Photo of avocado spread on toast

Is calorie counting the best way to maintain a healthy lifestyle? I spoke to a nutritionist to find out.

Calorie counting is a term we’ve heard being used a lot over the last month. Some of us may be familiar with it, other’s totally naive to the concept. Calorie counting, to be put simply, is counting the energy (calories) that is in the food we eat. Over the years this has been made easy to do by certain phone apps like My Fitness Pal, Control My Weight, and Lose It!, which are designed to do all the hard work (and workings out) for you.

The government have recently announced ‘plans’ to tackle the UK’s obesity problem by adding calories to menu’s in restaurants (along with other measures), and so in retrospect of my own opinions and experiences, I wanted to find out from a health professional whether this was the best way of encouraging healthy lifestyles, or if there are better methods of doing so…

I spoke to Nutritionist, Jenna Hope to find out what she thought about calorie counting as a method to lose weight and maintain an overall healthy life. She explained a lot about what exactly calorie counting entails, how it works, and whether it works well. But, before I get onto that, I’d like to start off with a mantra which Jenna uses with her clients. This mantra is to always be kind to yourself and avoid following a highly restrictive diet.

Food does one of two things: either it feeds your body or it feeds your soul and some days you just need to feed your soul!

Jenna Hope, Nutritionist

What is calorie counting?

Calorie counting is essentially one way of tracking certain elements of your food intake. All debates aside, that’s the simple fact of it: calorie counting means adding up the calories in the food you’ve eaten over the course of a day and amounting to a daily figure. Jenna explained to us exactly what that means: “Calories are the units of energy in foods. Calorie counting involves counting the total number of calories consumed throughout the day. This equates to the total amount of energy consumed over the course of the day.”

I, personally, calorie counted on and off for a few years but it wasn’t a sustainable solution to my goal (whatever that was back then). I’d forget to input data, get irritated at the regular notifications reminding me to add my lunch to the My Fitness Pal, and feel guilty for seeing the numbers rise when I logged that extra cookie which I’d thoroughly enjoyed with my afternoon cup of tea.

Photo of egg on toast

Is calorie counting accurate and effective?

One thing that makes me feel so dubious about calorie counting is that it can limit the nutrition that you’re feeding your body. For example, a bag of Walkers Ready Salted French Fries has the same amount of calories in as one hard-boiled egg. However, the quality and diversity of the nutrients that they provide is anything but comparable. A hard-boiled egg is full of vitamins and protein that you wouldn’t get from a bag of crisps, even though they’re measured as containing the same amount of calories. So if you’re restricting yourself to so many calories a day, but using those calories on bags of crisps, you could end up lacking vital nutrients that are needed to be healthy.

Jenna’s explanation and opinion of the veracity that counting calories hold is similar to my own. She said that, “some people may find calorie counting a useful place to start when it comes to nutrition education. Although, it’s important to note that there’s far more to food and nutrition than calories. Additionally, low calorie foods may not necessarily be the healthiest options. For example, rice cakes are low in calories but equally low in micronutrients which are required for everyday physiological functioning.”

She then clarified a much debated topic of low-fat products vs. full-fat products. “Furthermore, fat-free or reduced fat yoghurts contain fewer calories than regular yoghurt although they often contain more sugar. Sugar is often added to fat-free foods in order to replace the taste that the fats would have provided.” Which echos the complex relation between calories and nutrients within food.

Government’s plans

Earlier this summer, the Government released plans to tackle obesity in the UK in order to beat coronavirus after a common link was found between the two. This included banning adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt being aired on TV or online before 9pm; ending buy-one-get-one-free deals on foods which are high in fat, sugar and salt; and calories to be displayed on menus in restaurants and bars. The public response to the latter reflected mainly on the mental wellbeing of anyone who might have a dysfunctional relationship with food on any level. I asked Jenna what she thought of this decision.

“Whilst I can understand the decision to add calories to menus, it’s not something that I would support without additional nutrition education tools. I believe that making a dietary choice should be based on numerous factors including: micronutrient content, salt content and the social occasion. Therefore, offering calories alone does not provide any further education on nutrition.” Jenna’s comment on this is something I completely agree with. Calories don’t necessarily hold nutritional value. Like my earlier crisp and egg example, and Jenna’s rice cake, they don’t always mean that a food is good for you. Jenna went onto say that, “furthermore, this poses a significant trigger for individuals with a current or a history of eating disorders or a poor relationship with food.”

Alternatives to calorie counting

As Jenna mentioned, counting calories can be an easy and useful place to begin when it comes to weightloss or nutritional education, but it isn’t the only way to do things. She also noted that, “calorie counting can contribute to a poor relationship to food. There’s far more to food than just calories, aside from the additional nutrients food contains it’s also often a social affair, a way to show love/ an act of thoughtfulness and there can be a religious/ traditional element to food which shouldn’t be forgotten in the name of calorie counting.” So, what can we do instead?

“Firstly I would encourage individuals to workout their motivation to lose weight. Weight loss should come from internal motivation not as a result of someone else’s opinion.” This is such an important thing to remember, and it should be noted that you shouldn’t ever feel forced to lose weight if you feel healthy and happy, regardless to the Government’s actions. However, if you are looking to lose weight and pursue a healthy life, Jenna encourages individuals to focus on the following:

  • Consuming more fruits and vegetables
  • Increasing fibre through beans, pulses and wholegrains
  • Staying hydrated
  • Opting for protein rich snacks

It’s important to focus on what you can add to the diet rather than what you can take away. Often adding in more wholefoods naturally displaces some of the higher sugar foods although, removing the higher sugar/ higher fat foods completely can often leave the individual feeling restricted. As a result, they may be more likely to fall into a binge/restrict eating pattern.”

Jenna Hope, Nutritionist

In order to learn more about the food we’re eating, a little research here and there could go a long way. To be taught this kind of information would be valuable learning, but for now it might be up to us to teach ourselves.”Offering information on individual micronutrients found in foods may be a more beneficial approach.” Jenna said. “This can help individuals to learn more about nutrition, their body and health in general. This would also encourage individuals to be able to make more informed decisions rather than basing their decisions on one number alone.”

Whether you make the decision to count calories or not, it’s incredibly important that you are doing it for the right reasons, as well as looking at further nutritional information which goes past a number. If you do decide to track your calorie intake using a phone app, ensure that it doesn’t begin to affect your mental wellbeing. If your goal is to lose weight and be healthier, don’t feel like calorie counting is the only way to go about doing it. Its completely OK if it doesn’t work for you, and its also absolutely fine if it does. We’re all different individuals and so no one thing will work for us all. Whatever your goal, whatever your method, keep in mind Jenna’s mantra: sometimes you just need soul food.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels