20 Things MyFitnessPal Doesn't Tell You About Your Calories

Jul 27, 2019

“I know counting calories is bad,” she stammers, but “and I hate it but, I…. I… really don’t think I can stop.” 

“Hang on a second,” I offer. “It’s okay if you count calories, I’m not for or against it, but let’s see if it’s helping you. And then we can decide if you want to keep doing it, or stop completely, or somewhere in between. And what you want this week might change form how you feel in a month, so we’ll adjust as we go. Deal?”

She looks and sounds massively relieved, and proceeds to tell me about her daily routine, calorie allowance, and what a day looks like when it goes well. Then we get to when it doesn’t go well, and the full picture comes into color and focus. This happens over and over in my nutrition assessments. I meet lots of people who have been counting calories and dislike it, and I meet a few who are actually finding it effective and happy to keep it going. 

You're not the same as everyone else

I treat each person as an individual.  This discussion is important because MyFitnessPal and other calorie tracking apps don't tell you how calorie counting might affect you. And it would irresponsible for me or anyone else to say that this one specific strategy is RIGHT for everybody or WRONG for everybody. 

Because the work I do (coaching, books, courses, seminars) is all based on achieving goals without having to count calories, people assume I’m “against it”. And by against it, I mean they assume I have a unilateral, “nobody should do that ever and if you do you are a terrible person” stance on it. That’s not the case, I simply help people get what they want, and the majority of my clients don’t want to count calories. But some people out there do, so making up your mind is best done when we can discuss the pro’s and con’s evenly. When you know all the possible likely impacts on both sides, you can keep an eye out for what is actually happening in your life and if calorie counting is the option you want to take. 

Here are some of the reasons why calorie counting can be beneficial: 

Calorie counting teaches you what food are high or low in calories. Sometimes it is genuinely surprising to see how fast the calories add up in say Chinese food or almond butter, and what a gigantic salad you can make for relatively few calories.

Counting calories helps you really grasp how things add up. Seeing that you actually have hundreds of calories just from condiments, or in your coffee each week can give you some useful perspective.

If done properly, calorie counting teaches portion control. Hopefully if you are counting calories you are weighing, measuring, or otherwise carefully monitoring your food portions. That can be eye opening. What you assumed was a 200 calorie bowl of cereal might actually be a 400 or 500 calorie bowl of cereal once you measure your usual serving.

It teaches you to think about total calories, not good/bad foods or avoiding certain types. I remember when I was about twelve or so I learned that calories were actually the important commodity which would determine gaining or losing weight. However, not everyone has caught on, or they have lost sight of the fact that calorie deficit is the only way to lose fat.  Some people are still convinced that to lose weight a person needs to eat organic food, avoid animal products, slash carbohydrates or avoid gluten. Wrong. It's about calories.

When you are using calorie counting as your weight management strategy, you can work in any food. If you really want a Snickers bar, you can eat a Snickers bar, log it and account for the calories in your daily total. Compared to diets which ban certain items, this freedom is a big plus.

Calorie counting is free. There are a ton of free apps you can use. Even without a smartphone, you can do a lot of it online. Something? I feel very strongly about is that a healthy weight should be accessible to everyone, no matter their income or gadget ownership.

Counting up calories gives you instant feedback. Humans thrive on feedback. It's nice to be able to look at your calorie total and instantly know if you are on track or not. But more on this below.

You may have read the above points and be thinking "well, I should download an app and get going counting calories now!" But that might not be the best idea because it's not a perfect method. Let's look at some of the drawbacks to counting calories, or why it’s not for everyone.

Here are some reasons calorie counting can be harmful

Counting calories can take your focus away from optimal macro splits. Your macronutrient intake -- the amount of carbohydrates, fat, and protein you consume -- can be a powerful tool in managing hunger. If you are only focused on total calories, then you might not take in appropriate amounts of protein, fiber, or fat to keep hunger at bay. This can leave you feeling like you just can't possibly eat less, or just can't stick to your goal calories, when in reality you could IF you were choosing foods differently.

Focusing on calories can subtly nudge you toward consuming more processed foods. Partially because they have a nutrition facts label right on them. It's often convenient and easy to scan the barcode on the bag or box to retrieve the calorie information instantly. On the other hand, if you choose to make a salad or stir fry from unprocessed ingredients like vegetables, beans, fruit and nuts, you have to look up each item individually. This makes it much easier to eat and enter a 100 calorie granola bar then try to make a 100 calorie side salad and look up 9 different ingredients. Choosing more processed foods, as you probably know, is not as nutritious or appetite satisfying. But it's a time saver when you count calories so beware of that silent influence.

Calorie counting can make it stressful to choose and eat foods. Food is not an emotionally empty topic for too many people. Food is wrapped up with our self esteem, our traditions, our personal history, and our mood. Deciding what to eat from a restaurant menu can be stressful if you are trying to compose a meal that fits your target number of calories. You can feel like you're torn between what you want to eat and how many calories you have left.

