Counting Calories – A Blessing or a Curse?

Counting Calories – A Blessing or a Curse?

Counting calories can help to lose weight, and it is part of everyday life for many people who pursue certain fitness goals or aspire to achieve a more defined body. In times of body positivity and mental health awareness, however, more and more voices are being raised that frown upon calorie counting and view it as a “gateway drug” for developing eating disorders or a bad body image. So, does counting calories make sense? And to what extent is calorie counting related to eating disorders? Both viewpoints are scientifically backed up – counting calories can be good, and it can be bad. We'll take a closer look at both opinions.

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE
Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach

Published in Nutrition
13 min read · Nov 02, 2023

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In this article, CARE will give you a profound overview of the concept of calorie counting. We'll highlight the benefits of calorie counting, how to calculate your calorie needs, how to track calories, and also the potential downsides of this practice and its connotation with eating disorders. We'll also explain all the technical terms around calories to give you a simple and clear insight into this rather complex topic.

Are you ready? Here we go.

What Are Calories?

Calories are a unit of energy that the body obtains from food. They are critical for maintaining basic bodily functions such as respiration, cell division, and metabolism. [1]

A calorie is a measurement, just like a teaspoon or an inch. Calories are the amount of energy released when your body digests and absorbs food.

The more calories a certain type of food has, the more energy it can provide to your body. If you eat more calories than you need, your body stores the extra calories as body fat. Since many people confuse fat and calories, we want to make clear that even fat-free food can have many calories. [1]

In nutrition science, calories are often known as kilocalories (kcal) or simply calories. Calories come from the macronutrients fat, protein, and carbohydrates. [1]

One gram of fat provides about 9 calories, while one gram of protein and carbohydrates each provides about 4 calories.

So why should you count these calories?

What Is the Point of Counting Calories?

You may have wondered why so many people in the health and fitness sphere talk about calorie counting. Is it really that beneficial? The short answer is yes! Calorie counting can be an efficient way to improve your diet, weight, and lifestyle. Maybe you want to optimize your nutritional intake, lose weight, build muscle, or just understand your eating habits better? Then, counting calories can help you do that. [1]

In this chapter, we'll take an in-depth look at the benefits and goals of calorie counting, so you can better understand the positive aspects of this well-known method. You will discover that calorie counting can affect not only your physical appearance but also your physical health and your relationship with food. [1]

In fact, a more conscious and sustainable approach to our diets can improve our overall well-being. [1]

So, let's dive in and find out what, if anything, calorie counting can do for you.

Weight Management – The Classic

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Calorie counting is an effective way to control your body weight. When you eat more calories than your body burns, you gain weight. If you eat fewer calories than your body burns, you lose weight. Pretty simple, right?

If losing weight or keeping your current weight are your goals, calorie counting is a powerful tool. It allows you to know your daily calorie budget and make sure you stay in the right range. This makes it easier to reach your weight goals. [1]

Rehabilitate Food Relationship and Nutritional Awareness

These days, it's easy to lose your relationship with food and develop a dysfunctional relationship with it. Deep-fried dinosaur nuggets, colorful unicorn cereals, and modern marketing are blurring the lines of what a healthy diet and respect for our planet's limited resources actually look like. Many of us eat too unhealthy, too much food in general, or too little nutrient-dense food.

Counting calories allows you to become more aware of your eating habits. It encourages healthy food choices and helps reduce overconsumption of unhealthy options or even  consume meat more consciously.

Achieving Fitness and Weight Goals

Calorie counting can help you track specific goals, whether it's building muscle, losing weight, or improving your athletic performance. It is especially important for competitive athletes to meet their excess caloric needs and build muscle mass in a targeted and skillful manner through high-quality foods. [3]

So, how can you calculate your calorie needs?

How Do I Calculate My Calorie Need?

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Individual calorie needs vary from person to person and depend on factors such as your age, gender, body weight, body composition, and activity level.

