Why I Don’t Post Calorie Counts On My Recipes

by | Jul 27, 2011
American Cheese Facts

American Cheese Facts

Over the years I’ve had a few people ask me why I don’t include calorie counts on the recipes I share. Isn’t this website supposed to help people eat healthier and lose weight?

You can imagine their surprise when I tell them that the reason I don’t post calories is because I want to help them eat healthier and lose weight. (Zing!) And calorie counts don’t contribute to that goal.

I’m not disputing the notion that eating less promotes weight loss. I’ve tried it and it works. The problem with posting calorie counts is it doesn’t give you any information about whether or not you’re making a good food decision, which is all most of us need to worry about.

You might think that calorie counts can help dieters monitor their food intake and lose weight, but when you stop and think about what this entails it’s easy to see how ridiculous it is.

It takes extreme skill and dedication to accurately tally your calorie intake every day, if it is even possible. As we saw yesterday, calorie counts at restaurants can be off by over a hundred calories, and packaged foods are legally allowed to be 20% higher than their labels claims. You may have better luck with home cooked meals, but it requires the detailed weighing, researching and recording of every ingredient you use.

And toward what goal?

Very few people have been tested and know their resting metabolic rate (how many calories you burn while doing nothing). To balance your energy expenditure you’d also need to account for your physical activity each day (dream on if you think the machines at the gym, or even your heart rate monitor, are giving you accurate calorie expenditures).

Theoretically you could just set a very low calorie goal and hope for the best, but that is essentially a semi-starvation diet and if that’s all you want to achieve then why bother counting?

If you really want to know if a recipe (or packaged food, for that matter) is healthy, skip the calorie counts and look at the ingredients. Do they consist of natural foods that grow from the earth or have they been processed beyond recognition?

Make better food decisions based on quality, unprocessed ingredients and you will be healthier and likely lose weight. Your food will be more satisfying (you’ll naturally eat less), you’ll have more energy (exercise is easier) and you’ll look better (positive reinforcement). If you’re already making excellent food decisions and still need to lose more weight, eating less using mindful eating and other tricks is very effective. Counting calories isn’t necessary.

In other words, I don’t post calorie counts because they distract you from what actually matters: eating real food.

All ingredients are proudly displayed on Summer Tomato recipes.

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33 Responses to “Why I Don’t Post Calorie Counts On My Recipes”

  1. Michael says:

    I must disagree. There are no doubt many ways to lose weight successfully, but setting a food intake limit and staying within it works for me and I’ve lost 50 pounds in the last 18 months that way. Certainly it isn’t 100% accurate but it doesn’t need to be – the point is to know what you’re eating. The average fat person – the guy I used to be – is oblivious to the amount and type of food they consume. When you write it down and have to stay within a food “budget” you start to think about everything you eat. Calorie counting, the Weight Watchers point system, counting carbohydrates, and similar systems work because they make an individual conscious of what they eat and focused on their diet.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your thoughts and it’s awesome you’ve had some success counting calories. I agree there is a big value in tracking and recording, especially for those new to watching what they eat, which I even discussed during office hours yesterday (you can skip to the question about Weight Watchers). It forces you to pay attention, which is good.

      My issue though is with calories specifically, because while counting definitely works for awhile, what the data shows is that the majority of people (~95%) will gain the weight back. The 5% of people who succeed long term do it by adopting lifestyle changes they can maintain. That’s why ultimately training yourself to focus on the quality of food is more effective, because it is an easy way to judge what is and isn’t good to eat, and anyone can do it on the fly. Since my goal on this site is to encourage these lifestyle shifts, calorie counts on recipes would undermine my message.

      • Andrew Paez says:

        I think Darya makes an excellent point and one that is often lost in our penchant for measuring everything. A disclaimer, I am a slave to measurement and I believe you cannot manage what you can’t measure so I weigh myself every day and I count the miles I run/walk. I generally stopped eating anything out of the food case at Starbuck’s when they posted the calorie counts on their muffins, scones, etc., so I definitely pay attention to the calorie counts on foods I eat.

