Calorie Counting: Is It A Universal Rule?


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Calorie Counting: Is It A Universal Rule?


Yesterday, Jillian Michaels was on The Doctors talking about metabolism. I only caught a few minutes of the show, but something I overheard really made me cringe.

Jillian said, “You HAVE to count calories. I don’t care how healthy you are eating. It’s a universal rule.”

WOW. That is one loaded statement!

I must say her comment made my blood boil a bit. It is a universal rule that you have to count calories to lose or maintain your weight?! I’m sorry, but I simply don’t agree.

I do think that counting calories is beneficial for many people. It helps people understand portion sizes and gives them a guideline for how much energy their body might need. On the other hand, calorie counting can become an obsession and a source of preoccupation that distracts us from the big picture.

I realize that her primary target is the typical overweight individual who probably doesn’t have much knowledge about calories, nutrition, and portion sizes, but what about all of the people who are on the extreme end of the spectrum with disordered eating? Do they now feel like they shouldn’t stop counting calories even though it might be driving them crazy?

In my opinion, calorie counting is NOT a universal rule, even though at one point in my life if you would have asked me I would have told you I could never picture myself giving it up. For my personality, calorie counting didn’t work because it was all-consuming. Soon eating wasn’t about how hungry I was, but how many calories I had ‘left’ for that meal.

Now that I have come out on the other side where I do not count calories, I think it is totally possible to eat healthy without counting and maintain one’s weight. I am living proof and I know many others who have learned to stop counting calories too! I actually think for me, it was harder to NOT count calories and lose/maintain weight because it meant that I had to really listen to my hunger cues and body signals and actually be in touch with my body for once. Calorie counting isn’t going to work for everyone. It obviously depends on the person.

I think somewhere along the line, our society has missed the big picture.

Instead of telling people that they must count calories to lose weight, it is perhaps better to ask WHY people feel the need to count every calorie that goes into their mouth. The obsession with calorie counting is growing, while our society gets heavier, heavier, and heavier

What we need to do is get back to the basics with our health. We need to stop micro-managing and start looking at the bigger picture of health. Eating whole, unprocessed foods that make us glow. Sweating a few times a week. Being good to ourselves.

Calorie counting can be a useful tool, but it can also mask and divert our attention away from our overall picture of health.


What are your thoughts about Jillian’s comment?

angela signature thumb49   Calorie Counting: Is It A Universal Rule?

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{ 101 comments… read them below or add one }

Eliza July 21, 2009

Jeezum, Talk about a statement loaded with privilege! In most places in the world (even in the US) people eat to stay alive, and many of them struggle even with that. Calorie counting doesn’t even come into the picture when you’re not sure you have enough food to eat.


Paige @ Running Around Normal July 21, 2009

I *completely* agree with you. I once counted calories, and it consumed me, and unfortunately led to anorxia. This was many years ago, and I’m healthy now, and now counting calories. Like you, while I understand the importance and benefits of calorie counting, it is *not* universal and is *not* for everyone. Thanks for posting about this.


Kathy (Moving Beyond Perfection) July 21, 2009

I COMPETELY AGREE that calorie counting is NOT universal! I think society just needs to focus on wholesome and healthy foods more, rather than calories. There are so many unhealthy little “100 calorie packs” out there, but people think they’re good for them because they are only 100 calories. The calorie craze is now the new “Fat-free” craze. I know I myself became obsessive over the calories in food, and through that obsession, completely lost all understanding of what “healthy” truly means. I am SO glad I can finally stop thinking about calories. I will admit, sometimes, rough estimates to creep back in my head, but my margin of error is probably now +/- 50/100 calories and even if I eat 2500-2700 calories one day, I don’t think twice about it because we all have those splurge nights, or those days we are simply HUNGRIER because we were more active that day. And by the way, I am positive I’ve eaten many days of ~2400 calories and I am only 5’1. So all those BMR calories or w/e calories we “supposedly” need are BS, in my opinion. Oh man, sorry I wrote so much by the way! (And if you’re wondering how I can always comment at work in the morning, it’s because as an intern, I’m always the first one in my group to arrive since I go to this morning meeting beforehand, hahah)


Marissa July 21, 2009

I, too, heard Jillian’s statement on the Doctors yesterday, and I couldn’t believe I heard that. I thought that I mis-heard her, but soon realized that I didn’t. I think her statement was quite strong., and I think a lot of people can get way too obsessed with counting calories, leading to detrimental results. I do not agree with her statement, and, while I do like her, I think she needs to be more careful of statements like that. She has a lot of power and responsibility in her hands and she shouldn’t take it lightly.


