Why Calorie Counting is an Eating Disorder

Calorie counting

Is calorie counting an eating disorder? I think so. When I wrote it quite a few people got upset, including a reader by the name of Brittany. But she gave it some thought – and then she really got the point. In fact, she expresses it more eloquently than I ever could.

Here’s her mail: 

Hi Andreas,

My name is Brittany and I live in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. I just wanted to thank you for the posts you had on calorie counting. I’ve well understood for over a year that a primal/LCHF way of eating is ideal and have managed to lose weight (210 lbs down to the mid 180s at 5’6″ now). However, my DailyBurn Tracker app on my phone was my crutch. I’d keep track of my macronutrient ratios and calories (since I was overeating, even if it was healthy foods) every. single. meal.

When I read your post about calorie counting being an eating disorder, I was kind of put off and defensive about it. I browsed forums of my fellow primal eaters to see how they went about ensuring they weren’t eating too much. I kept trying to validate my need to have these silly numbers and information about my food.

Then your whole point hit me:

I’ve been so inspired by the diets of our evolutionary ancestors and other aspects of their lives (minimalist footwear, good sleep, etc) that I completely ignored my body’s natural ability to tell me when I’m hungry and when I’m full. Counting calories is so artificial and so far removed from the direction I was trying to take my life. I stopped at the beginning of this month and I enjoy my food more. I feel less neurotic about tracking macronutrient ratios (just keeping my carbohydrate intake in check, which comes naturally now) and don’t feel pressured to eat more/less to hit my “calorie goal”. We’ve got built in calorie counters! We just have to tune into our natural way of eating and things will right themselves.

While I wasn’t thrilled with the idea at first, I really appreciate the hard look you took at calorie counting. It helped me review my own habit and I feel so much better for it!

Our bodies are such amazing machines; we really do underestimate them!

I appreciate all the hard work you do in educating others, myself included.

My thanks,

Brittany

Can you trust your body?

Brittany is exactly right. Believing that we need to count calories means we’re severely underestimating our bodies’ natural abilities.

What if I told you I know someone who counts his every breath and tries to make sure the number of breaths matches his calculated need for oxygen? Who’s afraid to sleep and lose count of his breaths?

Or someone who weighs all her food and all her feces, to make sure that she’s not getting constipated?

These people would be considered eccentric at best, profoundly disturbed at worst. And it’s really not that different from counting calories. It’s about not at all trusting your body’s amazing ability to regulate its energy needs by feelings of hunger and satiety.

The real problem

A weight issue is not caused by a lack of counting calories. No more than constipation is caused by not counting… you know. They’re both caused by something disturbing the body’s natural regulatory systems.

The real problem behind obesity? It could be many things. But today, by far the most likely problem is too much of the fat-storing hormone insulin. Usually caused by decades of ingesting too much sugar and too much processed, rapidly digested carbs. Which is what the Western diet is composed of today. It messes up our hunger and satiety systems, makes us want to eat too much. Voilá: An epidemic of obesity.

Calorie counting will never cure this problem. It’s just a crutch. And the more we rely on it, the greater the likelihood of it turning into an eating disorder.

We need to fix the problem, not pretend that it’s normal to be hungry.

More

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It’s the Insulin, Stupid

LCHF for Beginners

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39 Comments

Top Comments

  1. js290
    1. The body "burns" ATP, not calories.
    2. How does calorie, a measure of heat, with base units of kg*m^2/s^2, convert to mass (kg)? That is to ask, how do you get the (m/s)^2 out of heat to leave you with kg?
    3. We are bound by the Laws of Nature. So, if you were to mathematically model human metabolism, the laws of thermo would be but one of the boundary conditions. Boundary conditions cannot be violated, hence their name. Therefore; they are effects, not causes. Because it had to happen, most people confuse it for cause, so they obsessively and religiously count something that absolutely has to be true.
    Reply: #18
    Read more →
  2. Graham Wellington
    Low carb doesn't mean no carb. It's seem so silly that people who want to challenge the low carb science assert that they were able to eat carbs and loose weight. Yes, we get it. We never said ZERO carbs. Rather than count calories, people will have more success if they spend time learning more about food composition. Weighing food portions and estimating expenditure is so riddled with wide margins of error and rarely produces LONG TERM weight loss.
    Read more →