A common method for calculating your calorie need is to use the Harris-Benedict formula. [2] If you're not a fan of math, feel free to skip this chapter and continue reading from "Online Calorie Calculators.”

This formula takes into account the basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy the body burns at rest) and the activity factor.

For men: BMR = 10 weight (kg) + 6.25 height (cm) - 5 * age (years) + 5

For women: BMR = 10 weight (kg) + 6.25 height (cm) - 5 * age (years) - 161

After you calculate your BMR, you can determine your total energy expenditure based on your activity level.

Here are the multipliers to determine your activity level:

Sedentary (little or no exercise): BMR * 1.2

Lightly active (light activity or exercise 1-3 days per week): BMR * 1.375

Moderately active (moderate activity or sports 3-5 days per week): BMR * 1.55

Very active (heavy activity or sports 6-7 days per week): BMR * 1.725

Extremely active (heavy physical work or intense sports + physical activity in daily life): BMR * 1.9

Suppose we want to calculate the total energy requirement for a 30-year-old man who weighs 75 kg, is 175 cm tall, and does moderate physical activity (activity level 1.55):

Step 1: Calculation of BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate).

BMR = 10 75 kg + 6.25 175 cm - 5 * 30 years + 5 BMR = 750 + 1094 - 150 + 5 BMR = 1699 calories per day

Step 2: Calculation of Total Energy Expenditure

Total energy expenditure = BMR (1699) * activity level (1.55) Total energy expenditure = 2635 calories per day.

So, the total energy expenditure of this 30-year-old man with the given parameters is about 2635 calories per day to maintain his current weight. If he wants to lose weight, he can reduce his daily calorie intake, and if he would like to gain weight, he can increase it.

Online Calorie Calculator

There are online-calorie calculators that will calculate your caloric needs, your BMR and your total energy expenditure. Caloric intake, caloric balance, and energy density are also important in the context of calorie counting.

That was a lot of scientific terms, right? We would like to explain these important terms again in the context of calorie counting very briefly since we mention them a couple of times in this article.

Energy Expenditure

Energy expenditure refers to the amount of energy your body uses through physical activity and exercise. In the context of calorie counting, energy expenditure is important because it represents the extra calories you need to support your daily activities.

This value is often combined with basal metabolic rate (BMR) to calculate total energy requirements.

Caloric Intake

Caloric intake is the amount of calories you take in through your diet. It's important to know and monitor your caloric intake to make sure you're meeting your energy goals, whether it's to lose, maintain, or gain weight.

To calculate your intake of calories, special nutrition and calorie apps are useful.

Caloric Balance

Caloric balance refers to the relationship between calorie intake and energy expenditure (including energy expenditure and basal metabolic rate). If you take in more calories than you consume, you will have a calorie surplus, which can lead to weight gain.

When you consume more calories than you take in, you create a calorie deficit that leads to weight loss. Calorie balance is critical to your weight management.

Energy Density

Energy density refers to the amount of calories contained in a given amount of a certain food. Foods with high-energy density contain many calories in a small volume, while foods with low-energy density contain fewer calories in larger volumes.

In calorie counting, energy density is relevant because lower energy-density foods can help maintain a feeling of fullness with lower calorie intake.

How Do I Track My Calories?

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Tracking calories requires a certain level of accuracy and consistency. While our grandparents used to count calories with food diaries, nowadays, we have numerous apps and online tools available to us that make logging and tracking our calorie intake quite easy.

Consequently, we would like to take a closer look at the most popular and common methods of calorie counting.

Counting Calories With Apps & Technology

In our digitized world, numerous smartphone apps and online tools allow you to easily and quickly count and track your calories. These apps have the potential to greatly increase accuracy, efficiency, and your engagement in tracking calories.

Calorie-counting apps perform automatic calculations. They take into account calorie needs based on the data you enter, such as age, gender, weight, and activity level. This makes it easier to determine your daily calorie needs to achieve your individual health goals.

These calorie-counting apps often access so-called food databases.

