Counting calories for weight loss is not working and here’s why

I remember in my undergraduate years training as a student of dietetics, having to sometimes keep a food log for a class recording our calorie intake.  I found it tedious and boring.  Later on, working with clients seeking to lose weight, we were taught to place them on a certain calorie level to induce weight loss meaning they had to look up calorie levels of food.  For some it did work but I remember thinking to myself, “thank goodness that’s not me having to do that.”


Why did I not like counting calories?  Because I rarely put the emphasis on the number of calories consumed.  Instead my focus, my motivation always was and still is, on the nutritional quality of food I’m eating.  I’ll admit, I’ve never been overweight in my life therefore I’ve never been on a weight loss diet.  I’m not saying that in a bragging sense but rather to emphasize when our focus is shifted from thinking in terms of calories to instead thinking in terms of nutritional quality, everything changes.  

The notion weight loss can best be achieved by keeping track of how many calories you’ve eaten in a day, is beginning to be questioned more and more.  Is this really the right thing for people wanting to lose weight to focus on? The weight loss industry, bringing in $58 billion in revenue each year in the U.S., highlights calorie restriction by either cutting out entire food groups or severely restricting calories, and yet most people will regain the weight lost on these diets.  Currently, 34.9% or 78.6 million adults in the U.S. are obese (obesity being defined as a body mass index or BMI of 30 or >), a record level.  Clearly, something is not working.

The food industry has not helped.  Remember back in the 1980’s and 1990’s when fat was considered a villain and suddenly supermarket shelves were filled with snack foods labels proudly proclaiming “fat-free” or “reduced-fat.”  What do you think they replaced the fat with?  Sugar.  Sugar is a simple carbohydrate rapidly absorbed in our intestinal tract. This leads to a brisk rise in our blood sugar causing the pancreas to release the hormone insulin. Insulin gets the sugar out of our bloodstream and into the cells of our body, which is its job, but then this leads to a corresponding rapid drop in our blood sugar.  When we have a rapid drop in our blood sugar, we get hungry and our cravings lean towards eating more highly-sweetened carbohydrate foods, resulting in a viscous cycle. 

The results of replacing fat with sugar and other highly refined/processed food in our food supply during the 1980’s-1990’s was very likely one factor in the explosion of the obesity rate in the U.S.  People didn’t eat less, they ate more.  Consuming easily absorbed carbohydrates that quickly enter into our bloodstream make us hungrier faster than foods that take longer to be digested. 

You’ve probably heard of the phrase “a calorie is a calorie no matter where it comes from.”  This is no longer accepted.  Two separate journal articles, one a 2014 commentary in Public Health Nutrition and the other, a 2015 editorial address this.  Calories are units of energy, a measure of the potential energy a food can release. Calories come from protein, fat, carbohydrates and alcohol, each having varying effects on our satiety, food consumption, weight maintenance and body composition by how they interact with different hormones and physiological pathways.  Hormones affected include:

·         Ghrelin – an appetite –stimulating hormone

·         Leptin – an appetite-suppressing hormone

·         Glucagon – a hormone raising blood sugar

·         Insulin – a hormone lowering blood sugar

When a person reduces their caloric intake, it tends to result in fatigue along with increasing hunger usually for carbohydrates that are absorbed quickly – highly processed and refined foods such as white rice, sodas, food made with white flour – often resulting in rebound weight gain in the long term.  Eating carbohydrates that are rapidly absorbed, may be promoting leptin resistance, the appetite-suppressing hormone.  Maybe it’s not so much the number of calories eaten but instead the type of carbohydrate foods we’re choosing leading to weight gain. 

So, should all of us quit counting calories and stop looking at the calorie amounts on the back of food labels?  It depends. 

Here are some reasons why counting calories may be harming your weight loss efforts:

·         It can be monotonous leading to burnout making you feel like a human calculator.  If you love math and keeping figures, you may enjoy it.  But often you feel resentful if you deprive yourself from all high calorie foods.  When foods are forbidden, you may end up craving them and eating more when the opportunity arises.

·         If you restrict yourself on the number of calories you can consume, anytime you give into temptation, it can lead to bingeing.  It’s called the “what the hell effect.”  You have a tendency to feel “if I’ve blown my diet, I might as well eat even more.” 

·         It can cause you to overthink your food choices.  This can lead to feelings of stress and deprivation that takes a toll on our mental and physical well-being to where you lose the pleasure of eating.

·         It may not be helping you learn to listen to your body intuitively.  There will be some days you want to eat less calories you’ve been assigned to or other days you want to eat more.  When we begin really paying attention to our hunger/fullness cues throughout the day, this can go a long way to curbing your intake of food more naturally.

So, what can be done? 

Both aforementioned journal articles had suggestions that merit a closer look and are ones I’ve always advocated as a registered dietitian.  Our focus should not be so intense on the calories found in food.  Here are ideas that may turn the tide in reducing obesity:

·         Put the focus on eating actual food.  Not processed or refined food but food Mother Nature provides for us.  The kind you grow in your backyard or find at a farmer’s market or in the produce section at the grocery store. 

·         Think in terms of the nutritive value of the food and not so much the amount of calories in it.  What kind of minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals does the food provide, that should be the focus.  Build meals around fresh, healthy food.

·         Decrease consumption of refined/highly processed foods to a bare minimum.  The more ingredients listed usually the less healthy it is for you.

·         Work with agricultural industries to help create subsidies for fruits and vegetables, making them more affordable and available to the general public.

·         Have tighter controls on marketing of junk food.

·         Eat regular meals each day.  Avoid skipping or eating chaotically throughout the day. 

·         When choosing what to eat, think in terms of “How will this nourish my body?  Is this a food promoting my health or harming my health?”

There are no short term fixes.  Counting calories may be the solution for some people but it’s been tried over and over without making much headway when it comes to weight loss.  It’s time to get back to basics by wiping clean the highly refined/processed foods from your diet and starting with fresh, natural foods – vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, lean meat, fish, poultry, dairy.

Simply eating healthy without having to count calories is one of the easiest things to do.   It frees you up to enjoy food without stressing over a certain number to meet.  In addition, keeping things simple makes everything more likely to fall into place. 


Cheryl Mussatto has over 30 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian and has worked in a variety of settings that cover a wide span of nutrition experience.  Currently she works as an adjunct professor for two community colleges, Allen Community College in Burlingame and Butler Community College in Council Grove, Kansas teaching two courses, Basic Nutrition and Therapeutic Nutrition. She is a consulting dietitian for the Cotton O’Neil Medical Clinic in Osage City doing individualized nutrition counseling. Cheryl also is a contributing author for, an online newspaper and Edietitians, a global free nutritional and health magazine. Her articles for both publications pertain to nutrition topics that cover a diversity of health and nutrition interests for the general public.  She is also certified as a health and wellness coach. Visit her website and Facebook page: Eat Well 2 Be Well