All Comments

  1. js290
    1. The body "burns" ATP, not calories.
    2. How does calorie, a measure of heat, with base units of kg*m^2/s^2, convert to mass (kg)? That is to ask, how do you get the (m/s)^2 out of heat to leave you with kg?
    3. We are bound by the Laws of Nature. So, if you were to mathematically model human metabolism, the laws of thermo would be but one of the boundary conditions. Boundary conditions cannot be violated, hence their name. Therefore; they are effects, not causes. Because it had to happen, most people confuse it for cause, so they obsessively and religiously count something that absolutely has to be true.
    Reply: #18
  2. Jonathan
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U36XJaETbh8&list=SPfqQ99wWPyw_p4G...

    Calorie Counting isn't needed when the regulation is working. Completely agree. Its a major part of this Slim is Simple video too. It just makes sense.

    I was posting on Calorie Count and someone said the video is full of fallacies...but of course like they always do they didn't say what was false or why.

  3. Tim
    I have to disagree...
    Since I simply counted calories *not strictly* but by estimating I lost 18kg in 1 year (so the healthy way) and am in the best shape of my life. I have to agree that the typical american diet consists of way to much sugars and carbs. But I for example still consume 300grams of carbs on certain days and feel fantastic and have non illnesses at all.

    So calorie counting can work, it isn't necessarily an eating disorder since you still can enjoy all your foods and even your carbs. You are right on the money that when you exclude carbs from the diet counting your calories isn't necessarily, because you'll be to full of the fat and protein to even over eat...

    Though, don't just blame one macro nutrient for all the problems causing obesity... It's much more complex ;)

  4. paleozeta
    reading just now "eat fat get thin" by barry groves.
    in the first pages it explains why counting calories intake and expenditure is impossible. 100 g of banana how many calories? is it ripe, medium ripe?. how much fat in a steak? 7%, 12% ?

    to make a kg of fat you need 2500/3000 kcal from carbs or between 4000-8000 from fat.
    think about this

  5. Steph
    I agree that it's a sad and probably disturbed thing, calorie counting. But like Brittany I overeat all the time, even on low carb, and I haven't managed to stop that even after abandoning tracking and counting through the sheer boredom of it. I feel that I probably need to do an Atkins 'fat fast' to stop my weight creeping upwards, which does indeed require counting calories. I don't want to, but it seems to be necessary.

    In the real world, honestly, the weight often doesn't just fall off (especially for middle aged women) through doing LCHF and trusting your appetite, and it can be demoralising that so few people recognise the problem. If anybody can give me a viable alternative to the calorie-counting fat fast, I'd be glad to hear it!

    (And I've tried IM but just binge when I hit the allotted time and still don't lose weight….)

    Reply: #7
  6. Lila
    Great articel! Way to go Brittany! We have finally found a balance that makes us happy and most of all, we enjoy life with out the neurosis :) And yes, our bodies are amazing. Loving our bodies and trusting them will give us balance too.
  7. Jonathan
    @Steph Have you tried Leptin Reset RX?

    http://jackkruse.com/brain-gut-6-epi-paleo-rx/

    http://www.jackkruse.com/blog-index/

    Read The Leptin RX starting from the last post under the words The Leptin Prescription

    Living An Optimized Life: The Dr. Jack Kruse Story is the first post and than read until you get to the top.

    http://www.jackkruse.com/getting-started-guide/

    I've heard Ron Rosedale's book The Rosedale Diet is also very good in regards to the subject of Leptin.

