Joshua Keel

8 Great Reasons Not to Count Calories

February 17, 2020

Quit IIFYM and tune in to your body instead.

Toast with various toppings

If you’ve ever wanted to lose weight or get fit, you’ve probably come across the advice to count calories or macros. If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM)—a strategy to eat whatever you want, if it fits your allotted macronutrient counts for the day—is all the rage in the fitness industry. It’s rampant across YouTube and Instagram. It seems like everyone is doing it, and if you want to be lean and fit, you need to do it too.

That’s not so, my friends. And in fact, there are a lot of good reasons to skip this trend entirely. I’m going to walk through some of the best ones so you can see what I mean, and then at the end, I’ll show you what to do instead of obsessively counting.

So what are the reasons not to count calories and macros?

1. You lose touch with your natural hunger.

When we count calories, we often ignore hunger. We eat regardless of whether our bodies are telling us they need food or not. It’s easy to do, since tracking our food encourages us to eat according to a number, not our body’s innate hunger signals.

That’s a shame because the body already counts the calories. There’s no need to re-count them ourselves. Our bodies are wonderful machines that have numerous pathways to register food volume and macronutrient content (fats, carbs and protein).

I believe that the inability to feel and recognize hunger is the number one problem with counting calories. It takes our attention away from what really matters (am I hungry right now?) and puts it on a different question—what does my calorie budget say?

You feel like you can’t stop counting calories because you have no other way to manage your food intake. But do you want to be eating by numbers for the rest of your life?

2. You eat more (or less) than you need.

When you’re counting calories all day, and you know you have 300 calories left (maybe you’ve been saving up), you’re probably not going to sleep without finding some way to consume those 300 calories.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon when I’ve counted calories, and it only makes sense. If you’re dieting, who wants to eat less than you’re allowed? So even if you’re not hungry, you eat because the numbers say you can. This kind of behavior slows down your progress and actually makes it harder to lose weight.

On the other hand, some people start exercising or breastfeeding or working a physical job—their caloric requirements go up—and they don’t respond by feeding their body more. They’re following their macro numbers. 120 carbs is what I have, and 120 carbs is what I’ll eat, even if I can’t sleep because I’m so hungry.

Yeah, it’s stupid. There’s no reason to make losing weight unnecessarily hard by depriving yourself just because MyFitnessPal says so.

3. You focus on the numbers instead of food quality and nutrition.

IIFYM epitomizes this one. People think they can eat whatever they want, as long as it, yes, fits their macros. But what about micronutrients? What about nutrition and good health? Doritos and chocolate chip cookies all day long isn’t the best way to reach your goals.

Your weight may be an important component of your health, but it’s not the only one. Losing weight at the price of good nutrition may not be a good bargain. You can be unhealthy at any size. That’s why it’s important to focus on eating fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, lean proteins, legumes and whole grains.

Counting calories can make it harder to eat healthfully because you’re overly focused on the number rather than the nutritional value of your food. How about instead of counting the calories in your meals, you fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables?

4. It makes you crazy.

Living by a calorie budget can be downright unpleasant. When you want to go out to a restaurant, you look at the menu ahead of time to see what fits your daily allotment. Do they have anything “macro-friendly”? You freak out when the restaurant hasn’t posted their nutrition info online. You overestimate the calories in the meal, just to make completely sure you come in under your number for the day. What a load of stress!

In the beginning, counting calories seemed like the best way to ensure I reduced my intake and stayed on track with my goals. But over the years, as I turned to it again and again as my number one weight loss strategy, it started to drive me nuts. I once counted calories for 10 months straight, without fail. There’s no way I could do that now—or rather, I choose not to torture myself like that. The amount of willpower it takes is simply more than I have. In my experience, you pay a hefty psychological tax to count your food.

Tracking is great for a day or three, maybe a week, but after that, it starts to become an unhealthy obsession for many people. If you’re the exception that is able to count calories like a champ with no adverse effects, maybe this article isn’t for you. But then again, maybe it’s for future you. Come back if you get tired of obsessing over the numbers.

5. It robs you of time and saps your willpower.

It takes a lot of time and mental energy to count calories every day. What’s the opportunity cost of that time and preoccupation? When I counted calories, I found myself constantly thinking about my next meal—what it would consist of, how I would structure my treats, and whether or not I would be able to track it accurately if I was going out.

Wow, what a waste of time and energy! I could’ve been enjoying that time with my wife, or writing an article, or lifting heavy things in my garage. When you live your life based on what MyFitnessPal says, you don’t have the freedom to focus on what matters most to you. Martin Berkhan, author of The LeanGains Method, hits the nail on the head:

“Be honest with yourself: if you’re on a diet, you spend a fair amount of time thinking about it. Being perfectly content saves up an astounding amount of mental energy. Gone are the worries, doubts and obsessions about diet, weight and all other issues pertaining to reaching your goal. The itch is gone. No need to scratch it anymore.”

He’s talking about the secret benefit of being lean, but the great thing is, you can get lean without all the obsession and wasted time. I’ll have more to say about how down below.

