Why calorie counting can be an eating disorder

Calorie counting

Can calorie counting be 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 email: 

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,


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.

However, we have to be clear that trusting your body and being in tune with your body may not happen immediately. After years or decades of overeating processed food and refined carbs, many of us have lost the connection with our hunger and satiety signals. In these cases, or when significantly changing dietary quality, it may be helpful to count for a short time. But the ultimate goal is to tap into our innate ability to regulate food intake and ditch the counting.

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 what. 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 many calories, not enough satiating food, and 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.

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


Why Calorie Counters are Confused

It’s the Insulin, Stupid

LCHF for Beginners

How to Lose Weight

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  1. Dave
    If you feed your dog 10x its daily caloric needs it will get fat. Your dog does not count calories.

    Theory debunked.

    Reply: #52
  2. Apicius
    Wrong, Dave. If you feed your dog man made chow, it will indeed get over weight. However, if you give the same dog an entire slaughtered cow, it will eat until satisfied, and then leave the remaining carcass for the vultures to finish.
  3. cmoney
    This is nonsense. 0/3. No points awarded.
  4. cmoney
    I can't be the only one to notice this, right?

    "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."

    Let's split the difference and call "mid 180s" 185. So starting at 210, which is obese, and now at ~185, which is still on the edge of obesity according to BMI. 25 lbs in over a year. Progress is progress, so I'm not trying to disparage Brittany here, but 25 lbs in over 52 weeks, especially starting out as obese, is very mediocre. Even understanding that long bouts of fat loss will result in some plateaus along the way, an obese person should reliably hit at least 1lb/wk in that time frame.

    So while Brittany is moving in a positive direction, she isn't exactly a source I would say "well understands" anything regarding diet and nutrition.

  5. cmoney
    "Many people begin to lose weight after ditching CICO." Sources please, anecdotal or otherwise.

    How people who adhere to restriction-based diets, be it low carb, low fat, only this, only that, not understand that the weight loss results from a negative energy balance is beyond me. Forever and always, until the end of time.

    You can count or not count, I don't care, but the laws of thermodynamics win in the end. You don't gain without eating more than your body can utilize, and you don't lose without eating less than your body is utilizing.

    Just like I can grow my bank account by following a strict budget, and know that each week I'll deposit $100 into my savings, or I can go about it willy nilly, and deposit whatever I have left at the end of the month. Maybe some months result in a $423 deposit, others $511, others $199. But the only way I grow my account is by spending less than I earn, and the only way my account shrinks is by spending more than I earn.

  6. cmoney
    More malarkey. In your first link with the comic, "those dietary recommendations AND counting calories lead to really bad food choices"... really? You think fat fucks count calories? You think they looked at the food pyramid, said "sweet, breads and cheese!", pounded a whole pepperoni pizza, and THEN counted all 3k cals? No, no, no. I'm sorry, it doesn't happen.

    Harp about the upside-down food pyramid all you want, but potato chips, french fries, ding dongs, twinkies, candy, etc are not on the food pyramid. The food pyramid may not be optimal, but it is not instructing people to gorge themselves on shitty food. Eating a bunch of oatmeal doesn't make you fat. Carbs don't make you fat. Eating too much does. Otherwise, Japan and Vietnam would be massively obese with all their rice consumption.

    Why is it that everyone who comes at diet with some skin in the game (i.e. sells their services to endorse a paleo diet, or low carb diet, or warrior diet, or intermittent fasting, or whatever the fuck) equates counting calories with eating fucking sugar all day long?

    Guess what, you can eat a well balanced diet, with plenty of protein, fat, carbs, and fiber, with good food sources, AND count calories. And it works!

  7. cmoney
    Oh, nevermind. You're just spamming. Well done.

    All of your points are strawmen.

  8. cmoney
    to clarify, no one on the CICO side of the aisle denies thermic effects of certain foods. Everyone already knows protein carries with it a higher thermic effect due to the work spent digesting it and utilizing it.

    It's the HFLC side that greatly, greatly overestimates improved metabolism by reducing carb intake. Any controlled study has yet to see it, once controlled for protein.

  9. Diane
    I'm not saying it's the healthiest way to lose weight but I lost 115 lbs counting calories. I was a much healthier person after the weight loss. No longer borderline diabetic, blood pressure normalized, I looked better, I felt better. Some people can give up processed foods completely and that's okay for them. Maybe their pallet and budget allow it. Others, who while they may love vegetables or meat or even fruit (personally I'm not a vegetarian but I'm really finicky about meat and fruit does nothing for me) are just not willing to give up everything they love to eat altogether and that's also okay. I personally eat plenty of healthy foods but I have a soft spot for junk food. Everything in moderation. Which is what counting calories helped me do, because I'm bad about knowing when to stop. Health nuts are always so preachy. Everyone is going to die. Some, sooner than others, regardless of what they eat. Live life, eat what you want.... just maybe not as much as you'd want.
  10. 1 comment removed
  11. Kim
    Um... what if i'm counting calories for gaining weight ? I'm naturally skinny and it's hard to gain weight. I'm underweight. I'm 91.8 lbs at 5'3. I'm counting the calories of every food I eat to make sure I take as high as possible. My only problem is that I also look at nutrition facts. Even though the food is high in calorie but if it is also high in oxalate which causes kidney stones, I freak out. It's becoming troublesome and it hinders me.
  12. Inga
    Assuming Kim has already remedied this problem of not being able to gain weight, eating a lot of calories without being able to gain weight is a primary symptom of undiagnosed Type 1 Diabetes - a lack of insulin to convert digested foods, regardless of the source, into usable fuel for the body. It is therefore disposed of through urine in order to protect the body from glucose poisoning. It is a life-threatening condition and I hope that Kim has found an answer to her problem, whether or not it was due to Diabetes.
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