat, and he is able to eat slowly, but it doesn’t help me with eating slower. I will start trying to use this technique and see how it goes. I’d love to be (and feel) saner about eating.

jaime @ asweetroad October 1, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Interesting about the daughter who became more likely to choose packaged foods. It’s interesting, I went through a similar phase and I didn’t notice it at the time, but when I was starting to pay more attention to nutrition I would scan the nutritional info on packages where it’s most readily available and encouraging to that sort of habit. I never think about it now and food is so much more of an experience!

Chana October 1, 2013 at 2:59 pm

i’ll admit to being ambivalent about what you write. but it does jive with this book i just read: http://www.amazon.com/Whole-Rethinking-Nutrition-Colin-Campbell/dp/1470897512

kazari October 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Hi Jules,
Quick question about the recipe: Do you put the lid on the pot or leave everything uncovered?

Other than that, I totally agree about calorie counting. I’m much happier sticking to slow carbs and eating til i’m full.

Alex October 1, 2013 at 3:07 pm

:-) well that was what I’ve needed – a good reminder to be mindful about what I’ve been eating!

It has been a bit stressfull at work these last 3 days and I can honestly say I don’t remember having eaten the 7 Cherry Ripes on my desk (the wrappers are in the bin), the biscuits and the packet of almonds.

I will try not to stress binge today.

Thanks. I bet I feel better in the evening.

Diandra October 1, 2013 at 6:24 pm

The funny thing is, when counting calories – and yes, I am keeping track of them, kind of – is that I get to see really quickly that as long as I eat healthy homemade food with focus on vegetables and good protein and some carbs and pay attention to only eating when I am hungry, I have to make sure I eat enough to not starve myself. At work I have a calorie tracking tool running in my browser which reminds me that I should not grab every chocolate, cookie, slice of pizza or whatnot the colleagues offer me. At home, I do not really need it (and forget logging my stuff most of the time anyway). One pizza and two chocolate bars would provide me with the “necessary” calories, for sure, but in the nutritional department… not so much.

I do not plan to keep track of my calories for the rest of my life, but I think it is a nice tool to help me make reasonable changes and track what I am doing, what is working for my health and how much room there is for playing. It is nothing more, and when I am hungry in the evening, I will definitely not deny myself another snack only because of the calories already consumed. In the end, I can see whether I am doing things right by the way my body feels.

So – you are on to something. Counting calories is a dreadful task, and should be avoided as much as possible. But I also think it can be a reasonable tool to help people get to where they need to be. Much like planning and tracking exercise until you start to enjoy it.

Rebecca October 1, 2013 at 9:13 pm

really loved this article as I am sadly a calorie counter but its just sooo boring! and hard to keep up with! it also means I cant eat out. so I find myself not doing it, the worst part of that is then i give up completely and just eat crap!

I could not agree more with this tips! thanks so much! and thanks for the article on this book. I would love to hear more of those types of tips!

Danielle October 1, 2013 at 10:24 pm

I don’t disagree with a single point of yours… to a point! Does that make sense? Four years ago I lost 80 pounds using the Calorie King software and counted every day for about a year. It taught me how to eat right for the first time in my whole life. More importantly, it taught me just how many carbs I was living on in my vegetarian lifestyle. It gave me tools and data to understand food at a very different level THAT I DESPARATELY NEEDED.

I’ve followed an approach to food much like you describe since then and mostly kept the weight off. When you stop eating a net 1300 calorie diet, a 5 pound gain is inevitable, so that happened almost as soon as I stopped counting. More annoying, I’ve been stress binging recently. A lot! My muscles had been handling the extra calories at first, but I finally reached a new “low” on the scale, mental alarms went off, and I installed a calorie counter on my smart phone.

You wouldn’t believe how comforting and normal it felt to have a little device calmly explain why I shouldn’t eat 500 calories of sugary snacks per day to improve my thesis writing. This is arguably a tempory condition (both for thesis writing and calorie counting), but if you’re a data-driven person, than the technique can be a very very good thing.

Of course, this is a polarizing post. I hope you have fun reading all of the reactions. Interesting, I like the counting aspect and find it fun/relaxing. Fun food math for a geek who adores whole foods.