Food Composition Databases

Food databases have grown significantly in recent years, and apps like MyFitnessPal and Lifesum offer comprehensive food databases with calorie counts and nutritional information. These apps allow you to quickly and easily add foods to your diet plan and keep track of your daily calorie intake.

Calorie counting apps are an efficient and modern support for calorie counting because you benefit from their easy usability and various features. The apps are a valuable resource if you want to closely monitor your calorie intake, but they should always be used in the context of a balanced and healthy diet.

Fitness-Trackers to Count Calories

Fitness trackers such as Fitbit, the Apple Watch or Garmin allow you to monitor your daily physical activity and calculate how many calories you've burned through exercise.

This information can be incorporated into your caloric balance and help you maintain a healthy diet.

Count Calories With a Food Diary

Before smartphones and apps, keeping a written food diary was the most common way to count calories and track your diet. Although modern technology has made the process easier, keeping a food diary still offers many benefits. But why would you use this method when modern apps exist?

Writing down what you eat by hand often leads to greater mindfulness of your eating habits. A food diary can help identify unconscious or emotional eating and consequently help you control it.

With a food diary, you also have the freedom to customize it to your own liking. You can make handwritten notes, create sketches, and add details that may not be possible in an app or online tool.

Other Methods for Calorie Counting

In addition to apps and food diaries, there are other alternative approaches to calorie counting. These include methods such as portion control, intuitive eating, macronutrient tracking, the satiety index, and the “Plate Method.” [4]

These approaches emphasize either diet quality, trusting your body, or distributing nutrients instead of exact calorie counts.

Your calorie-counting method of choice will depend on your individual goals and preferences.

What Are the Benefits of Calorie Counting?

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Calorie counting is a practice that many people use in their pursuit of a healthy lifestyle and weight management. It offers a plethora of benefits that target not only physical appearance but also overall wellness and improving your health. [4]

Consequently, we will go into a little more detail about the most significant benefits of calorie counting.

Conscious & Sustainable Eating

The biggest benefit of calorie counting is promoting awareness and mindfulness about your diet. By consciously eating and tracking your meals, you reflect on your eating habits in detail. [5]

This will allow you to reduce overeating or "emotional eating" and possibly be more respectful of food.

Monitoring How Much You Eat

Calorie counting forces you to take a closer look at your diet. It encourages you to choose foods rich in important nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, instead of empty calories from high-sugar or high-fat snacks. [5]

In this way, calorie counting can help prevent deficiencies in important nutrients and increase your overall well-being. It can also help you get a grip on stress-induced snacking.

Can Help With Weight Loss

One of the most obvious benefits of calorie counting is its ability to help you regulate your weight. Many people use calorie counting as a form of dieting, so to speak. [5]

By setting a defined calorie limit, you can create a calorie deficit, which ultimately leads to weight loss. This is useful if you are overweight or want to improve your body composition.

If you're following a specific diet like low-carb, calorie-counting apps and technology can help you keep track of the carbohydrate content of your meals and ensure you stay within your dietary goals.

Can Help Build Muscle – Professional Athletes

Calorie counting also provides a clear way to monitor progress on certain health or fitness goals, like building muscle. It allows you to target your calorie budget for muscle building, weight loss, or other specific fitness goals. [3]

This is especially useful for athletes who want to optimize their performance or target and achieve specific sports results.

What Are the Disadvantages of Calorie Counting?

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Although calorie counting undoubtedly has its advantages, there are also some disadvantages and limitations to consider, especially if it is not practiced correctly or obsessively. [6]

Some scientists agree that calorie counting does not guarantee weight loss. Instead, intermittent fasting is cited as an equal or even superior method of choice for weight loss. [7] [8]

A Time-Consuming Method

Calorie counting requires time and attention. Each food must be weighed and recorded in a food diary or app. This can be time-consuming and nerve-wracking for some people, especially working professionals and parents. [7]

A Calorie Is Not a Calorie

Counting calories alone risks neglecting food quality. After all, one calorie is not necessarily the same as another calorie – the source of the calories matter. An avocado, for example, may have many calories, but it's also full of valuable nutrients and healthy fats. [6] [7]

A diet consisting mainly of foods too low or high in calories without considering the nutritional value of the food can lead to deficiencies and other health problems.

