Too many people are tricked into believing that in order to lose weight you just need to be in a calorie deficit. I’m sure you’ve heard of the calories in versus. calories out myth yourself and likely started counting calories for this reason. The fact is, our bodies are a lot more complex than this.
Even the most specific calorie calculations, smart watches, or other methods of measuring calorie needs that have been deemed more reliable, cannot tell you what your body needs in a given day, never-mind a specific moment. There are just too many variables at play.
As a Registered Dietitian, I want to first go over why you shouldn’t count calories, then we’re going to get into some steps on how to stop calorie counting. It’s definitely easier said than done and can be a surprisingly difficult transition to make, especially for those who fear weight gain.
Why you should stop counting calories
I could probably write a novel on all the reasons why you should stop counting calories but I decided to keep it short. Here’s a list of reasons I advise against calorie counting:
No calculation can tell you exactly what your body needs
Many factors cause your calorie needs to vary day by day
Food labels aren’t completely accurate
Creates a poor relationship with food and your body
Takes up a lot of valuable time and energy
Disconnects you from your body (i.e. hunger and fullness cues)
May result in an obsession with food
Interferes with your social life
Causes a lot of unnecessary food guilt, stress and anxiety when it comes to meal times
Need I say more? I could, but I’m going to stop there and move on to the focus of this article.
How to stop counting calories
1. Let go of the fear of weight gain
This is by far one of the hardest steps. Good news for you, you don’t have to have it down pat before moving on, you just need to keep working at it.
And the truth is, you may actually never stop fearing weight gain. Rather an initial step to this is to let go of the control you are trying to keep over your body weight. Calorie counting is typically used as a means to control one’s body weight, most often weight loss is the desired outcome.
So if you’re able to let go of trying to control your weight, you will much more readily be able to let go of the calorie counting.
I will also add that stopping calorie counting doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to gain weight, but I’ll get into more detail about this topic later as I know it is a commonly asked question.
2. Remove the calorie tracking devices and try some new foods
This one may seem like a no-brainer. But now is the time to get rid of your calorie counting apps, or any calorie counting tool you may use. This is something you can do right this second. So just do it, don’t move on until you do.
Now that wasn’t so bad was it? But here’s the thing, the calorie counting doesn’t stop there. At this point you probably have a pretty good idea of the calorie content of foods you commonly eat.
Chances are you will still be subconsciously adding up calories in your head for a while and that’s okay, it will take time. So here’s your next task. Go buy a few new food items or go to a new restaurant, then pick food items without reading the nutrition labels.
This will feel scary but it will really help you move forward in your journey to stop counting calories.
3. Get rid of the scale
Okay so we talked about letting go of the fear of weight gain, or at least letting go of the control of your body weight. So this should go without saying, but you have to get rid of the scale.
Here’s the thing, body weight fluctuations are normal, and we need to allow them to be normal. Fixating on the number on the scale is not a useful tool. Unfortunately what happens when people see the slightest increase in their weight is they get right back to restrictive behaviours.
In your case, that may halt the process of stopping calorie counting and rather, bring you right back to it, as a means to try to control your weight again. But trust me, this won’t work in the long run! So just get rid of the scale, you don’t need it!
4. Aim for regular intake of meals & snacks
If you have been counting calories for a while it will be difficult to know how much to eat when you stop counting calories. One thing I can tell you for sure is that your body needs fuel regularly.
My suggestion is to aim for approximately 3 meals and 1-3 snacks per day. In addition to this, don't go any longer than 5 waking hours without eating (though some people need to eat a lot more frequently). The frequent replenishing of fuel is necessary for your body to function optimally.
5. Tune into your hunger & fullness cues
This is probably the second most difficult step. Calorie counting teaches you to ignore your hunger and fullness cues. You eat based on the calorie specific meal plan you have created regardless of you hunger and fullness levels.
You may not even realize this but chances are at this point your hunger cues are blunted. You may not recognize subtle hunger cues and instead you only recognize when you are ravenously hungry, which often drives overeating.
By eating regularly, as suggested in the step above, you should slowly start getting those hunger cues back. Here are some signs you can watch for that may tell you you’re hungry:
Empty stomach feeling
Increased food thoughts
Irritability (a.k.a hanger)
Once you’re able to recognize and appropriately respond to your hunger and fullness cues, you will feel more confident that you are providing your body with the appropriate amounts of energy (a.k.a calories) WITHOUT the calorie counting.
6. Work with your cravings, not against them
There is a reason you crave carbs when you’re not getting enough energy. Carbs are the body's preferred fuel source. Your body knows what it’s missing, it knows what it needs and it knows how to get it.
When you restrict your intake and your body starts feeling starved at the cellular level, an increase in the level of neuropeptide Y (a neurotransmitter) takes place. Neuropeptide Y, is actually known as the “carb craver.’
So trust me when I say, your cravings are telling you something, it’s your body’s way of getting the appropriate amounts of nutrients, and this goes beyond just carbohydrates.
7. Enjoy the food freedom
Last but not least, enjoy the freedom. Recognize how much more time, energy and freedom you have gained over time to do the things you truly enjoy and you will never want to go back to your old ways of calorie counting.
Will I gain weight if I stop tracking calories
Your weight can go one of three ways when you stop counting calories. You may gain weight, you may lose weight and you may maintain your weight. Your weight also may also trend in the opposite direction before settling towards a healthy weight.
This depends on multiple factors including what you do after you stop counting calories, how long you have been counting calories, other dieting history, your body’s genetic blueprint, etc.
However, the best thing you can do for yourself is stop trying to control your weight. When you stop trying to control your weight and you learn to adopt healthy behaviours such as intuitive eating, your weight will eventually settle at whatever weight is healthy for you.
Just remember, we aren’t all meant to be thin or toned, healthy does not have a look and everyone’s healthy weight is very different.
What to do instead of counting calories
Rather than counting calories or starting another diet, try taking a more intuitive approach to eating. Focus on your health rather than your weight.
As I mentioned above, it’s important to eat regular meals and tune into your hunger and fullness cues. In addition to this, one thing you can start doing right now is focus on what types of foods and what amounts of food will make you feel your best at any given moment. Because who doesn’t want to feel their best right?
And here’s the thing, if you choose foods that make you feel good in amounts that make you feel good, you are very likely to eat nutritiously more often than not and eat the appropriate amounts that your body needs.
These are just a few starting points to become an intuitive eater. If you’re interested in learning more about intuitive eating and want to kickstart your journey now, go check out my free mini training on getting started with intuitive eating.
No more calorie counting
Well, that’s all I have for you right now. At this point you should be able to recognize why calorie counting may not be the greatest approach to eating, how to stop counting calories and what to do instead of calorie counting.
Have a question? Feel free to reach out to me personally or leave a comment below!