        But what’s critical in Darya’s post is her reply to Michael, who took an opposing view. In her reply to Michael’s post, Darya points out, “The 5% of people who succeed long term do it by adopting lifestyle changes they can maintain.” Herein lies the difficult truth. Regardless of the diet regimen you choose, and I would chime in with the rest that healthy eating is critical, nothing changes until YOU do. Making a lifelong commitment to a healthy lifestyle is both the most difficult facet of positive change and the most indispensable. There are any number of exercise and diet regimens that can get you where you want to be, but there is only one you, and only that you can make the decision to change. Nothing changes until YOU do.

  2. Katie says:

    I absolutely agree! I’ve tried counting calories and ended up eating diet food or fat-free food–which is just silly and not helpful. Now, I feel like we eat a lot, but it’s almost all “real food”. We use dry beans, etc. Eating “real food” is a lifestyle that’s sustainable, where calorie counting isn’t.

  3. Preach it.

    I get asked this every now and then. Now I can just point to this article as the answer.

  4. ALM says:

    Great advice! Calorie counting make work in the SHORT TERM for weight loss but as soon as you stop, you will start gaining back. It is not a long-term solution.

  5. Alison says:

    I strongly disagree, and your recipes would be much more beneficial to me and other readers. I follow Weight Watchers and don’t count calories. But I do track everything I have eaten which is done with Calories, Fat, and Fiber. The old Weight Watchers way. It works I have lost alot of weight. Please reconsider adding nutritional information.

  6. Brie says:

    For some, no, counting calories is not necessary. But for many people, counting calories (in a healthy, non-starvation way) is an effective tool. Making good food decisions and counting calories are not mutually exclusive. I can easily overeat ONLY healthy foods–bananas, sweet potatoes, eggs, yogurt, chicken breasts, nuts, beans–and gain weight. Calorie counting helps keep those portions in control and reminds me of how much of the good stuff to eat. I think it’s a little unfair to conflate calorie counting with automatically undereating and eating processed foods…because there are many people who do it in a healthy way.

    • Darya Pino says:

      I think portion control is extremely effective, I talk about it all the time. But I don’t think calories are the best measurement unit, and counting isn’t a long term plan for most people. Lifestyle habits that encourage slow, mindful eating are just as effective and don’t overshadow the importance of choosing quality foods. That being said, whatever works for you is awesome, everyone needs to find their own healthstyle.

  7. Nick says:

    Couldn’t agree more Darya! Ingredients are much more important than calories in my opinion.

  8. Maggie Rose says:

    One more skinny b!tch in total agreement!!

  9. Nick says:

    I agree with you completely. I actually lost 120 pounds watching my calories (eating about 1200 calories a day plus eating the calories I exercised for that day, usually another 600)

    It works and can be drastically beneficial, and I certainly don’t regret doing it. The problem is though by being focused on calories, I wasn’t focused at all on the quality of the food I was eating or its overall nutritional value.

    Some of it was definitely nutritionally better, but overall I completely missing the right kinds of fiber which created other health problems for me and took a year to correct.

    All in all, if someones overweight, the first goal to me is lose it. If calorie counting works, great. In the end though, that is not a long sustainable route, and in most cases probably not healthy either. Learning and understanding what to eat and why its good for you is the best long term path.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Wow, congratulations! And thank you for the insight, I see you understand my point exactly.

    • Carson says:

      Counting calories has worked similarly for me. Much like budgeting on Mint.com or balancing a checkbook, it’s a means to stop and regain control of the situation through tracking and awareness. But it’s not a long term solution nor a very accurate method. It also can be easy to obsess over and, as a consequence, end up feeling guilt for daily “failures.”

      I don’t know if you linked to this or where I found it, but your post made me think of this: http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20101011/high-calorie-splurging-wont-ruin-your-diet

      That study alleviated some of my feelings of guilt :) Now that calorie counting has stopped my overeating and taught me portion control, I can worry more about the nutritional content and enjoying healthy food!

  10. Fatima says:

    I totally agree with you. Over the years I’ve tried counting calories as a means to lose weight but in the end I always tire of the stringency required in weighing and recording the food. Moreover the so called helpful tools telling you that bcz you had an egg today you’ve maxed your daily requirement of fat and cholesterol, are plain annoying.

  11. Chris says:

    Exactly! It’s what you eat NOT how much you eat. Great post, Darya!

  12. What a great post! I have issues with weight watchers for this very reason. YES, it helps people practice portion control. YES, it can be a great starting point for someone that has no idea where to begin. However, people can “bank” points, and pretty much eat what they want within the portions. I know they changed some things to make sure fiber intake was high, but you can eat a lot of processed foods with added fiber.

