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.