The Joy of Eating Gets Lost

An excessive fixation on calorie counting can lead to stress and compulsion. Obsessively counting calories takes the enjoyment out of eating for many people and can lead to a decline in your mental health.

In the worst cases, obsessive calorie counting can even be a sign of an eating disorder.

Development of an Eating Disorder

Some people develop an unhealthy relationship with food by counting calories, where the sheer fear of exceeding the calorie limit leads to controlling and pathological behavior. Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia are often associated with obsessive calorie counting.

We would like to discuss this important aspect in more detail.

Calorie Counting in the Context of Eating Disorders

You may be wondering how calorie counting and eating disorders are related. This is an important question, as it involves mental and physical health. Calorie counting can play a complex role and be dangerous for people who are prone to eating disorders or have suffered in the past from an eating disorder. [9]

Is Calorie Counting a “Gateway” for Developing Eating Disorders?

If you suffer from or have ever suffered from an eating disorder like anorexia, then counting calories can become a real obsession.

You might fall into an unhealthy urge to severely reduce your calorie intake or form extremely restrictive eating behaviors. This is dangerous and can exacerbate your eating disorder. [9]

Deteriorating Self-Image

Excessive calorie counting can also negatively affect your self-image. If you tend to define yourself mainly by your weight and figure, and if you judge your diet based only on calories, then you may be suffering from a dysfunctional self-image and an eating disorder.

Difficulty Enjoying Meals

If you suffer from an eating disorder, you may find it difficult to enjoy meals. Counting calories and constantly worrying about calories can make you unable to focus on the taste and enjoyment of food.

This leads to a dysfunctional relationship with food and is bad for your physical and mental health.

Misuse of Calorie Counting – Monitoring and Self-Punishment

In some cases, calorie counting is used as a means of control and self-punishment. If you are counting calories to monitor yourself or to punish yourself when you break self-imposed rules, then you should seek professional help and stop counting calories. [9]

If calorie counting is a part of your eating disorder, treating it definitely becomes more complicated. Your path to recovery requires that you distance yourself from excessive calorie counting and instead develop a healthy relationship with food.

It's critical to emphasize that calorie counting is not dangerous per se. It can be a useful weight management tool and raise nutritional awareness for people if they are otherwise following a balanced diet that meets their caloric needs.

However, it should be used with caution and mindfulness, especially if you notice signs of an eating disorder in yourself.

If you have difficulty counting calories or develop a dysfunctional relationship with food, you should seek professional help to develop a healthy attitude toward food and your own body.

You are not alone, and there is support available to guide you on the road to recovery.

Improving Your Health With CARE

If you wish to use calorie counting as a tool to improve your wellness and general health, a blood analysis with CARE can be a great step to determine any nutritional imbalances or room for improvement in your diet.

Our healthcare professionals at CARE would be delighted to guide you through your health journey and help you become the healthiest and fittest version of yourself.

List of References

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE

Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach at CARE Zurich

About the author

Elena is an enthusiastic Health Coach and blog writer at CARE, with a passion for holistic medicine and health. Previously, Elena worked for almost five years as a coach leading retreats, workshops, and seminars. These included mind-body therapy: breath work, meditation, and massage; as well as energy force therapy: reiki, and qi gong; and third expressive therapy: movement, writing and support groups. Elena shares exciting articles on the blog, on the topic of where the alternative and traditional medicine intersect with Western Medicine. Elena is also the driving force behind the CARE community. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, traveling to remote locations and dancing. You might also see her on the lake of Zurich as a coast guard. Join her on her journey to learn more about health and discover the world of preventive medicine! Visit all articles written by Elena!