    My clients and friends are always asking me about calorie counting. I actually read recently that that whole science isn’t recommended anymore for long term weight loss. In fact it’s been out-dated for a while. You need to focus on the quality of the food. If anything, as far as counting goes, people could focus on the ratio of protein, carbs and fats they are taking in, based on their stats and activity level. Always making sure the added sugar intake is at a minimum.

    However, you can still get away from the fact that you need to eat fruits, veggies and whole grains for the carbs, avocado, nuts and other healthy fats, and lean proteins. Not white breads, sugars, oils and red meat. People do need to focus on the ingredient list, the quality of the food…when you do, I feel you won’t be triggered to overeat by the whole sugar cycle, and your body will be getting the nutrients it needs to be satisfied!

  13. You’re preaching to the choir. After decades of assorted diets (Scarsdale, fasting, frozen 300 cal entrees, etc.) and yo-yo weight changes from 180 to 275, it now is all about the quality – the nutrition – the lifestyle. At 57 and now hypoglycemic, I can’t afford to eat any other way except natural whole foods in sensible proportions. I’m vegan by choice, as much to restrict foods I’m tempted by as for health reasons, for seven months now and never felt better.

  14. Kevin W says:

    I’ve actually been thinking about this the past few weeks. I’m glad someone else feels the way I do.

    I have friends who will start the latest diet and inevitably start counting calories. Time and time again I see “I’ll eat this since it’s only xxx calories and not eat later!”. They’re completely missing the bigger picture at hand.

  15. Jason says:

    Calorie counting is a great way to access food choices into a quantifiable perspective. For example, Three corn chips have more calories than 20 cherry tomatoes. Knowing the calorie cost of bad foods and nutritional value of good foods certainly supports better habits. I’ll take the tomatoes any day halved and sprinkled with rice wine vinegar seasoned with grated red onion. just as satisfying as a bag of chips with a fraction of the calories. I agree, full time calorie counting is a waste of time. It is worth while keeping a food diary. There is a useful resource at http://www.fatsecret.com, even if it the data may not be 100% accurate.

  16. Brian says:

    It seems to me that at high levels of body fat counting calories can be beneficial. Many people aren’t aware of how much they are eating, and so putting a number to things can certainly help.

    It gets much less simple for people with average to athletic levels of body fat. The human body isn’t a binary system of energy in and energy out. There are numerous variables at play, all of which can interact in unforeseen ways.

    I do have one question which I have never seen an answer to. As I understand it, the caloric value of food is simply determined by burning the food in a lab. (Or rather, certain broad guidelines were defined that way a long time ago, and nutrition labels simply do the math based on preset values for protein, fat, carbs, etc.) How analogous is this lab-based procedure to actual human digestion? Just using common sense it seems that burning and digesting are vastly different processes. It’s hard to imagine that the energy obtained by torching a Twinkie is in any way related to the chemical reactions that happen in our bodies.

    Or is it? Have there been any studies done on this? Or is it just accepted without question that these old techniques for measuring calories are indisputable scientific fact?

    I fear that as a culture we’re becoming fixated on calories, but I doubt the wisdom of that for all but the most obese people.

    • Tom says:

      I don’t think the way calories are calculated for food labels is quite that backward. There is a brief discussion here about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_energy

      It may be “accurate” in the sense that the actual amount of energy the average person gets from the food is approximately correct, but there is no way I know of to know the ways in which one particular individual deviates from average. My understanding is that genetic differences can make a big difference; a simple example would be lactose intolerance, which would reduce the energy one would get from milk. No two people have exactly the same combinations of enzymes and gut bacteria that each break down a particular set of proteins. To say nothing of active foods like yogurt.

      I’ve also read that cooking or grinding meat and vegetables increases the amount of energy your body gets from them, so carrot puree will have more calories per ounce than raw carrots. I don’t have a source for that at the moment, though.

  17. Liz says:

    Great article! I never count calories and only focus on eating real food from that comes from nature. I lost 30 lbs this way and have kept it off for three years.

  18. Tom says:

    I see logic in both sides of the apparent debate here, and what I’m taking away is that for some, eating healthy is a vehicle towards losing weight (or an end in itself), while for others losing weight is the process by which they become healthier. For me it is easy to believe that starting down either path in an effective way will yield positive results, but I agree with the original article that to be healthier *and* lose weight, counting calories isn’t effective.