    Good luck

  8. Lila
    How come animals don't get fat in their natural habitat eating what nature intended them to eat? We are no different. When we give the body the right nutrients it stays in balance and working perfectly well. Give it junk, sugar, refined carbs and so on and you will throw every thing out of balance, including our inner "calorie counter". I have been there, I know what I I did to my body to throw it off it's tracks. Thanks to these blogs teaching us about how our bodies work and what happens when we eat certain things I have regained my balance. :)
  9. Steph
    Thanks Jonathan,
    I'll have a good look at that!
  10. Amen! I'm finding out the long and hard way... I stopped obsessing and obsessed about getting quality meat and non-starchy veggies in every single day. Adding in iced tea to keep me hydrated, because I tire of water consumption, mainly... But it's working finally! I've cut the nuts and dairy too. Feeling so happy right now with my progress. Gosh it's taken me years to just get down to the nitty gritty and do it. And I couldn't be happier with the results thus far. I'm a firm believer in LC and Paleo eating. And I am never going to stop, because it makes me feel the best every single day. And thankfully I am finally losing weight by listening to my body!!!! Instead of cringing every single time I have to eat.
  11. rob
    The desire to look good naked is also an eating disorder, but I still want to look good naked (and I do).
  12. Lila
    Hahahaha Rob. Wanting to look good naked an eating disorder? I like to look good naked and I do too look good naked!
  13. KetoNick
    Calorie counting is a symptom of an eating disorder, not an eating disorder its self.
  14. I've never needed, or wanted, to count calories, weigh my food, or diet. I just ate food. As I've gotten older and my sister shared her Paleo (now turned Keto) journey with me, I did make an effort to reduce my sugar and carb intake. In turn, I craved fewer carbs and sweets, and literally started craving meat and vegetables.
    If we'd been offered fresh or even frozen vegetables (and everything was always boiled ugh) instead of the disgusting canned junk, my childhood would have been tastier. I refuse to buy any of that stuff, and my 4 kids love things like spinach, kale, salads, and other vegetables. My 3 year old has been known to request bacon & brussels sprouts for lunch. I'm glad I've learned to do things differently so my kids enjoy eating real food.
  15. Guido
    Isn't the same just true for drinking? I find recommendations to drink at least 2 liter of water quite ridiculous. You drink when you are thirsty, and all goes well automatically. If I drink espresso, I get thirsty immediately (as coffee is dehydrating). I drink a glass of water (which is served on the side in Italy as a default), and everything is fine. There is no need to count or keep track of the amount of fluids you consume.

    After 30 years of struggle with semi-starvation diets, I started low carb august 2012. Lost 9 kgs easily without being hungry and without counting calories once.

  16. jake
    good thing measuring your blood ketones every day, or avoiding an entire class of macronutrients isn't an eating disorder.

    get real.

    Replies: #17, #23
  17. Zepp
    Do you meaning vegans.. I do have the same opinion!
  18. Robert
    @js290

    The answer to your (2) is a property of a substance called "heat of combustion" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_of_combustion) which can have units of J/kg.

    [(J)/(kg)] = [(kg·m²/s²)/(kg)] = [m²/s²]

    Reply: #25
  19. FrankG
    Interesting how Dr Andreas' "...the most likely problem is too much of the fat-storing hormone insulin. Usually caused by decades of ingesting too much sugar and too much processed, rapidly digested carbs." gets characterised as "...avoiding an entire class of macronutrients"

    Where were these people when when we were all being admonished to "avoid fat!" LOL

  20. eddie watts
    i always count how many vegans i eat on a daily basis. it's all part of saving the world!
  21. SusieD
    If I remember correctly, it takes a while for your body to adjust to fat burning rather than sugar burning once you start LCHF - it would seem that during that transition time it would make sense to track the food that you are eating to find out if you truly are eating correctly and to see the changes it makes in your body. What is the time that it takes for a body to convert? 3 weeks, 4, 5? And then think about how long it takes to develop a habit - about 21 days. I am not sure that you can make a statement that tracking food calories is a eating disorder, it seems to be a habit that is obtained when doing things correctly. It's part of the learning curve. It's also part of how the information that you are tracking is used. Personally, I am still new to the eating transition and need the accountability, if to no one else but myself. It would also seem to be a good way to go back to see what items need to be hacked if you are not losing weight or feeling better. I saw a blog post on nuts and dairy - how do I know if I am eating too much of each? Is this something I need to tweak in my diet? Let me go back and evaluate my eating habits...

