I need to talk about something that’s been unexpectedly bugging me a lot.
So I’ve been a big fan of Katie Dunlop of Love Sweat Fitness for a while. Like, obsessed.
I will binge watch her YouTube channel all Sunday afternoon.
She’s total body and fitness boss lady goals and I love her caring, positive attitude.
Katie went on a fitness journey of her own. She lost 45 pounds and then went on to become a certified fitness trainer and nutritionist so she could help others.
And she’s amazing at it. She’s gotten incredible results for her clients and her own fit, glowing, healthy body is proof itself that her programs work.
She doesn’t count calories and her programs don’t require gym memberships. She eats only unprocessed food and does bodyweight exercises you can do from home.
So why am I talking about it today?
Well, last week I was on Tik Tok (because it’s my secret vice, I don’t post anything I just prowl the FY page for hours).
Anyway, Katie popped up with a video which said counting calories was the absolute worst way to lose weight.
She went on to talk about how restrictive a diet is when it focuses on maintaining a calorie deficit and tracking calories, and how it wasn’t a long term solution for weight loss.
She also said that focusing on calories in/calories out ignores the most important thing: eating nutritious foods.
Counting calories, she says, isn’t helpful for teaching you what to eat to fuel your body.
She encourages a focus on what you put into your body, rather than how many calories you put into your body.
The comments on the video inspired me to write this today.
- “… you are the one creating a bad relationship with food”
- “… Calorie deficit works for me because it’s not restrictive”
- “… Healthier foods keep me fuller for longer. I have tried literally every other way of eating and this makes sense for my body”
- “I don’t think this is fair. Some need that food freedom within CICO…”
- “I literally can’t watch anymore weightloss or get fit tik tok. I’m more confused than ever before. Everyone says different things.”
- “Saying you have to cut things out permanently isn’t going to work for most people … cutting out foods you love isn’t going to be sustainable.”
- “How is cutting out foods not diet culture?”
- “YESS FINALLY SOMEONE TALKING FACTS”.
- “I’ve tracked my food for over a year and I have no issues with food and I’m not rsetrictive.”
- “But you have to be in a CD [calorie deficit] to lose weight. It works better for me because it’s given me a healthy relationship with food.”
Anyway, it goes on and on, with both sides getting heated about which way is best.
So which way is right?
I felt so bad for Katie, because I agree with her.
I know exactly what she meant.
And I also personally completely disagree with her.
And I also feel bad for the people who commented that social media feels loud and overwhelming because everyone has different things to say.
So which way is right?
I’m going to say it: THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY.
First and foremost, you cannot lose weight without being in a caloric deficit.
Calories are units of energy your body derives from the food you eat so it can, you know, function.
If you eat less calories than you use, your body will start using up fat stores for energy, and you’ll lose weight.
Eat more calories than you use, and your body will store the extra energy as fat, so you’ll gain weight.
If you eat the same amount of calories as you use, your body will stay at its current weight.
But just to confuse you even further, this doesn’t mean you actively NEED to track calories in order to lose weight.
Focusing on eating nutritious foods in line with science based nutritional guidelines will help improve your overall health and can help you lose weight too.
See, not all calories are created equal. The body responds very differently to 563 calories’ worth of McDonalds than it does 563 calories of healthful nutritious food.
You could eat a healthy breakfast, lunch and three filling snacks for the same amount of calories as just one Big Mac.
If you choose option 1:
- You’ll be able to eat WAY more food, which helps you feel full and satisfied
- You’ll get loads more fibre, vitamins and minerals which helps keep your body healthy and functioning optimally
- You’re keeping your levels of sodium, sugar and saturated fat low, reducing your risk of heart disease and diabetes
But also … sometimes you just want the Big Mac.
Maybe you like a bit of chocolate after dinner.
And you just don’t want to feel guilty about it, you know?
This is where the counting calories approach can be helpful because it allows you to still enjoy the foods you love and get weight loss results.
But then if you just eat 1,500 calories’ worth of McDonalds every day, yeah, you’ll lose weight, but you’ll feel like poo and you’ll be hungry all the time because you picked calorie dense low volume options instead of focusing on eating LOTS of whole foods.
So which is better?
Listen, I’ve done both. I’ve done clean eating and I’ve done (and am doing) calorie counting for weight loss. Here’s what I know.