    As an extreme example, if you subsist entirely on Twinkies, clearly reducing your calorie intake will not make you healthier – you are essentially starving already! You are constantly hungry because your body craves essential nutrients, and eating less will only make it worse, eventually forcing you to give up on the diet.

    In my view this blog is invaluable to those who want to eat healthier, more nutritious food, and calories have very little to do with that.

  19. Darrin says:

    As you mentioned, when it comes to calories all we have are ballpark figures. But when we need exceptionally precise values to effectively impact our body composition, they are functionally worthless.

    A little fun with math here: a person burning 2500 kcal per day would need to match their calories in to their calories out to an accuracy of 0.4% in order to keep from gaining 1 lb of fat per year every year!

    With calorie counts of prepackaged and restaurant foods being consistently 8-18% LOWER than what they actually contain, as well as cardio machines notoriously overestimating energy utilization during exercise, the question shifts from “what can we do to control our calorie balance better” to “how the hell are our bodies so efficient at regulating energy balance, and how do we reverse the tiny imbalance that has caused us to gain so much weight?”

    Counting these esoteric calories certainly does work for some people, but it is a red herring, it’s damned difficult, and it requires a Herculean amount of willpower. There are many ways that can work with a MUCH HIGHER rate of success.

    Focusing on real food, although it is a qualitative rather than a quantitative tool, is definitely the best of these methods, IMHO.

    • Brian says:

      Well said. Really illustrates the absurdity of using calories for any sort of precise measurement.

      I’m increasingly interested in the idea of manipulating BMR and RMR through exercising consistently and adding muscle. Seems like that is a huge factor in body recomposition and also a major driving force behind the cultural shift towards prevalent obesity. People who drive to work only to sit at a desk for 8 hours must have significantly down-regulated metabolisms.

  20. Juny20 says:

    Agreed. Better to eat a banana and enjoy it than to eat a “only one hundred calories snack pack” and be all worried about the number.

  21. Amen! I was never hungrier than when I tried counting calories to lose weight. Really, who decided math and meals would be fun together? Move and eat real, whole food.

  22. If you have a healthstyle full of fresh vegetables and good sources of protein, there’s no need to track calories. I only find counting calories helpful when I want to eat something I know I shouldn’t and need a way to justify it. I’ve tried Weight Watchers – during weeks where I was eating healthy and feeling perfectly satisfied, I was always around or under my recommended caloric limit. If I had cheat days, those were often times where counting became an issue. My body knows when I’m eating right; that’s enough for me.

  23. Dee says:

    In the very beginning of my weightloss journey, I was taught to count the calories carb grams, fat grams for each meal, every time, everyday. I NEVER kept up with it consistently, never tracked any grams whatsoever.

    But what I found is that general CALORIE KNOWLEDGE of the different food groups Helps to guide portion control. Since I can still eat too much whilst still eating healthfully….

    So once a recipe seems delicious I may try it, depending on the ingredients i can get a feel of how potentially fattening it is, so I’ll know if I should eat one bite or a whole bowl….

  24. Dee says:

    Also, I just saw this from link Darya posted infor the love of food and I totally agree:

    http://dumblittleman.com/2009/08/11-most-important-rules-for-healthy.html/

    Calories don’t count
    Visit the tribes of the Maasai people in Africa, or the Brazilians who live deep within the Amazon and you’ll visit a people exuding health, energy, and – for the most part – an enviable physique. Ask them how many calories they stick to each day in order to be so healthy and you just might be laughed out of the jungle. And you know what? This is not a situation unique to uncivilized people groups. Take a trip to the typical Frenchwoman’s home, or head over to the Dominican Republic, and you’ll find a similar situation (possibly minus the hunting and sparse clothing).

    If you choose to eat a balance of natural foods you’ll soon learn that calories don’t count. This is because when it comes to energy in versus energy out, 2 + 2 does not always make 4. Your body is perfectly capable of doing whatever it wants with the foods you eat, and I’ve seen people gain weight and feel awful on a low-cal diet, while others regularly indulge in meat, (good) fats, and a daily feast of vegetables, seeds, full-fat dairy, and nuts.

    It’s all about listening to your body – which is tough to do if your mind is overwhelmed with sugar and chemicals from all that low-fat food

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