Zola Spud October 2, 2013 at 12:12 am

Essentially I agree with you, that calorie counting is almost a red herring as far as maintaining a healthy diet is concerned. Counter-productive in many ways – as is bothering with the numbers on the scales, or caring being a certain dress-size. However, I do think it is a useful tool for gauging the “density” of some foods; along with learning the basics of protein, carbs, etc requirements. I know a surprising number of otherwise very intelligent people (usually boys in my experience, but I think that’s a whole other story…) who are completely clueless about what really constitutes a balanced diet. Calorie-counting, I find, is an easy handle for them to grab hold of in order to get into learning about appropriate portion sizes.

vegeTARAian October 2, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Heck, I would have settled for one reason but you’ve sold me with the six! I love the thought of mindful eating – too often we eat on the run and don’t really consider exactly what we are putting into our bodies. Excellent advice.

Michelle Beissel October 3, 2013 at 8:49 pm

I, and I am guessing that others do also, use both approaches simultaneously as one does not preclude the other. If you are mindful, you can count calories in a positive, supportive way, especially if it is related to portion control. My perspective is if the food is wonderful, a little goes a long way. :-)

Pia October 3, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Calorie counting may work for some but I find that I already obsess over food enough without throwing in the whole calorie tracking aspect. I think the danger with “eating by numbers” so to speak is that we can lose sight of what food should really be about: nourishing our bodies (and souls) with the right fuel.

Darya Rose October 4, 2013 at 2:46 am

Great post. You should tell your friend’s daughter that it’s legal for nutrition labels to be off (aka inaccurate) by 20%. And you can guess how often they err on the high end.

Jay October 5, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Look, I have to say I strongly disagree. Carb counting is a way of life for some of us. Yes, I would love to go a week, day, hell even 1 meal without counting but it is NOT possible. I am a type 1 Diabetic. For those of you playing at home this diabetes is genetic and has nothing to do with my weight etc. I can not eat a morsel of food without knowing its carb value as it will topple my sugars. Hence no nutritional panel means no matter what I think of your recipe, I can not have it. Your noted reasons I feel are quite uninformed.

Taylor B October 7, 2013 at 12:46 pm

I found this article to be a great “breath of fresh air”. For too long I have been told how important calories are that it has nearly taken the joy out of cooking and eating. I have always believed that every person is different and that is true for how their bodies will respond to calories. I just started my own blog about my own love for food, and the one thing I will remember is that it is not my place to advise how many calories a person should or should not eat, but instead to enjoy food for the flavors! Thanks for this post!
Taylor

Sarai October 20, 2013 at 1:25 am

Hi, Jules! First off, wanted to say that you are straight on with everything you said about calories! My husband and I had a ‘revelation’ a couple years back about real food vs the standard American diet I’d been raised on. I lost about 40 lbs at one point in my life on severe calorie restriction and daily workouts, and it lasted just long enough to get me into a tiny wedding dress. But as soon as I took an office job, and fell back into the rhythm of regular life, I gained much of it back. I tried for years to get the weight back off, mainly by cutting calories and going extremely low fat. I was exhausted, starving all the time, sick all the time, even got to the point of amenorrhea that my doctors could not explain by any means. Then I discovered the writings of Weston A Price, and decided to give fat a try. I felt better almost instantly, more energy, ovulating regularly, etc! I only lost a few pounds over the course of months and was frustrated, but to everyone’s surprise, it was because I was pregnant. The doctor’s refused to believe that I could be pregnant immediately after such a long stretch of amenorrhea, and that the only change I had made was eating real food, fat included. I only gained 7 lbs my entire pregnancy, and dropped 20 within a week of giving birth. More importantly, though, I feel healthy, and have not been sick (aside from preggers nausea) in a couple years. Our food budget is much less, and we enjoy our food so much more. Thanks for preaching the good food gospel: that’w why we love your blog so much! :)

Sarai October 20, 2013 at 1:28 am

Oh, and of course in all that I completely forgot to ask the question that had me commenting in the first place… In your recipes, you mention bangers a lot. Do you mean just pork sausage generally, or a specific kind of pork sausage? I’m in the States, and I’m not sure. My husband is a butcher, and they make something called ‘British style bangers’ at his work, but we weren’t terribly impressed when we made this recipe with them (though we love all the sausages he makes, generally). It might just be a taste preference, or we Americans might just be doing bangers completely wrong. :)

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