If there aren't any nutrition facts available, trying to guess how many calories are on your plate can be really distressing if you don't want to take chances with your weight loss! And after putting in all the work to account for meal after meal, I can't blame someone for not wanting to roll the dice and just guess when they suddenly can't get the info. For example, you go to a wedding, how do you manage to track calories? Ask ahead of time how many ounces of potato are in the main course? Or spend the whole reception logging how many crackers, cherry tomatoes and hummus you ate during cocktail hour, while seeing how many calories you have left to eat dinner have cake? And what if you save all your calories for cake but then its red velvet, and you HATE red velvet.

It can strain relationships. No joking. Calorie counters can be, well, distracted during dinner conversation. Sharing food freely can suddenly be tense, because if you allotted yourself 30 grams of pretzels exactly and your boyfriend wants some, and takes a big handful... It could get ugly. (Um, that’s a scene out of my not written biography. The time I bit someone’s head off for eating too many of my pretzels. I’m not proud.)

Calorie counting can take your focus away from paying attention to whether you are hungry or not. This may be the biggest drawback about counting calories. Over and over I work with people whose excess weight is directly caused by years of eating, snacking, grazing, and tasting without hunger being considered at all. Often my clients had experience counting calories for large swaths of time, which did no good in resolving the underlying problems or their weight struggles

It takes skill and time to count calories. Do you have an extra hour a day to weigh, measure, and portion your food, log each item in the app that you plan to eat, and edit it later if you didn't eat every bite, or added something? Do you want to use your spare time for that instead of other things?

It's easily done wrong. If I look at someone's calorie log, I can point out that 250 milliliters of milk doesn't actually have the number of calories that shows in their diary, so they were off by a big margin. I can also spot if they picked an erroneous entry because the numbers don't look right on that steak, or eggs, or yogurt they logged. It is part of my career to know the nutrient information for many many foods. But if it's not yours, you can easily pick the wrong entry and be off by 1000 calories, even if you weigh every single thing you eat. And yes that can completely derail your progress.

Calorie amounts in foods vary extensively in natural foods. The grapefruit you ate yesterday could have more or fewer calories than the one you ate today. The steak you got might be fattier than the one represented by the numbers you see when you look it up. Nutrition labels are not highly precise, either. Even on mass produced food products, they can be over or under by as much as 20%. Databases online are often way off.

A calorie counting lifestyle just doesn't jive well with eating out. The calorie figures report for their menu items are ballpark estimates at best. And sometimes no information is available.

Aiming for the same calorie intake every day guarantees error. Not only will you need to adjust your calorie intake if you want to accommodate exercise, but having slightly higher and slightly lower intakes is a normal variation because your output varies day to day. Throughout the menstrual cycle, a woman's energy expenditure rises and falls slightly. Everything from the amount of walking you do to the temperature of your office to whether you have a cold can change the amount of calories you burn from day to day. Variation in the bacterial species in your gut can even change how efficiently you absorb calories from food and this can shift week to week. All these factors together can mean you get less of a deficit some days than you are aiming for, or no deficit at all. 

Counting calories as a long term weight loss strategy can lead to repetitive eating. For the same reasons that eating processed food makes life easier, having the same breakfast every day and the same lunch makes it easier to enter the data because you can copy meals from day to day. But a repetitive eating pattern makes life boring and can actually impede your weight loss. Not getting enough enjoyment from a person's regular meals typically leads to eating extra treats or seeking fun foods for some variety. Not to mention, dietary variety is one factor that contributes to gut biome diversity and health. 

Lastly, being on a calorie limit drives up the value of food. In the same way that scarcity of a commodity like oil or real estate drives up its price, having a scarcity of food impacts behavioral economics. After experiencing food scarcity, people naturally respond by overeating, binge eating, hoarding food, and having a harder time resisting immediate gratification. Does this sound like what you've experienced only after you started dieting? Clearly, you can see that these behaviors only create additional challenges for controlling weight the rest of your life. By telling yourself you “only have 300 calories left….” you are creating a set up in which you will constantly want more. This means if you stop counting calories, with no other system in place to guide you on how much to eat, you WILL overeat. (Don't fear, you can learn other ways, though to prevent this such as in the free materials on our site). 

In the end, there is no “should” or “have to”. I am not saying you “should start” or “should stop” counting calories. And you definitely do not “have to count” or “have to stop”. What is best, I feel, is to share as much information as I can for you to consider, plus invite you to add in your own experience. Is it working, or is it something you just feel like you should do? Have you considered the alternatives? 

 What matters above all else is what you want. If you want to count calories and it’s is leading to your success in weight loss, continuing it seems logical. If you want to be better at managing your weight without counting calories, there are lots of ways to do that as well. You truly have the autonomy to decide how you want to live your food life, and whatever it is you want, I encourage you to make it happen. 

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