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Why Calorie Counting Doesn't Work

habits nutrition Nov 08, 2021

Have you had long-term success with calorie counting? No?!? You're not the only one...

After years of being exposed to the diet and fitness industry, our response to wanting change of any kind is usually to look at the amount of energy that's going in vs the amount of energy we're expending. From a purely mathematical perspective - this makes sense!
But - for many of my clients and definitely for me - it doesn't. I spent nearly 20 years eating less than I burned, burning more than I ate, eating more than I burned and burning less than I ate ... frantically working the calculator trying to gain weight or lose weight or build muscle or just get out of bed with some (any!) energy.... and during that time there was a lot about nutrition that I didn't understand.


How Nutrition and Your Metabolism Actually Work

Even before you begin eating, your brain begins to produce a chemical response to food. These chemicals and hormones trigger nutrient breakdown and absorption, a sense of satiety and an internal stress or relaxation response to halt or aid in digestion (depending on what's going on in your day and whether it's a good idea to spend time and energy on digesting.)
Your metabolism depends not just on how much food you eat or exercise you get, but also on:
  • The quality of your food sources
  • How healthy your organs are
  • Where you are in your menstrual cycle
  • How stressful your lifestyle is
  • How many times you've engaged in crash dieting or disordered eating
  • ... or even what time of year it is
All this means : it's possible to create deep levels of internal stress and seemingly uncontrolled external symptoms by manipulating the numbers, instead of creating a healing and nourishing environment. If your metabolism is damaged, your internal systems are stressed, or your relationship to food has more baggage than me on a week-long vacation : focusing on calories can create more damage than good.
But when it comes to nutrition, there are healthier habits that do work!

Healthier Nutrition Habits to Try 

1. Nutrient Tracking (Macro and Micro) Instead of Calorie Counting: At the studio, we have clients track their intake in Cronometer for a few weeks so we can get a look at what's actually going in. IS the caloric intake actually what they think it is and does that make sense for them?
... then, more importantly: What is the breakdown of fat/protein/carbohydrates, and does it work for that person's lifestyle and goals? What vitamins and minerals are missing or in excess? Are nutrients coming from whole foods with minimal additives or from processed foods? Just getting a clearer picture can add up to a lot of easy shifts toward strength and energy.
2. Biometrics Tracking (BT and HR) : Once we know what's going in, the next step is to assess what the brain and body are actually DOING with the nutrients. Does your body create a stress response and shut down in response to food? Or create an uptick in metabolism to process, absorb and distribute the energy to your cells for use? Tracking your basal temperature and heart rate responses to food provides an intimate look at how YOUR body responds to what you're eating. The simplest place to start: Look for an increase in HR and BT 30-60 min after eating. Other responses are a place to begin to look for answers!
3. Mindful and Intuitive Eating Practices : The most rewarding thing I teach clients is how to listen to and interpret physical sensations, internal signals, emotional responses and cravings. As your brain and body begin to trust and rely on each other to respond accurately to requests, the less tracking and data you'll need! The easiest practices to start with are:
  • learn your "hungry" and "full" signals
  • notice tastes and smells, and chew your food fully
  • notice with curiosity instead of using "good" and "bad" descriptors 
4. External Support: Nutrition and physical symptoms are a charged topic for many people, and they're hard to see objectively. I cannot stress enough the value of having someone walk through the data with you, help you create a shared language with your body, remind you of your progress and hold hope when you get frustrated. After 10 years in the industry and 5 years of really learning how to talk to my body, I still call in back up when I'm feeling frustrated or overwhelmed.

Remember that you are deserving of energy, strength, the feeling of being at home in your body, and the nutrients that support that. You are not required to lose weight or gain weight or build muscle or be more flexible. What matters is that you get to show up in the world in a way that feels like YOU, and we're here to help facilitate that. Be kind to yourself and your body. Be kind to others and what they're walking through in their bodies.
We're here if you need support or help! Reach out to our compassionate and body-positive coaches anytime.

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