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7 Reasons Keeping a Food Journal is Better Than Counting Calories

Photo by Paul Papadimitriou

I’m often asked why I don’t put more emphasis on calories and calorie counting, particularly for people trying to lose weight. The answer is that while I think there is great value in understanding and monitoring the types and amounts of foods that you eat––especially if you’ve never paid attention––your effort is much better spent keeping a food journal than on an endless race between your mouth and the treadmill.

The idea behind calorie counting is that you write down the calories in everything you eat and make sure it stays below a certain number each day. If you want to take it even further you can monitor the calories you burn during exercise as well, and factor that into your daily allowance. In theory it helps to know your resting metabolic rate (the number of calories your body naturally burns if you sit around and do nothing all day––this is your baseline), but that involves an expensive test in which you breathe through a tube for 15 minutes. I’ve done it, it isn’t fun.

Food journaling also requires writing down everything you eat, but emphasizes portion sizes (e.g. ounces, grams, etc.) instead of calories. It can also include information like the time of day you eat, other activities related to eating (e.g. working out, watching TV, etc.), and how you feel after eating. In Foodist I recommend keeping a food journal for at least two weeks to build awareness of what, why, when and how much you eat. The ultimate goal is to help identify the habits (along with their triggers and rewards) that shape your healthstyle. You can then use this information to build on what works and learn from what doesn’t.

While I would never tell anyone to stop counting calories if it works for them, here are seven reasons I think keeping a food journal is more effective for most people.

7 Reasons Keeping a Food Journal is Better Than Counting Calories

1. Mindfulness, not calories, is the key

Not to be a buzzkill, but if calorie counting is working for you it probably isn’t because you are a math whiz (more on this later). Simply knowing that you’ll be recording your actions is enough to entice most people to make better choices, whether we realize it or not. Calorie counting certainly provides this, and is likely the reason so many people swear by it. But you get this benefit and more from keeping a food journal instead.

2. Calorie data are inaccurate

If you are counting calories chances are you’re relying on one of the mega databases of food information or worse, the nutrition info printed on a menu or box, to get your numbers. It comes as a shock to most people to learn that the calorie information on packaged foods is legally allowed to be off by 20%, and I can guarantee you that the majority of them are not overestimating their values. Restaurant menus have also been shown to be pretty far off the mark in the calorie estimates they print.

Even real foods listed in the databases like fruits, vegetables and meats only represent average values of industrially produced foods, and the ones you actually eat can be quite different depending on factors like the season, soil quality, and serving size (what exactly is a “medium” apple?). The only way to accurately determine the calories in a specific food is to incinerate it in a calorimeter, which makes it pretty tough to then eat it.

Measuring calorie expenditure is equally difficult to do accurately. Most measures you get from the “quantified self” equipment people are using these days is based on rough calculations for an average person of your height and body weight. It doesn’t take into account your baseline metabolism or how hard or effectively you’re actually working. Without accurate data, it is nearly impossible to use math to determine your true calorie needs and usage.

Again, I still think there is value in paying attention to these things. It’s just the numbers I don’t trust.

3. Calorie needs change daily, and with body weight

To take the numbers argument even further, setting up a daily calorie goal is equally problematic. Our calorie needs change daily, depending on how active we are and even how hard we’re thinking (our brains use a tremendous amount of energy). Moreover, if the goal is weight loss our calorie needs will decrease accordingly, and how much depends on the relative values of fat and muscle we lose. In other words, the amount of calories you need today isn’t necessarily the same as it will be next week.

4. Calorie limits encourage the “what-the-hell effect”

Another problem with having an arbitrary calorie goal is that encourages what is known as the what-the-hell effect. Research has shown that dieters have a tendency to psychologically batch a given day into “good” (i.e. I stayed under my calorie goal) or “hopeless” (i.e. I screwed up, so what-the-hell I might as well enjoy it now and start again tomorrow). In these instances dieters typically eat far more than they ever would have if they hadn’t dieted in the first place, undoing days of virtuous behavior. The psychology of a dieter does more harm than good in the long run, and counting calories only serves to encourage this.

5. Counting calories encourages “nutritionism”

Nutritionism is the practice of emphasizing the value of individual nutrients over whole foods, and what has enabled the food industry to market so many processed foods as healthy.  Counting calories encourages this way of thinking, and as a result de-emphasizes the value of real food. Food quality is important for both taste and nutritional value, and these measures are neglected when calories are your focus.

6. Food journaling helps you identify habits

A good food journal does more than track foods and portion sizes. If you record the time of day that you eat and other activities that surround your eating habits, your food journal should help you identify consistent patterns in your eating. Once you are aware of these habits you can set about trying to identify the trigger that initiates the habit, and the reward that reinforces it. This knowledge is incredibly valuable for both creating new habits and reprogramming those that are holding you back. With an emphasis on habits instead of numbers, food journaling continues to have value even after you stop doing it.

7. Counting calories feels neurotic

As you probably know by now, my mantra when it comes to food and health is that life should be awesome. Call me crazy, but calorie counting doesn’t seem very awesome. One of the major differences between calorie counting and food journaling is that your food journal is meant to be temporary. It is designed to build awareness of your habits, and teach you how to judge portion sizes (most of us are innately terrible at this). Once you get some practice at this you shouldn’t need to continue your journal indefinitely.

Counting calories is different in that it doesn’t teach you much of anything except whether or not you were “good” or “bad” for the day. Theoretically you could stop counting calories once you reach your goal weight, but since restricted eating doesn’t come naturally to humans most people find that if they stop counting the weight comes back. That means you need to keep counting calories and restricting your eating forever. Not fun.

You can always turn back to your food journal if you reach a weight loss plateau or get stuck along the way, but there is no reason to let food journaling become an obsession like calorie counting can be. Life is too short to be so neurotic about food and weight loss.

What is your experience with calorie counting and/or food journaling?

Originally published July 15, 2013.