Pam July 21, 2009

I feel you don’t have to count calories also! I feel eating intuitively is better!


Lizzie July 21, 2009

Angela, based on what I have read about your past experience with calorie counting and being able to move past that, I don’t think there is anyway you could have achieved the time and pace you did for the race over the weekend. You have learned how to fuel your body so that it is healthy and active and while calorie counting is important for some people (who don’t know anything about nutrition and need to lose weight for health), it isn’t the be all and end all. Maybe I am wrong about that but you were literally glowing after that race!

If you have time, check out this article:

which I thought might be relevant to your post.


Jocelyn July 21, 2009

Hey- I completely agree with you. When I first read that quote I got upset and started to think about the time when I counted calories religiously. For years I would write down every thing I ate and was obsessed about it! I counted calories like a mad woman and I stopped focusing on being healthy. I would eat food (even if they were overly processed– 100 calories packs were my best friend) and try to eat less than 1200 calories per day. I was never happy and I would constantly binge because of this. It wasn’t until recently that I changed my diet and just started eating fresh fruits and vegetables and stopped counting my calories that I became healthy and happy! I will admit, I took this a little far at one point and gained a lot of weight. I started eating too much of certain healthy foods (like avocado and nuts!) So i do believe in moderation but I DON”T believe in counting calories!


Shelby July 21, 2009

That comment is ridiculous! Calorie Counting just made me a slave to food. I thought about it constantly, was paranoid, and never happy eating. I haven’t counted calories in a long time and enjoy my food. Plus, I feel its more important to listen to your body and see when its full or hungry.


Amy July 21, 2009

You don’t have to count calories persae… but if you’re trying to lose weight, its kind of a given that you want to create a deficit.

Calories in – calories burned = weight loss.

A lot of time people rant that they are not losing weight, but at the end of the day, its quite simple, they are eating too much.

I was a victim of this… I lost almost 100lbs, but the scale was stalling. I didn’t get why I wasn’t losing. I was eating healthy foods, working out like a dog, but the scale wasn’t budging. I sat down and starting writing down my meal plans again.. and sure enough I was just eating too much. Even healthy foods have calories!

Jillian comes across as harsh sometimes I agree, but I think her no nonsense philosphies are BANG ON.


MarathonVal July 21, 2009

Just this summer I stopped counting calories when I became more high-raw, and so far it has worked for me. I’m not so much concerned about my weight, but more so the body fat percentage since that shows that I am building healthy muscle!


Elisabeth July 21, 2009

Calorie counting is completely unnecessary. The typical modern person wants an “off the shelf” fix to all of their body woes, and unfortunately (and fortunately) not everyone’s bodies are the same. A 1,200 calorie diet might be perfect for one person, but the next person will have passed out by lunchtime.

We DO need to learn how to read packages; know portion sizes, and eat what we want, when we want it–according to that correct portion size. If one is eating a balanced diet, full of whole foods, and following the cues that their body is telling them, calories don’t mean diddly squat.

You’re absolutely right–rather than learning how to count calories, people in need should learn how to listen to their own body. It all sounds very “tree-huggerish” to the average person, but in my opinion, it is a very ‘back to basics’ concept that everyone should learn.

I’m disappointed in Jillian for making such a broad and frivolous statement.


Nicole of Raspberry Stethoscope July 21, 2009

I love the Biggest Loser and respect Jillian Michaels as a trainer, but seriously, how can she write a book about biochemistry and metabolism? How much does she really know about this sort of thing?


Jessica July 21, 2009

Comments like that are very frustrating to hear, especially coming from someone who does have so much social responsibility. (I do typically like Jillian though!)

A couple of years ago a dietitian said something that really helped me move beyond my ED & obsessive calorie counting – which was a miserable thing for me. She said that I don’t do the same things every day so I don’t need the “same” food every day. It is really like an ebb & flow, or like the squiggly line effect that KATH talks about.

There were very few days when my “alloted” calories were spot on so most days I was either starving or (believe it or not) eating more then I was hungry for or needing at that time.

It is not simple and by NO MEANS universal!!! While I am AWARE of calories I am in no way a calorie counter & am a much happier person for it : )

Great topic!


Anne P July 21, 2009

Jeez what a ridiculous comment! I totally agree with you, Angela. While it may work for some people, I’ve never even tried it because I think it takes the fun out of food! I think everyone’s goal should be to just be able to listen to their bodies, not obsess over numbers.