Here’s why some people feel like calorie counting doesn’t work for weight loss long term:
- It gets boring: Counting calories can feel tedious and time consuming
- It’s imprecise: We have a tendency to overestimate how active we are and underestimate how much we eat, so maintaining an accurate record of how many calories we consume/burn is imprecise at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, which can lead to feelings of frustration and burnout.
- It can trigger a restriction/binge/guilt cycle in some people: Overeating calories can lead some people to feel guilty, binge eat or “write off” the rest of the day/week, yoyo and develop an unhealthy relationship in food.
- Some people take it too far: Some people restrict their calories too much, following very low calorie diets (1,200 calories or less) which fucks with their energy, hormones, sleep, puts their body into starvation mode and causes cravings and hunger pangs. No bueno.
- It’s incredibly impractical for some people: If you’re busy, it can feel time consuming to count calories. Other people might make a lot of meals from scratch, might not be the primary meal maker at home, or eat at restaurants a lot, and it’s hard to get a good grasp on the amount of calories in food.
Here’s why some people feel like not counting calories and just focusing on eating clean (whole, unprocessed foods) doesn’t work long term:
- It gets boring: We eat for a lot of different reasons, and fuelling our body is just one of them. We also eat for pleasure, to celebrate and to socialise. When you gatekeep a list of “allowed” foods, it can lead to behaviours like taking your own food to places (even if there’s food there), feeling less enjoyment when eating out, and battling constant cravings.
- It’s imprecise: Listen, unprocessed, natural foods are typically less calorie dense than processed foods. But this isn’t always the case. Unprocessed “clean” food favourites like coconut oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, and wholegrains can be surprisingly calorie dense, so you may end up unknowingly eating more calories than you burn.
- It can trigger a restriction/binge/guilt cycle in some people: Speaking from experience, whenever I would start a “clean eating” kick, I would get psycho about my “allowed” and “not allowed” foods. I got anxious if I didn’t have time to meal prep/grocery shop and there wasn’t “clean” food in my fridge, and I would rather just not eat/skip meals than eat “crap”. I felt weird about foods I could and couldn’t have and it would genuinely stress me out if we had to eat outside the home because I couldn’t be sure the food was in line with my eating plan. Then, when I caved and ate pizza or a Snickers bar because I genuinely craved it, I’d feel awful, write the whole day off and just carry on eating garbage for the rest of the afternoon, which messed with my sleep and mood and digestion, which then made it 10 times harder to get back on track the next day.
- Some people take it too far: I took clean eating way too far, and it’s easy to do. It can start to impact your lifestyle, make you feel like you can’t relax around food, have you constantly thinking about eating, and other unhealthy behaviours. It can also mess with your relationship with food by keeping certain food groups “off limits”. I am still undoing my terror of carbs.
Here’s why some people prefer focusing on eating clean (just eating whole, unprocessed foods) rather than calorie counting for weight loss:
- Feeling freedom around food: Now you don’t have to obsess over numbers, feel glued to My Fitness Pal or considering how many calories something has before eating it. You can even enjoy cake (as long as it’s made from clean ingredients). As long as you stick to the “allowed” list you’ve got a green light!
- Feeling more satisfied: Because they can eat freely from their “allowed” foods, some people feel more satisfied and full than they do when calorie counting (more on this later, btw).
- It feels more sustainable: Some people feel that a “clean eating” approach is more sustainable in the long term because they don’t feel restricted, can still live their lives with their “allowed foods” in mind, and it feels like a lifestyle change, rather than something they can only stick to short term.
- It feels like a lot less work: Some people feel like counting calories is a LOT of work. You have to track everything on My Fitness Pal and make sure your food fits your budget. Focusing on “clean food” takes the cumbersome effort of calorie counting out of the equation (so to speak, pardon the pun).
Now here’s why some people prefer calorie counting to eating “clean” for weight loss:
- Feeling freedom around food: Now you don’t have to obsess over whether something’s organic, has carbs/dairy, or whether a restaurant has “clean” options. You can even enjoy cake. As long as it fits in your calories, or you can make up the deficit later in the week, you’ve got a green light!
- Feeling more satisfied: Because they can eat freely within their budgeted calories, some people feel more satisfied and full than they do when “eating clean” – so cravings don’t affect them as much.
- It feels more sustainable: Some people feel that a “calorie counting” approach is more sustainable long term because they don’t feel restricted, can still regularly enjoy all their favourite foods (with their calorie budget in mind), and it feels like a lifestyle change, rather than something they can only sustain long term.
