You’ve probably heard the saying that successful weight loss boils down to calories in, calories out. Many weight loss programs and low-calorie diets 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 calorie intake for the day, making sure you stay within a certain range. But does calorie counting work? If your goals include weight loss, you might not need to count every calorie to reach your goals.
Reaching a healthy weight involves many lifestyle aspects, such as exercise and sleep — and calorie counting for weight loss may not be the only thing impacting the scale. We asked Jenny Craig's 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 and improving your overall well-being. Read on to find out more.
What are calories and how does your body use them?
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. Calories are fuel that allows you to do everything from eating and digesting to breathing and walking.1
Myth #1: All calories are created equal.
The truth: Calorie counting diets support this myth by relying on the amount of food you eat to predict your weight loss. Some diets have you count calories by macronutrients or have 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 detailing 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.
The truth: It’s just as crucial to pay attention to when you eat as to what you eat when trying to lose weight. 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 portion sizes, 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.
The truth: Focusing only on counting calories 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 non-starchy 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.
The truth: Let’s go back to the potato chips and carrots example. While 100 calories’ worth of chips and carrots share the same calorie count, they don’t share the same nutrients. Chips contain empty calories, which are calories that contain little to no 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 satisfied, 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.
The truth: All foods can contribute to weight gain (even “free” foods), especially in large amounts. Take fresh fruit, for example. Some low-calorie diets 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 of fruit 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.
The truth: Basing how many calories you consume in a day off how many you “burn” according to how much you exercise or activity level may not yield accurate results, Rodriquez notes. Calorie tracking smartphone 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 find balance along the way.
The bottom line
So does calorie counting work for weight loss? While keeping track of your calorie intake can give you a good idea of how much food you're eating, it's often an overly complicated and stressful ordeal. Having a general idea of the calories you consume per day can be helpful when you're trying to lose weight, but it shouldn’t control your life. Eating is meant to be an enjoyable experience, not a math problem.
Remember, the quality of your food and your portion sizes matter. If you're opting for plenty of vegetables, fruits, lean protein and healthy starches, you shouldn't need to monitor every single calorie as these foods are often lower in calories than high-fat, high-sugar foods. When do you eat something that is higher in calories, just ve mindful of your portion size!
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!
 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.
Stephanie Eng-Aponte is a copywriter for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, CA. They’ve focused on writing within the health and wellness space for the last several years, but have dabbled in the tech and environmental industries. Stephanie employs a “eat first, write later” approach to food blogging and enjoys the occasional Oxford comma. Outside of writing, you can find them photographing a muttley crew of rescue pups, brewing kombucha, or exploring San Diego.
Favorite healthy snack: Green apple slices with sunflower butter
Reviewed by: Briana Rodriquez, RDN
Briana Rodriquez, RDN Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and is written by experienced health and lifestyle contributors and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources including scientific, peer-reviewed papers. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.
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