The Danger Of Focusing Too Much On Counting Calories
You likely know this, but how many calories you eat matters.
It matters a lot…
In the end, it is your caloric intake that will largely determine how much weight you gain or lose.
Simply put, a calorie is just a measure of the stored energy in all of the food we eat.
So if you consume a surplus of energy, in the form of calories, compared to how much your body is burning, you will gain weight.
By the same token, if you take in less energy than your body burns throughout each day, you will lose weight.
This is basic thermodynamics, and unless you aren’t subject to the fundamental laws of physics, then you can count on the above holding true.
Thankfully, these days many people are more calorie-aware than ever.
This is in part due to the proliferation of smartphones in recent years, which has allowed people to track their caloric intake like never before, using a variety of food logging apps like MyFitnessPal, FatSecret, and Cronometer, among many others.
And for many people that have adopted a calorie-tracking approach, and stuck with it long enough to see results, it can all feel very eye-opening.
For once, you feel like you’re in complete control of your weight loss. Just consume fewer calories than you burn, and that weight will continue to slide right off.
However, while much of this is true, choosing to only focus on counting calories, in lieu of understanding the bigger nutritional picture, can be a dangerous move.
Calories are certainly important, but you don’t want to get so myopic with your calorie counting that you start to think they’re everything.
So, in this article, we’ll be going over some of the common problems that you may encounter if you focus on counting calories to the exclusion of all else – and what we would recommend doing instead.
Let’s dive right in.
Problem #1: You Ignore Macronutrient Requirements
If calories are arguably the most important part of the nutritional picture, macronutrients are a close second.
For those of you who haven’t heard the term before, you can think of macronutrients as the type of calories in all of the foods that you eat.
More specifically, the 3 main macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrates – and each of these plays an important role in the functioning of your body.
Protein supplies the building blocks, in the form of amino acids, for all of the cells in your body (learn more about protein here).
Dietary fat plays an important role in hormonal regulation (learn more about dietary fat here).
Carbohydrates help provide short term energy for you body, and provide the glycogen to have effective workouts (learn more about carbohydrates here).
For this reason, it is important to consider the macronutrient balance of the foods you eat, as well as the total number of calories.
To put it simply, if calories are the most important factor for how much weight you’ll gain or lose, the macronutrients that you eat are the biggest determinant of your overall body composition – that is, how much muscle vs fat you have – as well as how well your body functions in general.
Problem #2: You Ignore Micronutrient Requirements
In addition to not considering your macronutrient intake, too much of a fixation on simple calorie counting can set you up to be deficient in many important micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
Let me explain…
You see, when you only concern yourself with the total number of calories you eat, it’s easy not to worry so much about food choices, as long as the numbers add up.
This can easily lead to getting the bulk of your diet from processed foods, which are widely available, inexpensive, and taste good.
In turn, you can neglect to eat enough healthy, nutrient-dense foods – like fruits and vegetables – since you’re only judging your diet by your caloric total for the day.
Unfortunately, if you choose to eat like this, the lack of micronutrients in your diet can leave you at a greater risk of developing certain diseases, and can also impact your energy levels and how you feel in general.
Taking a good multivitamin can mitigate this risk somewhat, and is certainly better than nothing, but there is still no replacement for getting your required micronutrients from real foods.
Problem #3: You Ignore Fullness And Satiety
As we’ve discussed before, dietary compliance is a much overlooked component of the nutritional puzzle for many people.
You can have the best diet in the world, on paper, but if you don’t actually stick to it for the majority of the time, it simply won’t work.
In fact, when working with clients, we would rather them adopt a sub-optimal yet decent diet that they can realistically stick to, instead of a ‘perfect’ one they find impossible to follow.
Well, in our experience, if you only focus on counting calories as your sole dietary goal, then you can easily run the risk of developing a diet that is fundamentally unsustainable.
Let me give you an example.
Say you decide that you’re going to eat less than 1800 calories a day, in order to lose weight.
You start tracking this with one of the many fitness trackers, making sure not to exceed that number; however, the vast majority of your calories tend to come from fast food and other processed junk.
The problem here is that these foods aren’t particularly filling.
If you build your diet around these types of foods, even if you’re meeting your calorie goal, you’ll end up feeling a lot more hungry than if you focused on filling foods.
This can often lead to prematurely abandoning your diet, since it feels like a daily chore to deal with the hunger and cravings, making you much less likely to reach your fitness goals.
What You Should Do Instead
Now that we’ve covered some of the major problems that you can encounter by focusing only on counting calories, let me quickly go through what we’d suggest doing instead.
In short, we recommend following a ‘flexible dieting’ approach – where you focus not only on meeting certain calorie targets, but also on hitting specific macronutrient goals each day.
This ensures that you’ll be getting appropriate qualities of protein, fats, and carbs each day, which will help promote a much better overall body composition than if you just focused on calories.
Secondly, to make sure that you have a good balance of micronutrients in your diet, we suggest following the 80/20 rule.
That is, aim to get 80% of your total calories from traditionally clean foods, allowing 20% to come from processed foods or dessert.
Finally, in order to minimize your hunger, when eating at a caloric deficit you should aim to include foods that have a lot of volume relative to the number of calories – we go over some good ones in this article.
You’ll also want to make sure to eat enough fiber, since that also helps keep you feeling full as well.
The Bottom Line On Counting Calories
So, to be clear here, there is nothing wrong with counting your calories when trying to lose (or gain) weight.
Eating the right number of calories is an essential part of the process, and you won’t be able to lose weight unless you’re at a caloric deficit.
That being said, focusing too much on counting calories and ignoring things like macronutrient balance, micronutrients, and the satiety/volume of certain foods relative to others, will not do you any favors in the long-term, and will ultimately make it more difficult to reach your fitness goals.
Instead, as an alternative, we strongly recommend embracing flexible dieting – which will give you a more comprehensive blueprint for dietary success.