    I understand the need to recognize that your body will give you signals on satiety, it takes time to hear and understand those signals. I am not knocking the concept above and understand that anything done to an extreme can be considered a neurosis - but come on....

  22. greensleeves
    Don't know why we keep talking about this. It's not an appropriate way to debunk CICO - in fact any social scientist or behavioral economist will just tell you this approach only cements the CICO myth more strongly as you repeat it. Just stop talking about CICO and instead focus on the new model. You all really need to read The Debunking Handbook.

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/Debunking-Handbook-now-freely-availab...

  23. Murray
    What? Not consuming the macronutrient alcohol is an eating disorder? Children, gather your mugs for a good round of sack!
  24. Great post. My first thought is that calorie counting is still a valuable tool and should be done at least initially so you can see the disparity between the amount you're eating vs what you're burning...

    it's always surprising to see how easily it is to eat more than you expend because the signals in our bodies are so screwed up from eating the standard diet.

  25. js290
    I'd recommend using J/mol since chemical reactions will talk about "moles of ATP." It should also be noted that the Krebs Cycle can use ATP from glucose (glycolysis) and fatty acids (beta-oxidation), or from protein intermediary that acts like glucose and/or fats.. The Randle Hypothesis states that it's unlikely we can burn both substrates at the same time. So, when people talk about "burning calories," it's not really clear if fuel being used was glucose or fat.
  26. Graham Wellington
    Low carb doesn't mean no carb. It's seem so silly that people who want to challenge the low carb science assert that they were able to eat carbs and loose weight. Yes, we get it. We never said ZERO carbs. Rather than count calories, people will have more success if they spend time learning more about food composition. Weighing food portions and estimating expenditure is so riddled with wide margins of error and rarely produces LONG TERM weight loss.
  27. Lisa
    "Or someone who weighs all her food and all her feces, to make sure that she’s not getting constipated?"

    Oh my god I think I just burned a gazillion calories laughing. :)

  28. Sarah
    Lisa,

    It's not as funny as it sounds. I've come across many fora, whose message is to promote EDs as a way of life (the most extreme of which was 'MamaMias' - which is just as it sounds, new mothers offering each other advice on the best way to use bulimia as a tool for shedding the pre-pregnancy pounds. Sad - in both senses - isn't it...? How can they care for their babies properly - and what if they're breastfeeding...? Doesn't bear thinking about, does it...?!).

    One forum, forget the name, or how I found it (I've never had an ED - morbid curiosity, I think...) actually had a sub-forum where members could post the weight of their food, the weight of their poop and get advice on how to ensure the different didn't affect their current goal. The usual advice was "Take more Ex-Lax!" (Ex-Lax, the ED sufferer's 'best friend').

    Personally, I consider veganism and fruitarianism eating disorders, whatever their proponents might argue to the contrary. To me they bear all the same hallmarks: -

    Food restriction
    Vitamin and mineral deficiency
    Muscle wastage
    Lowered bone density
    Lethargy

    They do it, they claim, for animal welfare; but you need FAR more land to grow soy than you do beef. I forget what the exact ratio is, but it's something like 1 acre of pasture will produce 10 tonnes of beef, but you need 10 acres of land for 1 tonne of soybeans. THAT'S what they term "saving the planet"!

