Do calories still count?

4 better alternatives to number-crunching.

Take in only the number of calories that you expend and you fuel your workouts and maintain your weight. Eat more than you burn and that’s where the trouble arises (unless you’re looking to bulk up). That’s what nutrition experts have been telling us for years. Still, pro athletes like 12-time Olympic medalist Dara Torres have said they don’t count calories, and also, scientists support that position. It’s created a disconnect: If the number of calories you consume is essential to maintaining your physique, why wouldn’t these athletes and researchers—let alone everyone else—need to count them?

For one, not obsessing over the caloric content of every bite you ingest doesn’t mean that you should completely tune out the quantity and, especially, the quality of food that you are eating. Here, four more reasons to consider.

1. Calorie counts are often imprecise.

“It is almost impossible to count every calorie you put in your mouth, especially since most food labels aren’t able to provide 100% accurate information,” says Ashvini Mashru, RDN, founder of Wellness Nutrition Concepts LLC. “A lot of the counts can be off by as much as 20 percent and are usually based on food estimatesfrom 100 years ago,” adds Jamie Logie, nutritionist, certified personal trainer, and author of Taking Back Your Health. What’s more: “When you cook a food, you can alter its caloric value. A calorie guide can't be universal as the size of a product (i.e. a grilled chicken breast) and portion sizes are so hard to determine.” Say, for example, that calorie math is off by 15 percent. If you ate 2,800 calories a day (which you counted up from calorie "content"), it could actually be more in the 3,200-calorie mark. Those miscounted 400 calories could add up to nearly 146,000 extra calories per year.

2. Being so precise creates a forbidden fruit mindset.

Experts warn that subjecting yourself to the tedious act of calorie counting can have an adverse effect on your health and fitness goals. “It turns food into something that is restrictive and treats all foods as equal, when they are not," says Megan Faletra, RD, founder of The Well Essentials. "When we feel restricted we are more likely to rebel or overeat later on." Mashru adds: “Calorie counting can be exhausting, draining, and even disrupt your innate ability to understand hunger and fullness cues.”

3. Focusing on numbers de-emphasizes the more important macronutrients and quality foods.

“What is more relevant than counting calories is keeping track of calories by composition,” says Monali Y. Desai, M.D., a cardiologist based in South Bend, Indiana. So in lieu of stressing over measurements and serving sizes, Desai advocates prioritizing calories from protein and healthy fats and minimizing foods with “empty” and non-nutritious calories. “Cutting calories from carbohydrates and sugar is more important than cutting calories from protein and fat for people who want to be conscious of their weight and also to help prevent diabetes and heart disease,” he explains. The easiest way to ensure you adhere to this rule is to choose whole foods first. "Personally, I don't calculate every single calorie,” says Rebecca Lewis, MS, R.D., a dietician based in Colorado. “This is because most of what I eat are whole foods that I've cooked myself. I selected every ingredient so I know exactly what I am putting in my body.”

4. Portioning will do the math for you.

Instead of the tedious and often unrealistic task of precisely measuring every ingredient with measuring cups and scales, certified nutrition coach Esther Avant has her patients use practical portion estimates. “I teach clients real-world hacks for eyeballing portions. This way they can be conscious of their overall intake without becoming obsessively concerned with calorie counts.” For example, she says, a portion of protein is approximately the size of your palm, a serving of healthy fats is equivalent to about the size of your thumb, a serving of carbs would be approximately the size of your cupped hand, and a serving of (non-starchy) veggies would be about the size of your fist.

But, you need awareness nevertheless.
Nutrition knowledge is fit-body power. Knowing that a significant calorie disparity exists between the same serving size of air-popped popcorn and walnuts, for example, is important. Even though you’re not going to write down your calorie intake or log them in an app, you should still have a general awareness of what foods pack more energy than others. This is where calorie counting for a limited amount of time (a week or two) can be helpful in getting you that baseline knowledge so you never have to count another one again. Jo Lichten, PhD, RDN, author of RebootHow to Power up Your Energy, Focus, and Productivity, suggests using calorie counts like price tags to help decide whether or not to indulge in a certain food. “Decide what you want to eat first, then check out the calories and decide if it’s worth it,” she suggests. Avocado, for example, is very healthy but also very high in calories. So, be aware that just half of the fruit contains 120 calories while one half-cup granola can yield 226 calories and just a half cup of hummus is around 205 calories.