Calorie counting gets a bad rap in the mainstream media, and this is very unfortunate because:
- The science shows that overall calorie restriction does primarily matter for fat loss.
- Initial bias against and preemptive exclusion of any viable strategy is ultimately counterproductive because you needlessly limit your options.
In my previous post – you can consider it part 1 and this post part 2 – I expounded the underrated benefits of calorie counting as a fat loss strategy, the most notable of which is that, in exchange for a little work, it’s virtually guaranteed to work if you do it correctly.
That said, there are downsides to it as well, and I certainly don’t think it’s the best fat loss strategy for everyone, all the time.
This post serves to be an objective counterweight to my last post – though most arguments against calorie counting (or calories in general) are unfounded, illogical, or outright nonsensical, there are some legitimate downsides that deserve thoughtful consideration.
Clickable Table of Contents by Section
- 1. Calorie Counting May Simply Not Be Feasible In Certain Situations
- 2. Calorie Counting Can Enable Poor Food Choices
- 3. Hunger Always Wins, No Matter What
- 4. Calorie Counting Might (Ostensibly) Actually Restrict Food Choices
- 5. Calorie Counting Takes Work – It’s A Sufferable Repetitive Chore At Best
- 6. You Might Not Actually Need To Count Calories To Effectively Lose Fat
- Concluding Points
1. Calorie Counting May Simply Not Be Feasible In Certain Situations
In order to effectively count calories, you need to be the one actually preparing your own food (for the most part at least) so that you actually know what’s going in it. Sometimes, that’s just simply not the case for certain people. For example:
- A dorm residing college student on a dining hall meal plan.
- A high level executive who eats with professional acquaintances at restaurants regularly.
- Someone whose job entails regular traveling.
- A dependent whom family cooks for.
- An extrovert who enjoys regular social eating.
If you’re not in direct control of *most* of the food you’re eating, trying to count the calories of it will quickly become an insurmountable pain. What’s more is that doing it accurately might not even be realistically possible to begin with. I personally think that trying to count calories at restaurant meals isn’t worth the hassle, unless perhaps they have calories/macros on the menu, but even those can still be wildly inaccurate.
For people in these kinds of situations, a more general fat loss (or weight maintenance) strategy that focuses on general food choices or overall behaviors is probably going to be much better than trying to count calories.
2. Calorie Counting Can Enable Poor Food Choices
Processed frankenfoods are usually much easier to track because they have decisive nutrition facts, but they’re also typically less satiating and lower in nutrition.
The other issue is that many people, often after perhaps years of deprivation via begrudged “clean eating,” go overboard with the junk food since they can now excitedly “get away” with it while still hitting their calorie target.
As a result, it’s possible for a person to wind up less healthy because their diet becomes increasingly crappy, even if it is the “right” amount of calories.
3. Hunger Always Wins, No Matter What
This issue tends to go hand in hand with problem #2.
Any diet, of course, is only ever as good as one’s ability to actually do it and stick with it.
Some hunger is unavoidable on a diet, that’s just the reality of it. But the other reality is everyone will eventually cave to hunger if it becomes too ravenous.
If you have a calorically “perfect” meal plan… but you can’t seem to resist eating more, then you’re going to have to address the root issue of hunger. This will likely require, once again, more attention towards general dietary choices that influence hunger.
4. Calorie Counting Might (Ostensibly) Actually Restrict Food Choices
This is yet another sort of extension of problem #2 – if a meal is harder to track, you might be less likely to eat it.
Let’s say your friend prepared a varied green salad. Normally, a health conscious person would eagerly jump at it. But if you’re counting calories? You’re probably wondering what all the stuff in it is…
This might lead to skipping healthy meals in lieu of simpler things – perhaps less healthy – that are easier to log and track.
Once again, this might lead to an overall less healthy diet.
5. Calorie Counting Takes Work – It’s A Sufferable Repetitive Chore At Best
Even with a system that’s as streamlined as possible, you still will have to:
- Measure out the food, and perhaps weigh it with a kitchen scale.
- Log the foods into your calorie app or perhaps a spreadsheet.
- Calculate your calorie and macronutrient targets.
- Make meal plans that hits said targets.
It’s work – no way around that – and it might be a repetitive drag sometimes. I concede that there are people out there who will simply not willingly do said work, ever, and will thus need a different viable strategy.
6. You Might Not Actually Need To Count Calories To Effectively Lose Fat
This is the biggest legitimate criticism of counting calories, in my opinion – it simply may be overkill, and there’s no point in doing extra work if you don’t actually have to.
Calorie deficits certainly don’t require your accounting of them to exist. If you can achieve it just the same with a simpler and more general strategy, then I don’t see why you shouldn’t do just that.
The whole point of my blog is to be efficient with the bare effective minimum. If you can effectively lose fat with a system that’s less work than calorie counting – even though calorie counting can be pretty simple and easy with the right system – then it makes no sense to choose the more involved latter option.
It’s entirely possible to engineer an explicit system that, essentially, assures a calorie deficit in the same way that calorie counting does. For example, maybe a person merely needs to switch to diet soda and cut out in-between-meal snacks to start losing weight.
This is especially true for people who are starting out more overweight. You might decide that counting calories later on may be worth it, but maybe not initially, so long as you continue to lose weight at a solid rate of progress.
At the end of the day, said again, the generally best diet is the simplest and easiest diet that’s still effective. Just do that, whatever it may be.
This becomes all the more true for maintenance when the fat loss is “over.” I honestly haven’t counted calories in a year and half, and I’ve stayed within 10 pounds of where I was when I got quite lean with calorie counting (I did want to bulk up and gain back a little weight, by the way).
- Much like my previous post wasn’t a “pro” calorie counting article, this post is neither an “against” calorie counting article – the ultimate goal, once again, is to consider all pros/cons equally to determine the best strategy for you.
- Much like there are underrated upsides to calorie counting, there are also legitimate criticisms of it.
- There’s zero point in counting calories if you can achieve the desired results just the same with a simpler and easier more general strategy.
- It’s entirely possible to achieve desired body composition without ever counting calories (most people don’t care to ever get shredded to the bone).
- You can still be calorie conscious without actually counting calories.
- Maybe calorie counting makes sense to do later (or it did before), but not now. The “best” strategy will always depend on the current situation. It’s good to be flexible and adaptable, generally speaking.
- Any effective fat loss diet always does the same thing: It implements a system of behaviors that creates a calorie deficit, be it deliberate with calorie counting, or indirectly with general choices that necessarily influence calorie intake (or expenditure).
Further Reading: If you’re interested in trying to lose weight “by feel,” without counting calories, check out my comprehensive guide on how to (actually) lose weight without counting calories here.