    I am guilty of 'trolling' vegan/fruitarian FB groups, I'm afraid. It's the ignorance that compels me to do it; they claim they're "more highly evolve" because they see/treat other animals as equals, and not as food, but it takes some level of stupidity to turn yourself into a Darwin Award and commit slow suicide, doesn't it...?!

    One of my FB friends is macrobiotic raw vegan; she looks almost EXACTLY like a stereotypical zombie: - grey, pallid complexion, sunken cheeks and eyes, zero muscle tone... Worse than that she has a young child - and a DOG! I sincerely HOPE she's feeding her daughter properly, and not her nutrient-free vegan crap - same goes for the dog (why have a carnivorous pet if you refuse to have animal products in the house...?! Why have a small human who needs animal protein to survive...?! To deny either meat is, to put it bluntly, cruelty of the most extreme kind).

    Have any of you come across the extreme fruitarian forum 30 Bananas A Day...? They refer to it as "eating as Mother Nature intended..." and "Eating for higher consciousness - and cleansing of mind, body, spirit and soul..." All that fructose - a banana is around 25% sugar, so that's around 750g (3,000kcals) of pure sugar! Definitely sounds like my idea of a healthy diet - NOT!

    Worse than that, the couple who run it have a dog. She was rescued from a shelter, so that probably means she was abused before. Well, she's being abuse again. Apparently her favourite foods include: - banana and almond milk smoothies, grapes, strawberries and apple. Food she hates: - meat, eggs, milk, offal - anything from an animal really! How can a DOG hate MEAT...?!

    I made the mistake of pointing this out to her owner, and received the predictable response: - "She's MY dog, I can feed her whatever the f**k I like! I am NOT abusing her - if I was I'd not be feeding her at all, it's not as tho she's starving, she's just naturally skinnk! Now f**k off!" This poor thing (no idea what she was, some kind of terrier/spaniel cross by the looks of her) was a bag of bones. I could count all her ribs, vertebrae and joints. There was a video of her "enjoying" her favourite strawberry, banana and almond milk smoothie" and the poor thing could barely lift her head to the bowl!

    These people are obviously too thick and fuckwittedly moronic to understand the irony of becoming vegan/fruitarian because they can't stand to see animals being abused, then they get a carnivorous pet and abuse it (but it's not abuse because the animal isn't starving. Obviously, to them, "starvation" simply means 'no food', not 'absence of the correct nutrition').

    Sorry, this has turned into a bit of a rant, hasn't it...? It's what tends to happen when I get on to a subject about which I care passionately. As I know (or at least HOPE) that the visitors to this blog feel the same way, I'm sure you'll all forgive me... X❤X

  29. Brittany
    I just finally found the article with my email. So grateful to Andreas for sharing with his readers and thanks for the positive comments! :)
  30. Karen
    I have struggled with eating disorders of all kinds for 11 years. Last year I began counting calories and it went well in the beginning, but the problem is that it very quickly spun out of control and I became obsessed weighing and calculating everything I ate and in the end I would eat a maximum of 700 calories a day. I think calorie counting can be useful in order to give you a sense of how much you are actually taking in, but it is definitely NOT something you should do for long because it will turn into an obsession and suddenly you see numbers everywhere. I stopped counting, but I still remember exactly how many calories are in practically every vegetable. I became terrified of anything that that contained more than 100 calories per 100 grams and it was a HUGE handicap.
    The best thing to do, I believe, is to drink lots of water and tea and eat lots of vegetables, whole grains, fruit and other natural and fresh foods and try to avoid anything processed because in the end it isn't so much about the calories as it is about WHERE you get them. Natural food improves your digestive system and keeps everything running smoothly. They give you energy so you WANT to be active and also the healthier you eat the less you crave junk food and other things that are processed because the body knows what it needs and when it has been detoxed it will let you know. You have to learn to listen to it though.
    And also, STOP hitting yourself over the head and feeling guilty. Allow yourself a treat once in a while and don't obsess. Fill your head with positive thoughts and your life with positive people. A healthy mind is essential to having a healthy body.
    I have been eating a balanced diet for about 6 months now, without counting and obsessing and though my daily calorie intake is probably higher than it has been for years, my weight is stable and I feel healthy and happy and also the fact that I give myself and my body what they need results in a very limited amount of binges and if I have one I don't blame myself.
    It is difficult to live in a world where you are constantly surrounded by food when at the same time the media is PUSHING on you an ideal body image that looks more or less anorectic and is definitely impossible for most people to achieve.
    Love yourself and love your body.
    Love & light
  31. ken
    no has ever been able to prove u can eat above your body's maintenance and still lose weight..NO ONE
    Replies: #32, #33
  32. Zepp
    Is someone telling you that.. dont listen to them!

