Nutrition Counseling Weight Management

Calorie Counting: Taboo Practice or Useful Tool?

As a formerly obese child turned RD, I certainly have my personal opinions about calorie counting. Losing weight isn’t easy, and there are endless opinions regarding the most effective way to drop pounds. I trained as an RD more than 20 years ago during the “fat-free craze” when fat was labeled the enemy and high sugar intakes were acceptable. One hundred calories of nonfat cookies were perceived as more healthful than 100 calories of nuts! As science evolved, that philosophy proved untrue. I was taught that to lose weight you need to consume less than you burn, thus calorie counting was an effective way to manage intake and create an energy deficit. As mindful and intuitive eating techniques have gained popularity, many RDs are moving away from using the “C” word in their practices, and calories are no longer part of the discussion. I asked several RDs to define calorie counting and share their opinions about its usefulness or lack thereof.

Dr. Jo Lichten, PhD, RDN, author of Reboot: How to Power Up Your Focus, Energy, and Productivity, says, “Of course we need to talk about calories, but realize that calories are simply a ‘measurement of energy.’ It’s not about calorie counting, but being calorie conscious. When it comes to food, I ask myself, ‘Is it worth it?’ (in terms of the calorie count)—no different than the way we make decisions about how to spend our money.”

Shelly Marie Redmond, MS, RD, LDN, founder of Skinny Louisiana, says, “All my clients calorie count. It’s simply a ‘checks and balances’ system I use in my clinic to determine how much an individual is consuming in a day. It is the most effective way clients can see how much they are eating. While I appreciate that folks eat ‘healthy’ and teach ‘moderation,’ those words mean different things to each and every person. Think about it: Those fruit-filled smoothies can have more calories than a Happy Meal. We just don’t realize till we write it down.”

Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN, coauthor of The Wedding Dress Diet: Lose Weight and Look Great on Your Wedding Day and Beyond and author of Fighting the Freshman Fifteen: A College Woman’s Guide to Getting Real About Food and Keeping the Pounds Off, says, “[Calorie counting is] definitely not for everyone, but for some people it is a useful tool that helps them learn about serving sizes, food preparation, energy density, and their own mindless approach to eating. The most valuable part of the process is being aware of what you’re eating so you can describe it on your record. I know the records are not quantitatively accurate no matter what method is used to track food intake, but the awareness is transformative.”

Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RDN, HFS, author of Body Kindness: Transform Your Health From the Inside Out — And Never Say Diet Again says that “calorie counting is a distraction from all the other important aspects of eating that help us regulate our food intake, like our level of hunger that determines how much food we should take, if any at all. Sometimes we’re not hungry, we’re emotional, and we don’t need food even if there’s room in the calorie budget. I used to be a calorie counting QUEEN. My entire weight management practice was grounded in ‘diet culture.’ The problem was this didn’t help clients change behaviors, feel good, or create a better life. So I stopped all of it and created a weight-neutral behavioral change practice grounded in mindfulness and positive psychology. Instead of calories, I guide clients toward intuitive eating and balanced plates most of the time, similar to the USDA MyPlate.”

Katie Cavuto, MS, RD, chef, founder of the blog Nourish.Breathe.Thrive. and author of the cookbook Whole Cooking and Nutrition: An Everyday Superfoods Approach to Planning, Cooking, and Eating With Diabetes, doesn’t believe in calorie counting because “the total calories do not ensure that the client will consume a balanced, nourishing plate of food. Calorie counting is a consuming, dieting behavior, and I choose to counsel my clients on ways they can create joyful eating experiences rooted in intuitive mindful eating practices.”

Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT, creator of Nutrition Nuptials, says, “Calorie counting to me is an old-school approach towards weight loss. As someone who was obsessed with counting calories in my teens and early twenties, I found that once I let go of the concept of seeing my food as numbers, I was able to learn how to enjoy food again. I want my clients to put more attention towards what is on their plate vs how many calories it all adds up to. I have so many people who come in to my practice who can tell me everything they ate, then justify the items by saying, ‘It’s only X calories.’ But as we start to break their meals down and look at the protein, fruit, veggie, whole grain, and dairy items that are on their plate, they start to see areas where they are lacking.”

Clearly, there’s a divide within the dietitian community regarding the use of calorie counting. Ultimately, each practitioner needs to assess their clients and determine the most effective way to help them achieve their weight and health goals.

— Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, is founder of Nutrition Starring YOU, LLC, nutrition communications consultant, and private practice dietitian based in New Jersey. She’s also author of the forthcoming The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.

10 Comment

  1. I teach them to be mindful., too. If they’re supposed to eat xx amount of calories on a certain day but aren’t as hungry as calculated then it’s okay to eat less. If they’re hungrier than normal it’s okay to eat more than calculated and not feel guilty for eating when hungry. It’s like I have always said it’s not about “counting calories” OR being “calorie conscious” it’s about “calorie counting AND being calorie conscious. After a while they usually don’t have to “count” they usually just know.

  2. I agree to a point about what Shawn Eagle said. I myself am a registered dietitian with advanced training in weight management with my practice Lighthouse Nutrition and Wellness. I’m always perplexed as to why some nutritionists and dietitians talk against calorie counting and only for mindful eating, not seeing that both are very helpful. I’ve found that both are required to a point. I often start my clients with calorie counting if they are not already very familiar with the calorie and nutrient of foods they’re eating. After this, when they are pretty well educated on the analysis of what they’re actually eating, then we look at trends of emotional and stress eating, and we “wean” them away from only calorie counting, to mindful eating. Which way things go depends on the person. Some people LOVE the ocd-like behavior of constant calorie counting, and staying within their calories. They love knowing exactly what they’re eating. As dietitians and nutritionists, we can certainly understand that desire. Some hate it! They think they’re tied to the computer and doing “homework” all the time. It really depends on the person. Both types still need to learn about mindful eating and identifying emotional eating, and most would benefit from learning about calories, but then implementing more mindful eating and techniques to avoid emotional and stress eating. It’s not just a simple answer here, and for each person, it’s different, but there’s an answer for everyone.

  3. If you count calories you can follow how much you eat, but still, that doesn’t mean you will be informed about the quality of your diet.

    The best thing to do is to include the least processed foods from plants or animals in your diet.

    The calorie counting is not suitable for everyone, but many people find it really effective for losing weight and staying fit.

  4. Very nice post Lauren. It doesn’t have to be absolute. Aren’t we trying to stop the good and bad thinking? Let’s get to the gray area (where the tough decisions are made.) Encourage people to eat intuitively as a way to self regulate, but if they feel the need to track, why can’t it be an option?

  5. So interesting to read the different viewpoints on this topic. I agree with the other RDs who don’t believe in calorie counting from the standpoint that it doesn’t tell the whole story on nutrition and it can really lead to obsessive, eating disordered eating. That said, I do think it’s an important part of the nutrition facts panel to look at, but more so when comparing two products.

  6. I find both counting calories and being mindful of what they’re eating works. I teach them to count calories but to make sure what they’re eating are healthy choices. I have them journaling too, to keep track of how much they eat on certain days compared to other days (higher activity days will need more calories than light activity days or rest days). I teach them to be mindful., too. If they’re supposed to eat xx amount of calories on a certain day but aren’t as hungry as calculated then it’s okay to eat less. If they’re hungrier than normal it’s okay to eat more than calculated and not feel guilty for eating when hungry. It’s like I have always said it’s not about “counting calories” OR being “calorie conscious” it’s about “calorie counting AND being calorie conscious. After a while they usually don’t have to “count” they usually just know. The reason why I have people counting calories is to make sure they are getting in enough some eat until full but aren’t eating enough of the right kinds of foods. or enough of each of the macros. Some clients are striving to gain muscle mass or to be pro athletes and they have to be on target to make them gains or to be on top of their game.
    great Article! Enjoyed it.

  7. Lauren, thank you for the post. Research is clear that self monitoring of diet is a helpful strategy to lose weight and maintain weight loss. In many cases this involves calorie counting–although Weight Watchers uses points based on calories and nutrition quality. Intuitive eating also works well for some. But as Dr. Lichten pointed out, many folks need a budget. Despite research that tells us what tends to work (and our opinions about what will work), there is usually a person sitting across from us with their own beliefs! That person may be an exception to our rule or an outlier from a research perspective. As RDs I think our job is to provide guidance but ultimately help them discover the approach that will work best for them. Thanks again for taking the time to gather multiple perspectives on this issue.

    1. Thanks for your insight, David! I agree that no two people are alike and it’s our job to provide guidance.

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