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Calories: To count, or not to count?

I spent many delightful hours this week poring over "What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets" by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, a beautiful (and hefty) book that documents in photographs and text what 80 different people from all over the globe eat in a given day. I wrote about the book and the view it affords of other people's eating habits for this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column.

The 80 entries in "What I Eat" are organized according to how many calories each person's daily menu contains. The range is astounding -- from 800 to 12,300 a day -- but most people's tallies hover around 2,000 calories.

The book got me wondering how many calories I consume in a day. I don't count them. In fact, I deliberately shunned calorie-counting during my recent weight loss effort.

Focusing on calories, much like keeping a detailed food diary or counting "points," skews my judgment, somehow. I find I spend too much time obsessing over those details, whereas if I simply put in place some simple rules for eating that automatically keep my food intake where it should be, I can relax and think about other things. Those rules include serving myself smaller portion sizes, never taking second helpings and never picking at food while I'm preparing a meal or cleaning up afterward. I don't eat anything after dinner (except a cocktail), and I don't eat sweets. I've lost the weight I aimed to lose and then some (I'll be reporting in full on the Me Minus 10 campaign in an upcoming column).

Some people do really well by counting calories, though. More power to them! As this article points out, though, there are right ways and less-helpful ways to go about tracking your calories.

And this article makes the case that relying on calorie counting alone, in the absence of judgments about various foods' nutritional quality, can actually steer you toward a less-healthful way of eating.

Another problem with counting calories is that we just don't know how many calories are in so much of the food we have access to. Many experts and activists are trying to change that, of course. But we're a long way away from the day when every menu item in every restaurant we enter comes with a calorie count.

(If you do choose to count calories, here's a good source of data from the federal government.)

So, dish with me, Checkup readers. Do you find counting calories helps you manage your weight? Or does it make it harder for you to do so? Please register your experience in the Comments section, and take a sec to vote in today's poll.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | September 21, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Me Minus 10, Nutrition and Fitness, Obesity  
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I use an APP called myfitness on my smartphone to track what I eat now. I was amazed to learn that I consumed somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 calories on some days. Sticking to 2,200 calories has not been hard as long as I track it. If I want to eat more I do cardio which is also charted on the application. It has already helped me lose twenty pounds. I like it because I can generally eat what I want just in a more reasonable portion. It also has the majority of food including many restaurants. If you can't find one just pick something similar with the highest calories and you will easily stay on track. The program helps alter your lyfestyle and I don't think of it as a diet when I get occassional Ice cream, french fries or a cocktail. In ten months I will hit my target weight.


Posted by: sheldond | September 21, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

I count.
I currently use the LoseIt app (and also like the CalorieCount site at, for those without smartphones), which makes keeping track very easy, particularly if you repeat meals or recipes often. I do feel somewhat obsessed with it from time to time, but I also have many days where I don't count because I either know precisely what I'm eating (based on previous meals and practice) or I'm letting myself relax a bit in terms of what I'm actually eating. When I keep careful track most of the time, the occasional treat or a nice restaurant meal feel great and are much more enjoyable than they used to be!

I also HIGHLY recommend the Mollie Katzen and Walter Willett book (Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less) for anyone looking for ideas, recipes, and nutritional information. It's got a few flaws, sure, but mostly it is the single most helpful thing I've read about making dietary changes and eating delicious, satisfying food. There's a meal plan for the truly dedicated, but I pick and choose, cook when I have time, and my food repertoire has grown immensely. I've lost 30 pounds in the last year and a half (18 pounds since buying the book 7 1/2 months ago), plus have gained some muscle, and mostly credit counting calories and getting regular (and different kinds of) exercise-- and the book's delicious food ideas and recipes have helped inspire me to continue.

I have wondered what will happen when I stop counting calories. But learning to care about what I'm putting in my mouth has taught me a lot about portion control, fiber/protein, eating fruits & veggies to fill up, and my hope is that I've learned sustainable new behavior. Keeping myself accountable without actually counting will be the next big step!

Posted by: susannochka | September 21, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Two years ago I started counting calories using I have lost weight in a healthy way and feel amazing. Counting calories keeps me accountable to my goals and keeps alot of my emotions involved with eating out of the picture. Counting calories can be very easy if you use the right system. I highly encourage anyone wanting to lose weight to keep a food journal and get a fitness coach! The real way to lose weight is to change our habits in small baby steps. How do you know what to change in your eating habits if you don't really know what you eat.

Posted by: acewing | September 21, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

Excellent article. I too had the problem of not knowing how many calories are in restaurant foods.

Problem solved when I started using HellFood. They have a text messaging service that allows me to manage my food diary, get nutritional information for food and get advice if I should eat something or not, with SMS messages. When I go to my online account I see everything I eat and analysis of my eating habits.

So far its working for me.

Posted by: ldenise1 | September 21, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

I eat close to 1,600 cal. a day. Usually eat the same kind of foods each day, so don't actually "count" calories constantly now, been doing this for several years now. We don't go to restaurants often, maybe twice a month, and already know what we are going to eat, those 2 times are "splurge" meals, so it doesn't matter about the calories at that time. Husband is diabetic, so we don't keep unhealthy foods in the house at all, home eating is always on track. Works for us, but maybe not for others.

Posted by: kuchen | September 21, 2010 10:16 PM | Report abuse

I've also used the LoseIt app for the iPhone. I found that I had no idea how much I was actually eating, and how the calories added up. I'm much less likely to snack mindlessly when I'm using this program, and it has calorie counts for just about everything I eat.

Posted by: 27orange | September 22, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse

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