    You know we got an buildt in calorie counter.. its only demand is that you eat food that it recognise and adapted to by the evolution!

    Better to eat so as your body easyer can switch betwen different macronutrients!

  33. Daniel
    To lose weight requires some calorific deficit, I don't think anybody is denying this; instead the suggestion is that the body self regulates when eating the correct foods.

    "Counting" calories is the problem. Over a 50 year period, it has been shown to produce effective results for just 5% - this is not good enough.

    Eating whole, healthy foods instead of processed foods is far more important. You consume good quality calories that support all metabolic processes and dependency on sugary and refined foods ( the only ones it is possible to overeat at scale) subsides.

    Counting calories can not work.

  34. ken
    no matter how useless or how they make you feel,calories count the most and no one has been able to prove this wrong..no one..
  35. Joe
    you contradict yourself.

    ``we’re severely underestimating our bodies’ natural abilities.`` and that obesity is ``Usually caused by decades of ingesting too much sugar and too much processed, rapidly digested carbs.`

    but the fact remains that people HAVE been trusting their body`s natural abilities to feel sated, and it hasn`t been working. Yet you put down the only counter measure and suggest no alternative to it.

    Counting calories doesn`t mean that you must obsessively calculate every calorie precisely. With some experience, you can just eyeball it and get a close estimate.

  36. Owen Chloe
    My name is Owen Chloe from United Kingdom I never believed in love spells or magic until i met this spell caster once when i went to Africa in February this year on a business summit. I meant a man who’s name is DR.ROBIN he is really powerful and could help cast spells to bring back one’s gone, lost, misbehaving lover and magic money spell or spell for a good job or luck spell .I’m now happy & a living testimony cos the man i had wanted to marry left me 3 weeks before our wedding and my life was upside down cos our relationship has been on for 4 years. I really loved him, but his mother was against us and he had no good paying job. So when i met this spell caster, i told him what happened and explained the situation of things to him. At first i was undecided, skeptical and doubtful, but i just gave it a try. And in 7 days when i returned to Canada, my boyfriend (now husband) called me by himself and came to me apologizing that everything had been settled with his mom and family and he got a new job interview so we should get married. I didn't believe it cos the spell caster only asked for my name and my boyfriends name and all i wanted him to do. Well we are happily married now and we are expecting our little kid, and my husband also got the new job and our lives became much better. His email is robinhealinghome@yahoo.com
  37. Jeff
    EXACTLY... I don't get why people continue to stress themselves out by counting calories. The goal of being healthy and more fit is hard enough. Why add complexities to it? I use this app instead, http://bit.ly/1488RPV which allows me to track if i've worked out or not essentially and how much time i spent being active. It's also neat cus it lets me track when i eat healthy or even confess when i am "bad". Life is basically dictated by habits. And this app helps me change my habits without over-taxing me with work. And it lets me add my friends to it for some friendly competition.
  38. Steve carve
    The foremost vital issue for fat loss has continually been to require in less calories than you consume day by day. It’s higher to be extraordinarily cautious regarding the diet you select. The correct diet will take you places and assist you become healthier and work.

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  39. Colin
    People should always listen to their bodies. Eat when hungry, stop when full. Simple. LCHF makes this easy.
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