Why You Should Stop Counting Calories

Who hasn’t tried to count calories to lose weight?

The calorie counting method has ruled weight management thinking for decades. And yet given the rising number of obese people worldwide, it is time to question whether or not this method is serving us well.

The Principle of Counting Calories Is Fraught With Difficulties

The idea behind calorie counting is super simple. It is based on the idea that our body weight is determined by calories in and calories out. If we burn every calorie we count, we maintain our weight. If we burn fewer calories than we count, we gain weight. So burning more than we eat is how we lose weight. Easy, right?

For years, calorie counting has been THE way to ‘control weight’. Doctors espouse it. Endless articles talk about it. And we have complied. We calculate our calorie intake-output endlessly. We count how many calories we burn when we exercise. We weigh our food to figure out if we are eating too much or too little. We pore over the nutritional labels on the packaged foods we buy in stores.

But despite our calorie counting obsession, over 67 percent of Americans are still overweight! What are we doing wrong? Why is counting calories failing us?

Here are some of the weaknesses related to counting calories:

  • Counting calories is often highly inaccurate—because of the difficulty of measuring, 11-Jun_Calorie_Illustrate19and rounding off, calorie counts can be off by as much as 20%.
  • Counting calories can be quite difficult for the ordinary person. Scientists have shown that people often underestimate the calories they are ingesting by as much as 40%. This is particularly true when we eat out and menus offer supersized items.
  • Counting calories fails to measure nutritional content. Calories merely tell us how much energy is contained in food, not how many micronutrients we are getting or how much energy our body can actually use.
  • Counting calories does not address the important issue of being satiated by the food we eat; inadequate calorie intake can lead to hunger, which can lead to an unhealthy cycle of binging.

But There Is a Better Way…

It’s called the Calorie Density Approach

Using calorie density is an easy, proven way to monitor your diet that incorporates both calorie and nutritional input.

Calorie density measures the number of calories in a given weight of food (normally it is calories per pound or cal/lb). High-calorie dense foods will, therefore, have a large number of calories for a small weight of food while low calorie-dense foods will have far fewer calories. For example, one pound of green beans has 140 calories while one pound of almonds provides about 2620 calories.

On average, people eat about 3-5 pounds of food per day. Choosing low-calorie dense foods allows us to eat the same amount for fewer calories. Even better, low-calorie dense foods (fruits, veggies, starchy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes) are the most filling and nutrient dense. In the end, the ideal goal is to eat foods that are lower in calorie density but are also satiating and filled with nutrients.

A handy calorie density chart

Registered Dietitian Jeff Novick in A Common Sense Approach to Sound Nutrition provides a helpful chart outlining food calorie densities. Here are some calorie density measures for common foods:

  • Vegetables: 60-195 cal/lb
  • Fruits: 140-420 cal/lb
  • Potatoes/pasta/rice/barley/oats: 320-630 cal/lb
  • Beans/peas/lentils: 310-780 cal/lb
  • Breads/bagels/dried fruits: 920-1360 cal/lb
  • Honey/syrups/sugars: 1200-1800 cal/lb
  • Chips/crackers: 1480-1760 cal/lb
  • Chocolate chip cookies: 2140 cal/lb
  • Nuts/seeds: 2400-3200 cal/lb
  • Oil-based spreads: 3200 cal/lb
  • Oils: 4000 cal/lb

How to Lose Weight Using the Calorie Density Method

When it comes to weight loss and maintenance, safer foods include foods and meals with average calorie densities under 800 Cal/lb. Vegetables and fruits are under 300 Cal/lb and generally don’t lead to weight gain. Most people who are moderately active can eat larger amounts of foods with calorie densities between 400 to 800 cal/lb and still maintain their weight.

Eating foods with calorie densities over 800 Cal/lb have the opposite effect and can lead to weight gain, especially in those who are not active. Foods with densities over 1800 cal/lb can easily contribute to weight gain and obesity. To enjoy the higher calorie dense foods, add them as toppings to low-calorie dense foods rather than eating entire servings.

Here are some helpful tips on how to succeed using the calorie density approach:

  • Make sure you eat until you are comfortably full. Don’t eat too little and starve yourself. Don’t overeat and stuff yourself.
  • Consider starting all meals with a salad, soup or fruit.
  • Divide your plate up evenly between the more calorie intense under the 800 Cal/lb limit (i.e. beans peas, lentils, potatoes, pasta, rice) and the less calorie intense foods (i.e. vegetables and fruits). By doing this you will keep overall calories down while still ensuring you are satiated and getting plenty of nutrients.
  • Avoid liquid calories; this is because liquids don’t fill you up as much as solid foods with the same amount of calories.
  • Limit foods higher in calorie density (dried fruit, nuts). Consider them as condiments to dress up a meal but not the main meal itself.

So why not eliminate the time-consuming frustration of calorie counting for good? You will get much better results by using the simple, easy calorie density approach to achieve both a nutritious diet and a healthy weight.

Update: May 10, 2018
This article has been updated to share a new and more comprehensive chart outlining the energy density of foods. To read a full explanation and download a copy of the revised chart, please visit this page Why Energy Density Is So Important.