Kristen July 21, 2009

As I don’t know the full context of the comment, I’d really like to give Jillian the benefit of the doubt…but such a hard and fast rule about calorie counting just seems like bad advice. There are far too many people who get obsessed with the numbers for that to be good advice for everyone.


Dana July 21, 2009

I think calorie counting works for some people, but I think you are right, people can get obsessed with it. I think you statement is so true about focusing on healthy eating, sweating, and eating good whole foods! Now if you are eating a whole bag of granola a day…haha. I think once you learn about portion sizes and control, that it is automatically in your brain and you know how much to eat without over doing it!

Dana (


Nicole July 21, 2009

I love Jillian, and when I read this just now, it really surprised me! That’s a pretty strong statement to make, and while I am sure she didn’t mean much by it..but geez, of course it’s not universal!


Anna July 21, 2009

Whoa. Yea, I agree that her statement is over the top. I don’t think there are really ANY statements about health you can make so broadly. Well, except maybe “smoking is always terrible for you” or something like that. I’m with you- plenty of people have lost and maintained their weight without every having counted calories. I appreciate some of Jillian’s outlook, but on some topics she is just far too dogmatic for me. She’s a trainer, for crying out loud, not an MD.


Whitney July 21, 2009

I love Jillian. That being said, I also hate calorie counting and refuse to do it. I eat in a way that satisfies me and makes me happy. If it is too much work, ie. calorie counting I get discouraged and upset.


Melissa July 21, 2009

How should I put this without sounding like I’m disagreeing with everyone else. Jillian is very much for calorie counting when people are trying to lose weight. But you have to take things into perspective that she really does help a lot of people who have no clue about what they are eating and how much they are eating. And while it’s not for everyone, for some people it really is helpful for them to count calories. Granted some people can go over board with it and get way to obsessed. But honestly if I don’t count calories I am unable to lose weight. Maybe some people can lose weight without counting calories, and if so that’s awesome. It’s just doesn’t work for me.

I also want to say that if you read Jillian’s book it’s not really based on calorie counting. It’s based on eating very healthy foods and knowing how to eat a balanced diet. So while she made that comment I don’t really know what she was thinking/.trying to get across to people. Because her metabolism book doesn’t come across that way to me.


Susan July 21, 2009

While I agree that you don’t HAVE to count calories (I’ve never been anywhere close to overweight and I’ve never counted calories), I can see why she would express such a strong opinion about it. If you want to truly show people how much they are eating (or not eating?), then calorie counting is the plain and simple way to do it. Calories in vs. calories out is very easy for people to understand, and when you’re talking to the general population, you have to dumb things down a bit. Plus, no one wants to hear “Welllll you could count calories, but you don’t HAVE to…” People want to hear “what works.” If you tell people to eat healthy and workout a few times a week, they don’t know what that means. If you teach them how many calories are in a hamburger, tell them to eat 1800 per day and walk for thirty minutes per day, then that is something they understand and can stick to. Do you HAVE to count calories? No. Does it work for a lot of people? Yes.


Danielle July 21, 2009

Well your post and a lot of the comments here are in agreement about calorie counting being bad, but I have to say, that is a bit hard to swallow. I have been trying to get away from the counting mentality and rely on my own hunger signals and what feels right and I have to say it is EXTREMELY hard for me to know how I am doing on any given day and whether I am successfully creating the deficit that I need to actually lose weight (nee dto lose about 25 lbs).

For me, maintaining is pretty easy to do without counting but to achieve a loss and really learn what the right portions are I am really ready to give up the notion of NOT counting. If I cant measure it, how can I manage it?


Shelly July 21, 2009

I kind of keep a mental estimate of how many calories are in my meals, but really I’ve found that being aware of my portion size, getting a good mix of carbs, fats and proteins, and focusing on eating more veggies and fiber has made much more of a difference than calorie counting ever has for me. I can attest that you can eat 1200 calories of junk a day and do yourself no favors. It’s hard to exercise or even have a good day when you feel gross and tired!
I shoot for at least 1800 calories a day now and make sure my day is loaded with good healthy food. I maintain my weight, look better, feel better, and have the energy I need to get through my day and exercise. And being able to feel good about what I’m putting in my body is priceless.
Lately, I’ve been extra hungry and haven’t felt guilty about eating more because I feel like the stuff I’m eating is nourishing me and I’m not going to have a bad outcome from that, even if I’m eating a couple hundred extra calories sometimes. I think my body must need it if it’s asking for it!


