Can you remember exactly what you ate yesterday? Would you be able to ensure that you ate exactly the same amount again today? Most of us aren’t very aware of what we’re eating or how much we’re eating on any particular day. Often we reach for seconds without even noticing what we’re doing. We take a slice or two of our partner’s pizza and forget we’ve done this. Or we have some of those biscuits that our colleague brings to work and forget we’ve eaten them. Evidence suggests that we are bad at estimating how much we’ve consumed at a meal. This is especially the case when we’re eating a more indulgent, fast-food meal. This is why calorie counting can be a helpful tool on a weight loss journey. It’s a tool that we can use to become more aware of what we’re eating and how much we’re eating. Several public health bodies, including the NHS, recommend monitoring calorie intake as part of a weight loss strategy. Whilst calorie counting can help us to be much more mindful of our food intake, it’s important that we go about it in the right way so that we don’t end up getting too obsessed with calories. Here are some helpful things to keep in mind when using calorie counting as part of your weight loss journey:
1. Set a goal but then give yourself some flexibility around it
Whilst it’s useful to aim to hit a particular number of calories each day, giving yourself a bit of flexibility around this number is important. So, if you slightly under-eat one day because you’re not so hungry but then eat a little bit more the next day, that’s completely okay. Just aiming, on average, to get to the number set is more helpful than beating yourself up if you don’t meet that number every single day. Calorie counts on food labels and in restaurants are really only a rough estimate of the calorie content of foods anyway. This is why, even though it’s helpful to count calories to make yourself more aware of what you’re eating, getting too obsessed with a very specific number is also unhelpful.
2. Focus on the quality of the food you’re eating and not just on calories
Whilst the number of calories we consume does have a bearing on whether we lose weight or not, so does the types of food we’re consuming. One calorie of ultra-processed fast food would have a very different effect on our body to one calorie of nutrient-dense, fresh food. This is why the World Health Organisation and other public health bodies recommend eating a nutritious and balanced diet containing lots of nutrient-dense foods. Whilst your goal may ultimately be to lose weight, why not make food choices to optimize your long-term health and wellbeing on this journey too. That said, it’s also important that you do give yourself permission to eat everything (even the more indulgent foods) sometimes. Banning foods completely can just create cravings for them. So aiming to achieve a good place of balance where you’re eating most of your calories from nutrient-dense foods but then also giving yourself permission to eat more indulgently sometimes is important.
3. Don’t withdraw socially
Many people will often withdraw from friends and family when they’re calorie counting. You may want to avoid situations where you don’t know and can’t count the calories in the food you’re eating. However, this can be very bad for your mental and emotional health and is not sustainable in the long term. The good news is that many restaurants and cafes are now obliged to disclose the number of calories in their meals. So you can still head out for a meal and choose something that aligns with your goals. For the situations where you can’t count calories, know that a setback of one meal where you don’t know exactly how much you have eaten isn’t going to ruin things for you.
4. Remember that calorie counting isn’t the only thing that matters
Whilst calorie counting can be a very helpful tool in bringing more awareness to your food choices, you shouldn’t rely on this as your only weight-loss strategy. Just see it instead as one of the many tools in your toolkit. Other factors that can be important can include what types of foods you’re eating and when in the day you’re eating too. It’s also really important that you’re prioritising getting a good night’s sleep, developing new coping mechanisms so that you aren’t turning to food to cope with stress or anxiety, and building new habits around food (so that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life calorie counting).
5. Don’t see a setback as failure
Calorie counting can get complicated when your partner offers to cook you dinner, you go to a friend’s house for drinks or you end up seeing family for lunch. You may not know exactly how much you’re eating or drinking or how many calories any of it contains. If, however, you feel you’ve “blown it” by not counting calories for that one meal or occasion, you may then think “well I’ve ruined it today so I might as well go crazy and start again tomorrow”. Rather than adopting this mindset, it’s much more helpful to accept that there may be times when you won’t be able to count exact calories. Instead, just aim to choose a nourishing meal and use this as a test for what you’ve learnt about portion sizes from the calorie counting you’ve done so far. Ultimately, if you end up eating a bit more on that one day, it won’t really make that much difference, so long as you don’t feel that you’ve “ruined things” and then completely give up.
6. Don’t aim to go below the calorie amount set to “hurry things along”
As you start to calorie count, there can be the temptation, to try to speed things along by eating a lot fewer calories than you’ve been allocated for the day. However, following a diet that is very restrictive could in fact be very harmful to you. Often, crash diets and extreme weight loss plans can either cause eating disorders or result in weight gain in the long term. Of course, it’s okay to slightly go under your calorie allowance here and there (and this is an important part of giving yourself some flexibility), however, consistently eating a lot less than your target calories can do more harm than good.
7. Remember consistency is more important than anything you do on any one day
Whilst the exact number of calories you eat in any one day is what you’ll be tracking, it can be helpful to remember that real change comes from what you do consistently over a long period of time. One small blip on any day or even a few days that don’t go to plan is no big deal, so long as you get straight back into your plan. Calorie counting is probably most helpful as a tool that allows you to learn what portion sizes to eat day-to-day. So it can be helpful to see that calorie counter as something that is educating you on how much to eat, rather than worrying too much about a specific number. Ultimately the goal is that you learn habits and patterns of eating that you can sustain for the long term and calorie counting can help with learning more about appropriate portion sizes.
8. Give yourself some slack or seek help if you find yourself becoming obsessive
If at any stage you find yourself getting very obsessive over calories or you withdrawing from your social life or hobbies, it’s important to give yourself a break from using this tool. If you’re worried that your calorie counting is negatively affecting your mental health, you should seek out help from a medical professional.
The numan take
Calorie counting can be a helpful tool to enable you to lose weight and reach your health goals. It can also enable you to understand more about portion sizes and how much you should be eating long-term. However, as you start calorie counting, it’s important to keep the long game in mind. It’s okay if you slightly over-eat one day, if you have a meal at a friend’s house and can’t count the calories in it or if you aren’t able to track things here and there, so long as you’re aiming to consistently be more conscious and aware of the amounts you’re eating. It’s important that you give yourself some flexibility around using this tool to ensure that you use it in a way that’s helping you rather than holding you back.