6. It’s inaccurate.

It has to be, since it’s not based on your ever-changing energy needs, but instead on an arbitrary number. We’ve all heard about the many ways in which calorie counting is flawed—food label inaccuracies, the difficulty of knowing your exact caloric needs from day to day, the way people systematically underestimate their intake, etc.

Being a MyFitnessPal junkie can work, but if accuracy is what you’re aiming for, you might be better off listening to your body’s hunger cues instead.

7. It’s unnecessary.

All the stress about calories is absolutely unnecessary. Yes, of course, to lose weight you need to be in a caloric deficit. But you don’t even have to think about a calorie to be in a caloric deficit. You can get lean without counting calories for even one single day.

Do you think no one lost weight before MyFitnessPal and calorie counting came along? How did they do it? They may have been flying a little blind, not having the benefit of modern science, but listening to your body and following a healthy eating pattern has always worked.

So we don’t need to obsess about calories or macros. It’s important to make sure we eat a healthy balance of carbs, fats and protein, but those are hardly things to obsess over. By building the right habits, we can make getting those nutrients completely automatic.

8. It can encourage disordered eating.

I would almost go so far as to say counting calories and macros is disordered eating, since it tends to keep us at arm’s length from our hunger. But obviously there is a spectrum of harm, and some people are more susceptible than others. Those prone to disordered eating and negative body image may start labeling foods as evil and good, reducing calories beyond what is reasonable, and exercising themselves into the ground. Others are able to sustain calorie or macro tracking for long periods of time without major sign of trouble.

In my own case, tracking was great—until it wasn’t. And now, looking back on my experience, I can see how weighing and measuring my meals was an excessive and unnecessary response to feeling out of control around food. My question is, why go there in the first place? Why allow such an obsession to be a part of your life? There’s a lot more freedom to be had in changing your habits so that weight loss happens almost effortlessly, without focusing on the exact macro split of your meals, or the number of calories in your carrot sticks.

What to Do Instead

So if counting calories is restrictive, unnecessary and stressful, what are you supposed to do instead? How can you lose weight without losing your mind?

It all comes down to building long-term habits that support your goals, and making sustainable and lasting progress. You don’t want weight loss that’s here today and gone next month. You want it to stick around. Forever.

We always want a quick fix. “Hey man, have you tried paleo? I lost 20 pounds in 6 weeks.” Yeah…pass. Progress gained quickly is progress not gained at all, when you factor in the likelihood that you’ll regain the weight after you go off the diet, or when you go on vacation, or when a stressful life event comes your way.

The best way to lose weight—and then stop thinking about losing weight because you don’t need to anymore—is habit change. In my opinion, the most important habit you can develop is tuning in to your body’s masterful onboard weight management system: hunger.

What is hunger? Registered Dietitian and weight loss coach Georgie Fear defines it as an “empty-hollow sensation” in the belly. I feel it pretty much exactly that way. Most of us will start feeling genuine hunger a few hours after a solid, satisfying meal. You’re probably not going to be feeling it two hours after a big meal, and if you wait more than 5 or 6 hours, you may become really hungry and have trouble eating mindfully when you finally do eat, so don’t go too long without food.

Learn to be aware of your innate sense of hunger and satisfaction. When you’re eating a meal, slow down a little and see how your sense of satisfaction changes with every few bites. 50% of the way through your meal, stop and take stock. Is this enough? You don’t need to overthink it, just be aware. Get used to checking in with yourself. Then, as Georgie says, “Eat Just Enough”.

In other words, don’t push past satisfaction into overly full. And if your goal is weight loss, try aiming to feel satisfied but still light in your belly after a meal. After becoming satisfied, anything more you eat just keeps the weight on. Forgoing those additional few bites is what creates your caloric deficit!

It all comes down to paying attention to your hunger and fullness. If you find you’re not losing weight, simply adjust how much hunger you’re feeling before your meals and/or how much you eat in a given meal. Georgie recommends feeling 30-60 minutes of hunger before each meal in order to hit the sweet spot of weight loss without going through your day in a state of perma-hunger.

One important note: please don’t stop eating before you’re satisfied. For this to work, you have to eat enough to feel good and well-nourished. You just have to keep in mind your goal of losing weight (if that’s your goal) as well. You have to goldilocks it.

Don’t get frustrated if you have trouble finding your hunger and eating just enough. It takes practice. Just keep tuning it, and learning from your own wonderful and highly calibrated body. Your body counts calories better than you ever could.

If you’d like to learn more about habit-based weight loss (and I suggest that you do!), I encourage you to check out Georgie Fear’s book Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. Georgie’s coaching company, Nutrition Loft, even has a free online course I went through before investing in the book. It’s well worth your time.

Before I found Lean Habits, I wanted to be done with counting calories. I knew it wasn’t working for me, but I didn’t know what else to do. Georgie’s book was such a breath of fresh air. It changed my life and inspired this article. I really couldn’t commend it to you more highly.

Be well, friends, and may you achieve smashing success.