Counting calories doesn’t work  – here’s why

If you’re trying to lose weight, chances are you’re counting calories every day, right? Or more likely you’re using one of the many phone apps that calculate it all for you. I imagine that the app has worked out your daily allowance for you, based on your current weight, height, age, daily exercise, etc and you simply input your food and exercise each day – it’s pretty good, yeah? So let me ask you this: how’s it working for you?

If you’ve only been doing it for a few weeks or a couple of months and despite the inaccuracy of it all, you’ve managed to consume fewer calories than you were previously, then your answer is probably: great!


If you’ve been at it for longer, chances are you’ve plateaued and either given up because it’s not working or decided that you need to cut your calories further to see continued progress.

Now it’s time to get contoversial! Stop wasting your time! Stop counting calories!  Why? Because you don’t need to count calories to lose weight. Let me explain further and hopefully by the time you’ve finished reading this, you won’t feel the need to count calories ever again.

Calorie counting is very difficult, nigh impossible to get right simply because there are a lot of factors involved.

Let’s start with exercise.  You know the cardio machines at the gym that tell you how many calories you’ve burned? They can have an error margin of + or – 25%! It doesn’t matter that you enter your age and weight information, they can only estimate, so they’re just not entirely accurate. I’m not saying that you should completely forget about them though; they’re great for giving you a ball park idea of what you’ve done and that will keep you motivated, but don’t rely on them to be precise.

kettle bell swing

Now let’s take a quick look at food. The nutrient and calorie values on food labels are only approximations due to many factors. Some of those are: outdated/inaccurate data, product variety between batches, soil and growing conditions, ripeness at time of harvest, animals diets, length of storage, preparation methods and cooking times, to name just a few!

Some frozen foods can contain more calories than are listed on the package and some restaurant meals can have a lot more calories than they actually disclose.

eat real food

Add to this the variable that our digestion and excretion rates affect the amount of potential energy that is available once the food has been eaten and hopefully you are beginning to see the inaccuracy of it all! Even if you knew the exact calorie content of the food you’re eating, you can’t know exactly how much of that energy will become usable energy, which means that you’re count could be off by about 20% or even more.

The last factor to take into consideration is your daily non-exercise, or natural activity – walking around at work, going shopping, climbing stairs, gardening, washing the car, housework, etc. It is the smallest daily contributor to your energy expenditure, but it has been found to be an important indicator in weight loss or weight gain. You may be a fan of wearing a pedometer to count your steps or something more high tech such as a fitbit type of device, but again accuracy is pretty much impossible. Things like your size and whether you are walking/running on a flat surface or a hill will affect the calculations. Again, I’m not saying don’t use these devices as they can be fantastic motivational tools, just don’t depend on them for a perfect calorie count.

“You can’t out exercise a bad diet ”

Right, so hopefully we’re good so far and you’re still with me. Now let’s talk about the energy balance equation, or energy in versus energy out. This equation is very important when it comes to weight loss, weight gain and weight maintenance. You need a negative energy balance in order to lose weight, a positive energy balance to gain weight and a neutral energy balance to maintain a stable weight.

Exercise makes up anywhere from 15-30% of daily energy demand, so it is a big and controllable factor in the equation.That’s why adding or increasing exercise will assist with weight loss.

But most important is the food that you eat. No doubt you’ve seen the 80/20 equation relating to diet and exercise? Or you’ve heard that ‘you can’t out exercise a bad diet.’ Which is all well and good, but at the end of the day, it’s the quality of the food that you put in your mouth that matters most.

healthy food collage

The quality of the food you consume will ultimately control the amount of food that you consume. And our Western diet high in processed, sugary foods is a huge contributor to disease, health problems and weight gain.

We are now learning that foods that are highly processed and high in salt and sugar with a high calorie density and low nutrient density don’t trigger our appetite hormones to let our brain know that we are full.

So even though you may have eaten a meal and you should be full, you remain hungry or you become hungry again very quickly, so you consume even more empty calories in an effort to satisfy that hunger. To put it simply, if you eat mostly high calorie, low nutrient dense foods, you will overeat; hence you will gain weight.

And as long you continue to eat these kinds of foods, this cycle will continue – if you continue to starve your body at a cellular level, you can’t hope to control your weight.

Eating real, whole foods is the simple answer. Whole foods will fill you up and satisfy your hunger because you are providing your body with the daily nutrients that it needs. When you eat a diet high in nutrient dense foods and low in calorie dense foods, you will increase your satiety, meaning that you will feel full after meals and you won’t over eat. There are more nutrients available per volume of food, meaning that you will have a higher total intake of essential nutrients.

fresh fruit & veg

In a nutshell, eating real, whole foods every day is the easiest way to control your calorie intake without counting calories. Still feel like having take-away for dinner? Hopefully I’ve convinced you that it would be a much better idea to go home and cook! It doesn’t need to be complicated – a quick and easy stir fry, chicken or fish with steamed veggies, steak and salad. Planning and preparation are the keys and if you need help that’s what I’m here for; just ask!

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