Healthy Eating

Calorie Counting: In or Out?

calorie countingCalorie counting might not be working anymore, according to a New York Times write-around of a recent study. The Harvard study tracked more than 120,000 participants over the course of 10 to 20 years, following their habits and their weight. Their findings: even those who stayed true to the golden rule “eat less and exercise more” tended to gain weight.
Researchers concluded that when it comes to preventing long-term weight gain, certain diet and lifestyle behaviors can thwart one’s success even if they match “calories in and calories out.”

Calorie counting as a weight management tool has some flaws, too, according to Jane Brody, author of the New York Times story. She suggests that maybe the practice hasn’t been working for us at all, because so many Americans are still overweight. Further, some people think they can eat garbage as long as they stay within their calorie budget.

Both of these flaws seem like user errors, rather than testimony to the ineffectiveness of calorie counting. But they’re important to consider. It’s easy to see how calorie-crunching might distract us from the bigger nutrition picture (in the same way employees who obsess over their upcoming Christmas bonuses tend to kill their productivity).

And, while we all know cheesecake is cheesecake, skipping dinner to ‘buy’ dessert calories is an easy trap to fall into.

But a lot of people use calorie counting with success. It can add structure to one’s food choices. It can help people get familiar with what their portion sizes should be. For me, not considering caloric intake would be like going to H&M without a budget: a raucous free-for-all.

So was calorie counting a fail for the Harvard study participants? Not exactly. In fact, the study didn’t even track whether people were counting their caloric intake. Rather, it was tracking the many factors that affect gradual weight creep.

Raise your hand if you didn’t already know that sleep, exercise, smoking, drinking, and sedentarism were also factors in weight management. And raise it again, if you didn’t know that French fries are less healthy than a baked potato, even if the calories end up equal. (Further reading)

Returning to the Harvard study, they did have interesting findings: weight gain often occurs gradually over decades, at the rate of about 1 lb per year, despite eating healthy.
Another fact on interest: the average caloric intake increased by 22% among women and 10% among men in the U.S. between 1971 and 2004. It was primarily due to increased consumption of refined carbohydrates, starches, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

So if these people HAD been sticking within their calorie budgets—with a focus on getting calories from healthy foods—they’d all be lookin’ pretty good today. Unlike what the Times article suggested, the Harvard study didn’t poke holes in calorie counting. Rather, it just proved that it isn’t ‘all.’ But I don’t think we ever thought it was.

When it comes to eating healthy, quality over quantity is an adage as old as time.

So what do you think: Is counting calories important or over-rated?

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Chelsea Ratcliff

Chelsea Ratcliff

Writer and expert

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