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Ask an R.D.: Does Counting Calories Hinder or Help Weight Loss?

By Stephanie E - Jenny Craig

You’ve probably heard the saying that successful weight loss boils down to calories in, calories out. Many weight loss programs are built around this basic premise — you count and track what you eat, logging every food and drink you consume — then tally up your total daily, making sure you stay within a certain range. 


But reaching a healthy weight involves other lifestyle aspects — and calorie counting for weight loss may not be the only thing impacting the scale. We asked our Jenny Craig Registered Dietitian, Briana Rodriquez, to help us debunk six common calorie counting myths and explain why meticulously tracking calories shouldn’t be your only focus when it comes to better health. 

Calorie basics

A kilocalorie, commonly referred to as a calorie, is a measure of energy. In the context of weight loss and weight gain, it measures the energy from the foods and beverages that you consume.1 This energy is what allows your body to function properly. Try not to think of them as being “good” or “bad,” Rodriquez says. They’re the fuel that allows you to do everything from eating and digesting to breathing and walking.1 

Myth #1: All calories are created equal.

 

CountingCalories_Myth1_edited2.jpgThe truth: Calorie counting diets support this myth by relying on the amount of food you eat to predict your weight loss. Numbers are assigned to different foods based on the macronutrients they provide, and once you’ve eaten the maximum number of calories in your meal, you’re expected to stop. But using food to support your weight loss efforts isn’t just about quantity, it’s also about quality


In terms of energy measurements, Rodriquez explains, 100 calories of chips versus 100 calories of carrots are the same. However, the sources of those calories have very different effects on your hunger cues, hormones, and energy levels.2 While it’s still important to track how much you eat for weight loss, it’s equally important to track what kinds of food you eat.


Try using this helpful infographic to use portion sizes as a guide, rather than only using the number of calories on a nutritional label.

Myth #2: It doesn’t matter when you eat as long as you’re staying within your calorie limit.

 

CountingCalories_Myth2_edited.jpg

The truth: It’s just as crucial to pay attention to when you eat. Your body functions on a 24-hour cycle, known as your circadian rhythm. When you eat in tandem with your circadian rhythm, you’ll use 12 hours to fuel your body with nutritious foods when your metabolism is most optimal and the remaining 12 hours to allow it to rest and rejuvenate. Using healthy, delicious meals and snacks in mindful portions, Jenny Craig’s Rapid Results program follows this 24-hour cycle to work with your circadian rhythm and enables this natural process to benefit your weight loss.3  

Myth #3: Once you hit your “calorie limit,” you won’t feel hungry.

 

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The truth: Calorie counting may cause you to ignore your body’s natural hunger cues. If you’re following the number of calories on your food tracking app, you may feel the need to ignore your grumbling stomach until you can eat again. Waiting too long to eat can become unhealthy when you experience lightheadedness, dizziness or nausea. Experts recommend eating every three to five hours, since it takes time to digest the food you’ve eaten.4


Skip strict calorie counting apps, advises Rodriquez, and enjoy balanced meals and snacks that include vegetables, fruits, lean protein sources and whole grains to help you reduce hunger and feel fuller longer.5,6  

Myth #4: If you follow your calorie count, you’ll get the nutrients you need.

 

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The truth: Let’s go back to the potato chips and carrots example. While 100 calories’ worth of chips and carrots share the same caloric number, they don’t share the same nutrients. A 100-calorie serving of raw carrots offers high amounts of calcium and vitamin A, nutrients that may help promote bone and eye health.7,8 In comparison, the same size serving of salted potato chips only offers 4 mg calcium and no vitamin A — missing healthful vitamins and minerals that could help you feel your best.9 What’s more, the potato chips won’t leave you feeling as satiated, since 100 calories of chips is a much smaller quantity of food compared to 100 calories worth of carrots. 

Myth #5: Fruit is healthy, so I can eat an unlimited amount. 

 

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The truth: All foods can contribute to weight gain (even “free” foods), especially in large amounts. Take fresh fruit, for example. Some calorie-focused weight loss programs propose that you can eat as much fruit as you want and still lose weight. And while fruit is a great source of dietary fiber and nutrients, the amount of sugar it contains is best consumed in moderation if you are aiming for weight loss. Rodriquez suggests aiming for two servings a day. 


The sugar in fruit comes from fructose (which is different from glucose, or blood sugar), and is processed by the liver. When your liver has enough energy, it’s more likely to turn this excess fructose into fat to save it for later.10 To reduce the amount of fructose you eat, try including more non-starchy vegetables, which are lower in calories and sugar.

Myth #6: A calorie counting app is all you need to stay on track.

 

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The truth: Basing how many calories you consume in a day off how many you “burn” according to your fitness app may not yield accurate results, Rodriquez notes. The apps and equations that show your recommended level of calories are helpful but can be unreliable. A recent study of popular fitness trackers explored calorie feedback — the most inaccurate one was off by 93 percent!11  


A fitness tracker is a useful tool to have during your weight loss journey, but it shouldn’t be the only one you use. Other tools, like choosing healthy portion sizes, reaching for fresh fruits and vegetables, incorporating exercise and eating with your circadian rhythm will all help you to find balance along the way.


Calorie counting can often feel like an overly complicated and stressful ordeal. Having a general idea of the calories you consume per day can be helpful, but it shouldn’t control your life. Eating is meant to be an enjoyable experience, not a math problem.    


Ready to work toward healthy weight loss — without the calorie craze? Jenny Craig’s nutritionist-approved, chef-crafted meals take the guesswork out of great meals. Each meal, snack and dessert are well balanced with the nutrition you need and foods you’ll love, without the added stress of counting calories. You’ll also receive one-on-one weight loss consultations to support you during your journey. Get started today by scheduling your free appointment with a consultant!

 

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Sources:

[1] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/counting-calories-101

[2] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-reasons-why-a-calorie-is-not-a-calorie

[3] Longo, Valter D., and Satchidananda Panda. “Fasting, Circadian Rhythms, and Time-Restricted Feeding in Healthy Lifespan.” Cell Metabolism, vol. 23, no. 6, 14 June 2016, pp. 1048–1059., doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2016.06.001.

[4] https://www.thisisinsider.com/how-often-should-i-be-eating-during-the-day-2018-5

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18448177

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10721886

[7] https://bit.ly/2PtVgV0

[8] https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/bonehealth/conditioninfo/calcium

[9] https://bit.ly/2CEK6WR

[10] https://www.shape.com/weight-loss/food-weight-loss/ask-diet-doctor-fruit-really-free-diet-food

[11] https://www.nbcnews.com/better/diet-fitness/your-apple-watch-or-fitbit-making-you-fat-n764066

Edited by Elisa - Jenny Craig


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