Is Counting Every Calorie Really Necessary?

Bowl of salad with a phone nearby with a calory counting app visible on screen
  • November 3, 2020

Imagine that every time you ate something, whether it was a meal with your family, a snack at happy hour with a friend, or a midafternoon yogurt and fruit, you had to open your food-tracking app and record it. Counting the calories of your meal could take several minutes as you break down your entrée into its individual components, sauces, etc.

  • cup of broccoli and asparagus (do you think they cooked it in oil or butter?)
  • 1 serving of chicken (or would this count as 1½ servings of chicken?)
  • 1 cup of rice
  • ¼ cup or maybe ½ cup of sauce (what ingredients are in this sauce?)

Counting calories can become such a tedious chore- almost like a part-time job.  It really takes away from the enjoyment that food can bring to our lives.  What value does all that work really bring at the end of the day?

Calorie counting vs. calorie density.

It is incredibly meaningful to understand the properties of the foods that we put into our mouths.  In the Pritikin Eating Plan, one of the main concepts taught is calorie density.  Instead of focusing on the number of calories in the food, look at the composition of the food.

Low calorie-dense foods are filled with fiber and water.

These foods include vegetables and fruits. When we consume minimally processed vegetables and fruits, we not only are ingesting a wide variety of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, but also are allowing our bodies to eat enough volume of food to feel comfortably full and not deprived.  When eating these low calorie-dense foods, you don’t need to waste time counting calories.  You’ll feel full and guilt-free knowing that you’re not eating more calories than necessary.

On the other end of the spectrum, are high calorie-dense foods, which are characterized by being dry and/or oily. These typically are the crackers, snack items, and processed foods we find ourselves needing to eat large quantities of to feel satisfied.

When we think back to the purpose of counting calories, its intention is typically for weight loss or weight maintenance. However, just because you are staying within the allowed calorie limit for the day, it does not mean that these goals will be achieved. Why? Primarily because processed foods and restaurant foods are a large percentage of the calories in most American diets. Therefore, our bodies are still not receiving the appropriate nutrition they need to achieve weight loss and/or weight maintenance, and most times, we still feel hungry at the end of the day1.

It’s the quality of food that matters, not the quantity.

For example, suppose your intake was limited to 1200 calories a day.  You choose pork sausage for breakfast, skip lunch, and eat a small serving of creamy fettucine Alfredo for dinner.  You stayed within your 1200 calorie limit, but the quality of foods you consumed restrict progress, and your start to plateau.  In addition, the food is not filled with the nutrition your body needs to feel satiated. You’ll likely still be hungry and end up eating more calories, which can cause weight gain.

What’s the solution?

Shift your mindset and understanding of food.  A large variety of vegetables, fruits, healthy whole grains, legumes, and occasional lean meats offer so much flavor with minimal processing.  If we open our palate to experience the true flavor profiles of these foods and experiment with the vast amounts of seasonings and spices, we will not miss the junk foods and unhealthy foods as much as we thought.  Simple changes, such as beginning a meal with a bountiful salad or large side of vegetables, will help you stay full throughout the day. Challenge yourself to try a new fruit for dessert.   This could be the golden ticket to your weight loss goals.2

As you start to explore what is available to you at the local store, my hope is that you will see you don’t need to count every calorie in order to see the results you desire and to sustain a healthy life.  Cheers to a new perspective of looking at your next meal!

  1. https://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/fulltext/S1550-4131(19)30248-7
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3488810/
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