Meganerd July 21, 2009

Wonderful post! I think too many people (dieters or not) fall into the trap that calorie counting is necessary. It may work, but it’s not always healthy.

I agree with you that we need to listen to our bodies, get out and sweat, and feed ourselves with whole nutritious foods. That ALWAYS works.

thanks for the reminder :D


Melanie Z July 21, 2009

Wow! Funny how just yesterday I posted my best health tip that I’ve learned recently is that “it’s not about calorie counting.” While I love Jillian, and I agree that calorie counting does HELP loose the weight, it’s more about the nutritional quality of those calories that you’re putting into your body! Hmm, I think I have an idea for a new post!!! :)


katherine July 21, 2009

I actually don’t think Jillian meant the statement to sound as absolute as it did, but she’s definitely a person of extremes. The fact is, the vast majority of people have no concept of their hunger cues so counting calories is an important way of tuning in to your body’s needs. A person can say ‘I eat when I’m hungry’ but have had such a long-standing unhealthy relationship with food that they genuinely feel “hungry” for 4000 calories/day and have no exercise in their life. With the proper mindset, calorie counting can be a great way of recentering yourself to get a better idea of portion sizes and nutritional requirements. However, I don’t think it should be a long-term habit. I, too, fell victim to obsessive calorie counting because I took it to an extreme. At the end of the day, it’s all about moderation. But the first step HAS to be learning to really properly interpret your hunger signals and requirements.


Amy July 21, 2009

I don’t know the context for her statement…was she referring to people trying to lose weight? Or people in general?

I appreciate Jillian’s no-nonsense approach because some people just don’t realize how many (bad) calories they are putting in their bodies and how little they are burning.

However, I could never count calories. But I’m also not on a diet or trying to lose weight, so I can’t speak for people who have counted calories and had success. But who could count calories FOREVER, for every thing they ate, for the rest of their lives? If (and maybe she did) Jillian could have expanded on her statement, we might have learned more. I think she just mad people mad instead!


Heather July 21, 2009

I agree. Back when I first started to count calories for weight loss, I would eat 1200 calories of Lean Cuisines, Slim Fast shakes, and energy bars. I don’t think I ever purchased produce unless it was frozen. I used to even budget beer & pizza into my 1200 calories. I lost weight, but there would be times I was starving when I went to bed because I had used up all of my “food money”.

Now, I eat 85% fruits, veggies, & whole grains. I give myself 15% to eat whatever foods — like packaged bars, sweetened pb, vitamuffins etc. I don’t count calories, especially those from veggies.

This way of eating leaves me satiated, happier, and my GI tract loves me much more now. :)


Jenny July 21, 2009

I agree with you completely Angela. Calorie counting is a sure fire way to lose weight, but if that is not your ONLY goal (which it should never be, then it sets you up for disaster. It’s an addicting, restricting way to live, and while it’s effective, I do not think it should be the main focus of any weight loss plan.


Lexi July 21, 2009

It’s like you are reading my mind! I just posted yesterday about calorie counting. I am trying to move away from that obsession, but every now & then I feel like maybe not counting is for those in maintenance & since I’m trying to lose I have to count. It is so consuming though & I really want to focus on natural whole foods…but then again I’m not losing.
Thanks for this post!


Alex July 21, 2009

Great post, Angela.

I think it’s important to remember that Jillian Michals’ quote is just ONE OPINION. It’s part of her image to be the “tough cop” and her statement reflects this. I think we also need to remember that she is a SALESWOMAN. I know a lot of what she has to say is valid, but she is at the same time TRYING TO SELL HER BRAND!

Her word isn’t gospel.

It certainly doesn’t bare any truth for me (or the readers above!) so I think we can confidently say: “CALORIE COUNTING IS NOT A UNIVERSAL RULE!”


Susan July 21, 2009

I guess it depends on what your goals are. Calorie counting can be a good tool for people looking to lose weight, gain weight, put on muscle, or in Jillian’s case, maintain her “fit” look. I calorie counted for a year while losing 30 lbs and transitioning into maintenance mode. Learning the calorie counts in my foods was invaluable to me. But that’s just me. I don’t count calories any more and have been able to continue maintaining easily. I feel like I’m living a more “normal” life when I’m not analyzing every food that enters my mouth. But again, I’m not a personal trainer, I’m just a normal person trying to live a balanced life!


