7 Reasons Calorie Counting Isn’t Working

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Calorie 1 1 | 7 Reasons Calorie Counting Isn'T Working

Pop question: What is a calorie?

Really… think about that for a second.

What is a calorie?

If you’re like most people, the answer is something like:

“The things in our food

“It makes us fat.”

Or, “Something bad.”

But really…what is a calorie?

(Crickets. Crickets.)

Technically, all a calorie is a unit of energy.


That’s it.

And some foods (despite the NUMBER of calories), have more ENERGY and NUTRIENT DENSITY packed into them than others.

Not All Calories Are Equal

It’s true: 100 calories of broccoli and 100 calories of a cookie are the same amount of calories, but which do you get the bigger bang for your nutrition buck?

“Duh!” you say. “The broccoli!”

I knew you were smart!

The same exact thing can’t be said though in a comparison between 100 calories of a Granola Bar vs. a 500 calorie meal of a grass-fed steak, avocado and sweet potato. Which gives you the “healthier” bang for your nutrition buck?

Sure, the chocolate bar has less calories, and by society’s standards: “low cal”=healthy… but which has more nutrition and energy?

Answer: The HIGHER calorie, more balanced meal. Unlike the granola bar, the steak boasts Omega-3’s and protein that help build up your cells and support lean muscle, the avocado helps digestion go smoothly and the sweet potato delivers the “just right” punch of energy to your metabolism. Boom. Boom. Boom.

One more: Your FitBit may say that you burned 600 calories on your treadmill run, while it only gave you 200 points for your weight lifting routine. Which is the better workout? As a chick, we’re trained to believe that “healthy living”= burning more, and eating less…however, when you run like a hamster on a wheel or your sole focus becomes more about burning as many calories as you can scorch, you end up shooting yourself in the foot in the long run. One word: Stress. Over time, as you continue to run, run, run, and burn, burn, burn, your bod gets burnt out! And what does it do? Fight against ya—Sounding the alarms to slow down your metabolism.

In addition, your FitBit is not counting the post-workout burn that goes on (or doesn’t go on) outside of the gym. Lifting weights and muscle building activities are actually linked to a higher boost in metabolic function, compared to running like a hamster on a wheel, trying to avoid “getting bulky” at all cost. (Mythbuster: Strength training is NOT body building, and you won’t turn into the Incredible Hulk by incorporating strength into your fitness flow).

Aye. Aye. Aye.

The Bottom Line? Calories don’t matter as much as we make them out to be. And eating less calories or burning MORE calories is not the solution for “losing weight”, getting healthy or boosting your metabolism.

Not convinced?

Here are 7 Reasons Why Counting Calories Won’t Help You “Boost Your Metabolism”:

1. Calories Don’t Count Nutrients. I talked a little bit about nutrient density, but what is it? “Nutrient density” essentially means the amount of vitamins, minerals, and nutrition packed into a food. Your bod processes a pack of Skittles or fat free “light and fit” yogurt, differently than a handful of berries or full-fat fermented yogurt. The Skittles spike your insulin levels and pack a whole lotta sugar for no vitamin or mineral gain—not to mention that your body sees a Skittle as a foreign object. What to do with that little guy? It’s like putting water in your gas tank and asking your car to go—it doesn’t recognize it. Over time, when we expose our bodies to fake foods, it wears down our digestive system, often times resulting in a leaky gut situation, connected to allergies, GI dysfunction, hormone imbalances and low energy. Berries and the full-fat yogurt, on the other hand, are familiar substances, and your body (and metabolism) is fueled.

2. You’re Not Absorbing Your Food. If you are not digesting your food, your body will have no idea what to do with the calories you eat—regardless of how many you eat. You could be eating 1200 calories every day and actually gaining weight if your gut is not healthy. Or you could be eating 2500 calories per day and have a digestive system that runs like a machine, and getting the most out of every unit of energy your food provides. Health (and a healthy metabolism) start in the gut.

3. All Eyes on the Scale. Speaking of health…Calorie tracking and counting often goes hand in hand with a focus on weight and weight loss. But there is so much more to you and your health than what you weigh. It’s like looking at a puzzle and only focusing on the outside border. There is so much more to that puzzle—and the completion of it than the outside. Health includes things like: Your peace of mind (i.e. less stress), soul fire (passions), social connection, sleep, digestion, water intake, food quality, balanced meals and movement. Calories (or low calories) do not equal “health.”

4. You’re Stressing Your Body Out. What happens when a the body goes into starvation mode? “May day! May day!” Stress. And when the body is stressed…cortisol levels go up…and when cortisol levels go up, inflammation goes up, hormones get thrown out of balance, we don’t sleep well, we don’t digest well—the body thinks it’s running from a bear at all times, as this one study pointed out. In it, researchers compared the cortisol production of four different groups: 

    1. Restricting calories to 1200 calories/day + tracking
    2. Restricting calories to 1200 calories/day
    3. No restriction, normal eating, but tracking calories
    4. No restriction; just eating “normal”

The results? Restricting calories increased the total output of cortisol, and monitoring calories increased perceived stress. Researchers concluded (no duh) that dieting can be detrimental to both the body and the mind.

5. Your Bod is Smarter Than a Fitness Tracker. Your body KNOWS when it’s tired, when it has energy to move, when it has a surge in energy, when it’s hungry and when it’s full. Chances are, you’ve gotten away from trusting it completely, but no time like the present to ditch the tracker and start a fun experiment—listening to your body. if you’ve been tracking calories, meticulously counting or you’re always connected to your FitBit, try unplugging for a week, and instead of relying on measures and counts, experiment with eating regular balanced meals—comprised of protein, fats and veggies—until you’re satisfied, and moving your body for the sake of movement and enjoyment.

6. No Telling. Trying to keep up with your calories will make you do one thing—go a little bit crazy. In a recent Google search, comparing the calorie counts of a ½ Rotisserie chicken, for instance, one listing suggested the bird delivers 500 calories + 80 grams of protein. Another listing determined it had 400 calories and 69 grams of protein. Even on foods with a label, a calorie is not 100% exact. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association showed that the actual caloric content in packaged foods differed by as much as 25 percent from what was listed on the label. Another study in Obesity determined that calorie counts could be off as much as 55% “excess calories” in the evaluation of 24 different popular snack foods on grocery shelves, some including: Nabisco Chips Ahoy Chocolate Chip Cookies, Nabisco Ritz Crackers, Snickers Bar, Tostitos White Corn Tortilla Chips, and Yoplait Smoothie Triple Berry.

7. Calories Don’t Equal Fat. Calories on a label do not equal “calories stored.” Far from it. They include a combination of all the energy units from the carbohydrates, fats and proteins in a particular food. Different types of macronutrients (and a balance of these) can have a wide range of physiological effects regarding hunger, hormones, energy gained, energy spent, psychology, physical appearance, and more. For instance, simple sugars (like fruit or Skittles) are simple for our bodies to turn into glucose. Our body uses glucose for instant energy! However, consuming too many simple sugars for our body to handle at once can also quickly can spike blood sugar (which in turn causes insulin levels to rise). If we have too much insulin (not calories), our body is then triggered store excess nutrients as fat. One more example: Red meat (a protein) digests slowly and takes extra energy to turn into usable energy. Our body uses protein as a building block of cells and cell function. However, just like sugar, if we get too much protein, our body, too, will actually make sugar from protein (yes, it’s true). In addition, too much protein can cause your digestive system to work twice as hard as it would if it had a balance of protein, fat and carbs—all of which work together for ideal digestion. We need a balance of all macronutrients, and calories—and they don’t instantly go to fat.



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