How to make calorie counting work for you.

Calorie counting apps are easy to find for pretty much any device.  MyFitnessPal has a web-based program, an iOS app, and an Android app.  There’s also Lose It!, FatSecret, and many others.  These kinds of websites make the process of losing or maintaining weight seem simple.  Just set your goals, then count the calories you take in, the calories you expend, and as long as the equation balances out, you’re golden.  Sometimes, though, it takes longer to lose the weight than the app says it should.  The idea of tracking calories long-term can be overwhelming.  Calorie tracking can be useful, but isn’t necessarily a good long-term strategy for weight loss or maintenance.

A quick Google search will yield a number of opinions for and against calorie counting.  And really, both sides make legitimate points.  The truth is, the answer isn’t black or white, but is firmly set in the gray area in between.  Here’s how I find calorie counting most useful, and why I haven’t made it part of my everyday life.

Don’t count calories on holidays or birthdays.

While there are ways to keep from overeating during the Holidays, on birthdays, or other special occasions, it’s not the time to count calories.  For one thing, many of the foods consumed on those days are homemade and it will be incredibly difficult to get an accurate estimate of the calorie content.  Another good reason to avoid counting calories during these special occasions is that, no matter how hard we try, most of us end up overindulging anyway (I know I certainly do).  In that case, seeing the calorie count climb higher than I’d like on those rare days has the effect of making me feel guilty for enjoying the special food.  It’s a good way to develop an unhealthy view of the relationship between food and exercise, or to get discouraged and give up on what may be a new healthy habit entirely.

Count calories to check in with yourself.

At one point, I decided that it would be a good idea to count calories long term.  At first, I enthusiastically measured and weighed portions, entered recipes into my phone, and accounted for every scrap of food that entered my mouth.  By the second week, I was getting tired of having to account so exactly for my food and began to have difficulty with the fact that I rarely use recipes to cook from, but kept on doing the best I could to count.  By the third week, I noticed that I was becoming a little too obsessed with counting calories for my liking.  While not unhealthy, by any means, I could see myself heading in that direction, so I stopped counting and found that my eating habits didn’t change all that much.

My favorite way to use calorie counting now is to check in with myself a couple of times a year, or when I feel as though I’ve been a little too generous with my portions.  It’s a good way to see how I’m doing.  Sometimes, I find that I’ve been overeating and use the week or so of calorie counting to reign in my appetite.  Sometimes, I find that I’m not eating enough, or at least, not enough of the right kinds of foods, so I’ll use that information to correct my diet.  However, I never count calories for more than a week or two at a time, now.  If I’m feeling healthy and am eating well, then there’s no need to count.

The numbers on the screen don’t tell the whole story.

Have you ever set a calorie goal with the intention of losing weight, and noticed that it’s not working?  That’s because not all calories are created equal.  Yes, eventually, a diet of cake and ice cream that falls below your daily calorie goal will eventually result in weight loss, but it doesn’t mean your body will be functioning as well as it should or could be.  Sometimes, real food has more fat and calories than processed, prepackaged food, but that doesn’t mean it’s less healthy.  It’s important not to lose sight of the nutrient content of a food in favor of the calorie content of that same food.

Calorie counting can be a useful tool, but also has its downfalls.  Like any tool, it’s important to use it as effectively as possible.  Whether you count calories or not, I hope you find these tips useful.


Catherine Hall

About Catherine Hall

Catherine lives in Bangor, Maine with her family. She gained her appreciation for food and cooking from her grandmother and learned most of her technical knowledge from watching the Food Network. When not in the kitchen, Catherine can be found outdoors attempting to grow vegetables (not always successfully), practicing yoga, and taking Capoeira classes in downtown Bangor. Catherine can also be found walking around town with her Guiding Eyes guide dog, Caleb.