- It feels like a lot less work: Some people feel like “eating clean” is a LOT of work. You have to make sure all your food is “clean”, everywhere you go, and meal prep, and buy a lot of expensive ingredients. Focusing on calorie counting takes the cumbersome effort out of preparing food because you can eat anything, anywhere – as long as it fits your budget.
Do these points sound familiar?
That’s because they ARE!!!!!!!!!!!
Each pathway to health and fitness has its own pros and cons – and the crazy part is, they’re actually the SAME or SIMILAR to one another.
It all depends on YOUR perspective and what works for YOUR lifestyle.
Some people feel like eating clean works well for them. It gets them great results, helps them feel more free around food, and it feels the most sustainable!
Other people feel like eating clean doesn’t work for them. It makes them feel restricted, gives them terrible cravings, and the expense and tedium of it doesn’t feel sustainable long term.
Some people feel like calorie counting works well for them. It gets them great results, helps them feel more free around food, and it feels the most sustainable.
Other people feel like calorie counting doesn’t work for them. It makes them feel restricted, gives them terrible cravings, and the tedium of it doesn’t feel sustainable long term.
Both groups of people are right.
Katie is 100% right.
People who advocate counting calories are also 100% right.
For some people, it’s more sustainable/effective to count calories. For others, it’s more sustainable/effective to focus on eating clean instead.
Both. Paths. Are. VALID!
When it comes to health and fitness, there is no one size fits all approach.
You have to pick the approach that works best for YOU. You may even find it’s a combination of things.
So take what the “fitness influencers” out there are saying with a grain of salt – me included.
At the end of the day, only you know what is going to work for you. YOU are the expert of your body and your lifestyle.
The most important thing, if weight loss is your goal, is to find a way to lose weight that:
- Doesn’t have you feeling guilty/out of control/restricted around food
- Feels sustainable, enjoyable and enhances your lifestyle
Be your own expert, do your own research and find what works for you!
As for me, well, I believe that:
- YES! You do absolutely need to educate yourself on good nutrition. You can be in a calorie deficit living on McDonalds but you will feel like rubbish and you’ll be incredibly unhealthy. Get most of your calories from whole foods, and you’ll get way more bang for your calorie buck (both in terms of satiety and nutrients), and live a longer, healthier life.
- Restrict it now, binge it later. Bitches want what they can’t have. It’s me. I’m bitches. Tell me I can’t eat carbs, sugar, dairy or pizza and it’s literally all I can think about. That’s why I personally love counting calories because I can eat EVERYTHING and ANYTHING. All foods fit, so I find I don’t crave anything very much. Not even chocolate. Regardless of which path you choose, remember: if a diet has you living in fear of a piece of wholewheat toast, it’s probably not going to be sustainable long term.
- YES! You do absolutely need to educate yourself about calories (IF your goal is to lose weight) because a calorie deficit is the ONLY way to lose weight. Whether you count them or not (and you absolutely DON’T have to), having a general understanding of them is key (check out the Australian Dietary Guidelines – great info on calories in typical serving sizes). It’s still possible to overeat healthy foods and gain weight.
- If you’re hungry, low in energy and feeling blah on a calorie deficit you are NOT eating enough and you HAVE to start eating more. 1200 calories is TOO low. I’m 5”3, I sit all day, and if I eat less than 1,200 calories all kinds of weird shit starts happening with my body. Eat more, move more. Start gradually. Increase that step count.
- It’s possible to take either method to the extreme: Whether you’re Team Calorie Counting or Team Clean Eating just know – BOTH can be a slippery slope to extremism if you’re not careful. If eating starts to feel stressful, or starts overtaking your lifestyle, talk to someone. Please don’t wait. Please. Talk to your personal trainer, dietitian or your doctor who can put you in touch with someone to talk to. Whatever method of weight loss you choose, remember why you started: to live a longer, healthier, and happier life. Keep that WHY forefront of your mind and choose it FIRST – regardless of what path you’re on. Food restriction and damaging your health for a number on the scale is NOT worth it. It’s never worth it. ‘kay? I love you!
And in the interim … let’s all try to be kinder to one another on social media even when we disagree. Just because two people take different paths to reach the same destination, doesn’t mean the other person’s path is wrong.
It’s just the path that’s working for them right now.
So let’s cheer for one another, even if the path that’s right for us isn’t the right one for them.
What are your thoughts? Do you find counting calories helpful, or do you agree with Katie’s approach?
Share your thoughts with us in the comments.