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  • Julie C.H. Brake, MS, RDN, LD

My Thoughts on Calorie Counting

I had planned a different post for the beginning of November, but we all know life doesn't always happen as planned. This will be a brief post on a topic that has continued to come up in my professional and personal life. What is calorie counting? How is it used? Is it a good thing? Does it work?

In short, calorie counting is adding up everything you eat to achieve a certain number. Many people count calories to try to get to an amount. Others count calories to be sure they don't get over an amount. It often leads to obsession and can contribute to disordered eating. So, no, I don't think it's a good thing. I will be honest and say that I have seen it work for some people - very few people in very specific circumstances.

Do I use calories as a dietitian? Yes, I calculate calorie needs, but only as a baseline and to compare to what someone is eating to see if their intake is extremely under or extremely over what they need. You cannot make the human body fit a math equation, and you cannot assume that your body will have the same needs every day or even from moment to moment. Did you know that calories on labels have a margin of error? So they are not even completely accurate - because they can't be. Not every single cup of milk or slice of bread contains the exact same nutrition. Food is food and the human body uses it how it will at any given moment that it is consumed.

So how do I know what to recommend to people? This has come up a lot as I am helping my husband prepare for his next ultra trail run, a 100-mile race that must be completed in 30 hours or less. Don't we need calories to know if we've had enough? And the answer is NO. We eat when we can eat, we eat when we're hungry, we eat when we feel like we need energy, and athletes need to eat what they can tolerate with whatever physical activity they are doing. The main principle is to have enough food and drink options available that one is free to choose whatever they feel will meet the body's needs.

Try not to get tied up in numbers. In the sports nutrition world, calorie counting is common, but it is often not necessary. Athletes can eat by the body's signals just like everybody else. If you're struggling with knowing what to eat or being able to eat well, feel free to contact me any time. I would love to help.

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