Why it's time to stop counting calories

Test tubes filled with variety of nuts and seeds

Head to a calorie calculator, tap in your age, weight, activity levels and gender and find out how many calories you need to eat per day. Track everything you eat, take in fewer calories than you need and you’ll lose weight. Simple maths, right?

Not really. There’s more to losing and gaining weight (and staying healthy) than numbers. While a significant reduction in calories will work as a short-term weight loss fix, calorie counting is associated with weight gain long-term.

Counting calories is not only inaccurate, but it promotes unhealthy eating by focusing on calorie quantity, rather than calorie quality. The solution? Ditch calorie counting and become a healthy eater instead. Here’s why…

Why calorie counting doesn’t work

First things first, it’s absolutely correct that:

  • If you take in more calories (energy) than you expend, you gain weight.
  • If you take in fewer calories (energy) than you expend, you lose weight.

But using ‘calorie counting’ as a way to control your energy intake is one of the worst systems for sustainable weight loss, because…

1. It’s impossible to track calories accurately

Even if nutrition labels were accurate (they’re not – they can legally be inaccurate by up to 20%), calorie counting requires accurately weighing every single piece of food you eat, every single day. Labels also fail to consider important factors, such as how the food is processed, which can affect how many nutrients and calories your body can actually absorb.

Even then, without knowing your basal metabolic rate (the number of calories your body needs to perform its basic, vital functions) and adding or subtracting energy required for everything else you do each day (each day would be different), it’s near impossible to get an accurate figure.

Calorie trackers on watches and fitness equipment are even less accurate than nutrition labels as they have no idea who you are or what your weight and muscle mass is, which makes measuring calories impossible.

Plus, everyone’s different. Your age, size, muscle mass, weight, metabolism, genes, gut bacteria, hormones and sleep quality all affect how many calories you need and actually derive from food.

2. Calorie counting focuses on quantity, not quality

It’s true that all calories have the same amount of energy. One kilocalorie (kcal) = 4,184 Joules of energy. In that respect, all calories are equal.

But you could eat 2,000 calories of processed foods or you could eat 2,000 calories of whole foods. Calorie-wise (quantity), they’re equal – nutrient-wise (quality), they’re very different.

Your body needs calories for energy, but it needs quality calories – fibre, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals, from whole foods – to function at its best and keep you in good health. Avoiding certain foods purely because they are ‘high in calories’ (such as healthy fats from olive oil, avocados or nuts) means missing out on vital, healthy nutrients.

Plus, the quality of calories you eat has a major impact on appetite, hormones, energy expenditure and the parts of your brain that control food intake.

That’s why studies show that eating a diet of ultra-processed foods drives people to overeat and gain weight, while a diet made up of whole or minimally processed foods drives people to lose weight.

3. Calorie counting can cause long-term weight gain

While drastically cutting calories induces weight loss, it’s not healthy or sustainable as the weight loss is mostly water, some muscle and some body fat. And when you stop counting calories, the old behaviour is likely to return because the underlying problem (diet quality) wasn’t fixed.

Only this time, it’d be worse than before. You’d have less muscle, which means your basal metabolic rate is lower. This means that instead of needing (for example) 1850 calories, your body would require far fewer, making it even harder to lose weight.

Studies show that low-calorie diets eventually decrease the number of calories the body burns by as much as 23%. It’s a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting, which actually increases body fat % over time. 

The solution? Be a healthy eater, not a calorie counter

Although calorie counting is still popular and sounds like a reliable tool, it’s not. You don't just eat calories, you eat complex foods. Plus, many factors affect your responses to food, including your gut microbiome, sleep patterns, genetics and even body shape. 

  • If you want temporary weight loss, set yourself a target weight and start counting calories.
  • If you want to have less body fat for the rest of your life, focus on the process of becoming a healthy eater.

That means eating more nutrient-dense calories from whole foods – think unprocessed meat, fish, full-fat dairy and non-starchy vegetables. These foods keep you so full that you naturally consume the appropriate number of calories, without having to track a thing.

Getting started could be as simple as:

If you need help kickstarting a healthy, whole foods diet, we’re always here to help. Get in touch by emailing hello@purition.co.uk or calling us on 01743 444 397.


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