Why Calorie Counting and Fitness Trackers Backfire

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I once counted every calorie I ate, down to the 5 calories per stick of gum chewed.

I memorized how many grams of fat were in a tablespoon of salad dressing, and counted the raisins that I put on my morning oatmeal. I ran on the treadmill and noted the number of “Calories Burned” the monitor displayed.

I bought those “butt-toning” sneakers, with the curved and padded soles, to burn extra calories with every step. I drank exactly 8 glasses of water a day. I began every day by weighing myself, allowing a number to dictate whether it was a “good” or “bad” day.

It didn’t matter if I was still hungry after a meal, or if I felt exhausted before my daily run, or if I was peeing every 30 minutes due to over-hydration. It didn’t matter that food and movement were no longer sources of pleasure, but an all-consuming pit of anxiety. 

I didn’t eat food, I ate numbers. I didn’t move, I burned calories.

I didn’t feel, I measured. 

Now, in my morning class, I see fitness trackers flashing on wrists. At restaurants, I overhear women mentioning how “bad” they are for indulging in dessert after eating such a calorie-laden meal.  In grocery stores, I see the magazine isle blaring headlines with “weird tricks” and “magic secrets” to burn belly fat and torch calories.

A mixture of gratitude, anger, and grief rises in my stomach. I now know the joy of being connected to my body, but I also remember the pain of treating her like a calorie-burning machine.

Turning food and exercise into calories isn’t helpful to our health or sanity. In fact, it creates tragic consequences. It’s led us to operate our bodies according to the “owner’s manual” of fitness magazines and nutrition experts, instead of encouraging us to listen to our bodies’ unique needs.

As it turns out, that calorie counting not only prevented me from listening to my body, it was only an illusion of control. 

burned calories

Why Calorie Counting Is Always Inaccurate

First, factors such as gut bacteria and hormone levels significantly influence one’s metabolism — the rate at which we burn calories (1). When we diet, our metabolism automatically slows down because the body senses a famine state. That means you can eat less, and not lose weight. Further, a wealth of scientific literature shows that we tend to gain back lost weight plus more, due to the slowed metabolic rate (2).

The way a food is prepared also determines how much calories we obtain from it because we use varying amounts of energy to digest raw, cooked, or highly processed foods (3). Further, nutrition labels are more a “rough estimate” than an exact science, as USDA labeling guidelines allows a 20% margin of error in caloric labeling. That means a nutrition label can indicate a portion has 100 calories when it has 120 calories (4).

In The Calorie Myth, author Jonathan Bailor covers a range of human and animal studies that prove how the calorie math doesn’t add up. For example, he writes:

The Women’s Health Initiative […] tracked nearly 49,000 women for eight years. […]  One group of women ate an average of 120 few calories per day than the other group. Remember, that adds up to 350,400 fewer calories. How much lighter was the average woman who ate 350,400 few calories?

The answer: .88 pound.

Additionally, our mindset about food profoundly influences our biological response to it. Fear and anxiety shift our nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, increasing the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone tends to trigger weight gain around the abdomen, as a protective measure.

One interesting study, dubbed the Milkshake Study (5), found that perceptions about caloric intake may influence our hormone levels. Participants were divided into two groups. One group drank a milkshake labeled “Indulgence: Decadence you deserve, 620 calories.” The second group drank a milkshake labeled, “Sensishake: Fat-Free, Guilt-Free, 104 calories.”

Here’s the twist: every participant drank the same milkshake, with about 300 calories. The second group, after their milkshakes, had less of a decrease in the hormone ghrelin when compared to the “indulgent” group.

Ghrelin, sometimes called the hunger hormone, rises to signal the brain to seek out food. It slows down the metabolism to preserve energy until we eat. Then, the hormone decreases when we’ve eaten adequately.

This research suggests that when we think we’ve eaten a small number of calories, our bodies respond by keeping our metabolism lowered and continuing a hunger response.

calorie counting

Fitness trackers boast an even bigger margin of error than calorie labeling. Depending on the model, they maybe 27% to 93% incorrect. That means, if a tracker says you’ve burned 100 calories, it could be 93 calories off! (6) In addition, many users find that they tend to gain weight while using a fitness tracker (7).

A dangerous chase

Calorie counting is not only inaccurate but poses health dangers used for weight loss.

Dieting is when you restrict the type or amount of food you consume to lose weight. It’s highly problematic:

  • It slows your metabolism. Whenever our body senses food deprivation, it burns calories slower (8).
  • This lower metabolic rate can continue even after caloric-restriction is stopped (9).
  • Those who are lean, rather than obese, are more likely to gain weight with continued yo-yo dieting (10)
  • Yo-yo dieting may increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease (11, 12) 

How do we escape the diet trap and reconnect to our bodies? We learn intuitive eating.

What is intuitive eating?

I define intuitive eating as You eat in a way that makes you feel good in your body, mind, and soul. Your relationship with food empowers you to live a delicious and fulfilling life.

I know, this may be difficult to envision, especially if you’ve struggled with dieting and disordered eating for years. When I was in the throes of food obsession, I couldn’t dream of having this type of relationship with food or my weight.

Thanks to intuitive eating, I enjoy this much freedom. My clients do too — I found it such an effective tool that I stopped providing nutrition protocols and now guide all my clients towards intuitive eating.

They learn to:

  • Be guided by their hunger and fullness
  • Crave a variety of healthy foods
  • Enjoy their favorite treats without fear of binging
  • Address emotions instead of eating them

drank milkshake

“But is it safe?” you might be wondering. “Is it really okay to give up all food tracking and calorie counting?”

I have a story to tell you.

In the 1930s, a dentist named Dr. Weston Price traveled the globe to discover the secrets of the healthiest people. He went to the Inuit in Alaska to the Maori in New Zealand to the Masai in Africa. He found that tribal people who ate the diet of their ancestors not only had perfect teeth but had pristine health. They enjoyed lives virtually free of infertility, hormone problems, birth defects, and degenerative disease.

 Most surprisingly, he measured the nutrient profiles of these traditional diets and found they shared incredible similarities. These cultures didn’t have a way to measure their caloric or nutrient intake, and yet they had better health than we can imagine.

fitness trackers

Individuals who ate an ancestral diet

All of these cultures intuitively and independently landed on the optimal diet for the human body because they trusted their bodies.

That same inner wisdom is IN YOU.

Ready to eat intuitively?

hormone levels

If you’re ready to free yourself from food obsession, emotional eating, and weight anxiety, I’m excited to share the free intuitive eating class I put together for you.

Watch it below, and enjoy!

5 Shifts My Clients Use to Overcome Food Fear and Weight Anxiety

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