Rex July 21, 2009

I think from a stand point of loosing weight, it is a universal rule: calories in vs. calories out. To lose 1 lbs, you have to create a 3,500 calorie deficit; from training, cardio or food intake. If your stuck not loosing any weight, it is usually because of calorie intake. If you need 2000 calories a day to maintain and were only eating a 1,000 calories (even if the 1,000 calories are from fast food) you will lose weight. Calorie counting is not for everyone and it should not be. I don’t think it something someone should do for life or for a long period of time. I do think if you are trying to lose weight, without going to a “diet”, you can do so with calorie counting and still eat the foods you love without depriving yourself. Once you hit your goal, I think it is always best to find a more intuitive way of eating. I also think this rule applies for gaining muscle.

I think Julian’s point is based off her career of helping people to lose weight on The Biggest Loser, her personal training and books. I think she is selling what it takes to lose weight and not telling everyone in the world to calorie count! Just my opinion!


Brandi C. July 21, 2009

I do not agree with her EXACT statement, but it didn’t make me angry either. Here’s why…
I think the point she was REALLY trying to get across is that CALORIES IN need to be less than CALORIES OUT for one to lose weight. This just shows you need to watch how you words things when you are on tv. Also, she could have been focusing on people that have no idea about portions and healthy food. Which she should have addresses.


Brandi C. July 21, 2009



Valerie July 21, 2009

“Soon eating wasn’t about how hungry I was, but how many calories I had ‘left’ for that meal” – wow, that really struck a chord with me. I can relate, especially in the evenings when I’d be starving but I’d be too afraid to eat even a 100 calorie snack because I’d be over my daily goal by that much. Geez, even if I went over by 100 calories each day, over a week that would equate to less than a 1/3 of a pound tops that I wouldn’t lose. But calorie counting had me in that extreme frame of mind that every little bit mattered to the point where I was really sacrificing my own happiness to lose 0.2-0.3 extra per week.

I do think calorie counting can be a valuable tool, especially for those that are completely unaware of nutritional info. I was one of those fairly ignorant people. Sure, I’d read the info but had no idea whether it was good or bad based on the calorie content. I had no idea how many my body needed each day, so without knowing that, you could easily plow through way more calories than you need and be unaware of what it’s doing. Initially, calorie counting made me aware of proper portion sizes and how many calories I needed. It was just later on that it started to become obsessive as I counted every little thing, right down to a tablespoon of sugar that I’d put in tea.

I do think Jillian’s statement was more applicable to overweight individuals or maybe those just starting to lose weight. Like I said, it was a good thing for me early on. I couldn’t imagine counting calories for the rest of my life. I’m still aware of calories, yes, but I personally couldn’t write down every little tablespoon of food I ate, nor do I think everyone has to in order to lose or maintain.


Bree July 21, 2009

I actually don’t like Jillian at all, so it’s easy for me to disagree with almost everything she says. In this case, I agree that not everyone has to count calories. But like other commenters have said, I think many people do. Most typical American’s (Canadians) have no idea what intuitive eating and how to use food as fuel. I was so out of touch with how much I was eating, it was a rude awakening once I started weighing and tracking my food. For me calorie counting has worked, but I am not done with my loss and will continue to count until I reach my goal. I completely agree that it can lead to disordered behaviors in some people especially if they had a history or tendency of disordered eating.


Joanna July 21, 2009

See for an interesting article on how food calorie counts are even determined, and whether there are flaws in that system that can lead to a misleading “count”. while I agree with you, Angela, on the fact that eating wholesome, unprocessed, natural foods should lead to a natural balance in weight, obesity is a FAR greater threat to public health right now (in North America and Europe, and increasingly in Asia) than disordered eating, so the various advice given is mainly to try to address that.


Maureen July 21, 2009

I agree with you 100% there is a lot more to food than the number of calories, fat, sodium etc. I am new at it but I believe in listening to your body and eating healthy whole foods. The more healthy I eat the more my body signals it wants healthy food. Why just the other night it said it wanted more vegetables instead of something sweet. :-)
One of the reasons I do not watch this show is that it is extreme and must be hard for the participants to stick to it once they leave.


Robyn July 21, 2009

I follow WWers, so I count Points, which are based on calories, fat grams and fibre. I’ve always been overweight (ok, not always, only since I was EIGHT!) I don’t do well with “intuitive eating”. I don’t “listen to my body’s signals” well. I need the guidance of a system that keeps me in check. Maybe some day, after following the program long enough, eating sensibly will just become a habit and I will not have to count Points as much, but for myself, and may of the overweight people I know, we need the guidelines that calorie counting or Point counting provides.

I still have to make good choices, but within those good choices, I still need to know how much…the WWers Points system helps with that.


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