3 Reasons Calorie Counting doesn’t work

You’ve tried a weight loss diet with calorie counting, and it hasn’t worked.

Whether it’s points, calories, or macros, numbers are everywhere in diet plans. They make it sound so very easy: calories in, calories out. You may be wondering why this simple equation has not worked for you yet. If you’re frustrated about why calorie counting has not worked for you, this blog post will give you some reasons and what to do instead.

Why do we count calories?

It makes sense why the idea of calorie counting is so popular: our brains are always working to keep us safe. When we feel out of control around food, we naturally search for a way to feel safety.

Numbers can provide us with a sense of safety because they are very concrete, black and white measurements. There’s no nuance, no messy gray space. Most of us feel pretty comfortable with these rules to feel in control!

You either strictly adhere to the numbers, or you don’t. You pass or you fail. And then you have the perfect opportunity to closely scrutinize your choices and become your biggest judge and critic.

Counting calories, points, or macros allows us to feel in control during some moments. What do you feel when you have a day of eating “perfectly”? What emotions come up for you, and how do they feel in your body?

The problem with counting calories

For anyone who has been on multiple diets, you know it’s not as simple as “just” calorie counting.

A cycle that can commonly happen goes like this:

You diligently count calories and do your very best to be accurate. You measure, weigh, and track all the things. You put your most controlled, perfectionistic parts to the task and it feels good.

For a little while.

A common calorie counting diet cycle. We feel hope at trying a new diet, life happens, we cheat on the diet, feel guilt and shame about the diet, and begin the cycle again.

Then something happens. This is something out of your control. Maybe a stressful life event occurs, a big craving comes up, the number on the scale is not what you’d expect, or something else.

Then you say well… screw it!

You “cheat” or “indulge” for one meal, snack or binge you didn’t plan for, then that day is ruined so you might as well keep the binge fest going. Who cares at this point, you might as well just eat the whole pizza or tub of ice cream.


The shame spiral starts. Guilt, shame, anger, frustration, grief, all the overwhelming emotions that feel impossible to handle.  You berate yourself for failing the diet, and convince yourself that next time is the key.

If you can just control yourself a little bit more, everything will change..

If you can just find the right diet, your body will be fixed.

And the cycle begins again, trying to find safety in rigid rules.

It’s all so understandable that many of us continue trapped in this cycle.

There are many reasons why calorie counting doesn’t work (or only works for a short period of time) including:

Reason 1: Our bodies are not robots. They cannot be defined by perfect equations.

Reason 2: Calories in, calories out (CICO) does not account for the 20% margin of error allowed on nutrition labels.

(Did this fact scare you or make you want to restrict more? Thank your brain for looking for safety.)

Reason 3: CICO does not account for stress hormones, sleep, trauma, and all the other things that affect our metabolism.

The truth is: if you and I ate the same exact piece of food, our bodies would extract different a amount of nutrients from them. This would depend on how much we had previously restricted or ate, what our bodies need in the moment, and the fact that all bodies are different and so all metabolisms are different.

The answer is not to double down and try to control more. You’ve been there, and I’m willing to bet a very wise, very tired part of you knows that it keeps you in the unhelpful dieting cycle.

What to do now:

The good news is there is another way of approaching your relationship with food.

This method is more nuanced – and it can also provide freedom, acceptance, and self respect. Your health can improve in measurable ways WITHOUT calorie counting!

Some first steps include:

Look at your own cycle. Take an honest and compassionate look at what your patterns look like. This can be challenging to do on your own, and you may benefit from professional support from an intuitive eating dietitian or therapist. Is your familiar current cycle actually working to improve your health?

Decide what you want your relationship with food to look like. Do you want to calorie count for the rest of your life? Does the thought of staying in the cycle for another minute make you feel a certain type of way?

Meet yourself where you’re at. You can’t hate yourself into a version you love. You have always been looking out for yourself in the best way you know how at the time.  You can make the choice to care for yourself another way.

Change takes time and is not easy. It’s like working on a long time friendship or marriage: you didn’t get where you are overnight, and there’s no magic quick fix to healing your relationship with food. (Though diet plans like to promise this, right??)

If you’re ready to try out another way, I’m here to chat, no pressure.

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