Dietitians debate the pros and cons of counting calories to lose weight, so you can decide on the best approach for your lifestyle

By Jenna Birch
March 10, 2015
Corbis Images

It's hard not to be at least calorie-conscious these days, with oodles of calorie-tracking apps to download, as well as an abundance of nutritional information on food labels and all over the internet.

But how closely do we need to watch those numbers if we want to drop a few pounds? Is counting every calorie an obsessive waste of time and energy, or the only true gauge for making sure our nutritional needs are met while staying on track to meet our weight-loss goals? We asked a couple of registered dietitians to debate the pros and cons, so you can decide which approach works best for your life.

Should I Count Calories? Yes!

Lauren Popeck, R.D., Orlando Health

"Counting calories provides structure, and that personal tracking is what some people need to meet their health-related goals. People also usually experience success right away when they begin tracking calories, which is a great way to help become more aware of habits and encourage behavioral change.

While calories are not the whole picture when it comes to nutrition and weight loss, for some, counting calories is easier than actually understanding the complex effects food has on our bodies. It's also especially helpful if you hit a plateau in weight loss; it can help point out if you're eating too much or not enough. You may ever be surprised at how many calories you consume even when you're following a healthy diet.

Many people are also driven to eat for reasons other than hunger, such as stress, anger, comfort, boredom, or sadness-and they don't even realize realize they're doing it. If that's the case, tracking can help you get back in control of emotional eating and seek solutions to change behavior. (See What 200 Calories Really Look Like.)

Having a daily calorie target can also help identify high-calorie, low-nutrient items, so you can swap them for lower-calorie, healthier options. For example, instead of a flavored latte made with whole milk at 250 calories, switch to black coffee with two tablespoons of fat-free milk at just 10 calories. Swap one cup of chocolate ice cream at 285 calories with one and a half cups of strawberries at 70 calories."

Follow these guidelines to count correctly:

1. Set realistic goals. When it comes to calories, weight loss, behavioral change, and fitness, you don't need to get to your goal in one big leap, but you do need to sustain change.

2. Pick a tracking method that's easy. Consider an app like MyFitnessPal, or a website like SuperTracker. Be aware of portion size and read food labels to identify nutrient information, as well as serving size and calories per serving.

3. Don't rely on it too much. Remember that counting calories is ultimately part of a larger plan to maintain momentum and encourage long-term success.

4. Choose healthy foods. The type of food we eat has a profound impact on our gut health, brain chemistry, and hormones, all of which help to control food intake resulting in weight loss. Maintain a balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats.

Should I Count Calories? No!

Lisa Moskovitz, R.D., founder of New York Nutrition Group

"When it comes to counting calories, you could be wasting your time. On one hand, it is certainly valuable to understand the range of calories your body needs to sustain daily living and energy expenditure, as well as the amount of calories that a lot of the foods you're eating contain.

However, the truth is, it is almost impossible to count every single calorie you put in your mouth-especially since most food labels aren't even able to provide 100-percent accurate information. Aside from that, the act alone of calorie counting can be exhausting, draining, and even disrupt your innate ability to understand hunger and fullness cues. You could even stop trusting your body completely, and rely solely on this calorie system for weight management. This is a real danger for those who have certain personality traits and/or mental health issues, as it can result in an eating disorder.

If you do choose to track, it's best to exercise the process of counting calories with caution and make sure that it does not become obsessive, nor is it your only source of understanding how proper nutrition works. Ultimately, though, I think the best approach involves more intuitive, balanced eating that includes listening and trusting your body, incorporating a balance of high-fiber carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats at most meals, and allowing occasional indulgences." (Consider the 6 Signs You Need to Change Your Diet.)

Follow these guidelines:

1. Make a nutrition checklist. Make sure all the major food groups have an appearance. (How many servings of fruits did you have today? Did any of your meals contain healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, or nuts?) Keep notes on how many servings of each food group you had-it's the best way to ensure you get everything you need while avoiding empty-calorie foods.

2. Eat every four or five hours. Eating too quickly after a meal probably means you're not eating out of true hunger. On the flip side, waiting too long to eat usually leads to overeating or making unhealthy food decisions.

3. Listen to your body. If you get a little shaky, fatigued, or have difficulty concentrating (and you're well-hydrated) that means its time to eat! As soon as you stop focusing on the food in front of you, or feel that satisfied-but-not-too-full feeling, push your food away. You're most likely done. Practicing those techniques will make it easier to intuitively eat and keep calories in check.

4. Take measurements once a week. If the scale keeps climbing and your clothes are feeling a little more snug, chances are you've been eating past your biological needs. Use that as an indication that you should cut back on portion sizes. Think about where those extra feedings could be coming from, and try to avoid those traps.

5. Understand portions. Three ounces of meat is about the size of a deck of cards, a half cup of grains is roughly the size of your palm, and one cup of veggies is equivalent to a medium-sized fist. Stick to those approximate measurements so you don't eat too much.

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