Calorie Counting: Is It A Universal Rule?

by Angela (Oh She Glows) on July 21, 2009

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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?


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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

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Carla July 21, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Initially I think we need to know which foods are high in calories and which are not. Lots of people really don’t know how to put together a healthy diet and therefore would benefit from calorie counting during the first few weeks or months of making changes in how they eat. But ultimately once they have learned about calories and good choices, I agree that it would be best if they were too free themselves from counting calories. Great post!


Allison July 21, 2009 at 2:20 pm

I’ve never counted calories and I swore to myself a long time ago that I never would. Instead, as I decide what to eat throughout the day, I think stuff like, “Have I gotten a decent amount of protein so far? How many veggies have I eaten? Is this really a craving for crackers or do I want some fruit instead? Calcium? Maybe I should have a glass of milk…”

After all, I *could* count calories…there’s 500 in this cookie, say 800 in this milkshake, another 150 in the candy bar, 80 in diet soda…oh, I’m around 1500 now! Great! Yeah, 1500 calories of crap…


Eve July 21, 2009 at 3:11 pm

You have touched on some really great points. I completely agree that calorie counting is NOT a universal rule. It’s true that most people need to be AWARE of calories, gain nutrition knowledge. But they don’t need to count or obsess. There is a fine line between both. For some people it’s necessary and for other’s it’s a disaster. That’s the way it is with most things in the nutrition world – that’s why diets don’t work and you need to do what’s right for YOU!


Em July 21, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Actually, given the audience, I think it was a solid comment. Most people are not at your level, or at the level you ever were. I see obese people everywhere, people on diet pills, etc… These people are not athletes, they’re not working out, they’re not worried about their overall health. However, they’re driving the costs of medical insurance through the roof, they have heart disease and diabetes, they die at 50 years old after miserable lives, and they teach their kids horrible eating habits. I think teaching them that you cannot lose weight if the number of calories you ingest is higher than the number of calories you burn is a positive. I think making them hold a food journal with corresponding calories is a great tool to make them realize that they’re eating 3000 calories a day and expanding 500 (random numbers).

Most people are not aware of their eating habits. They don’t know that the huge 36 oz latte they just bought has enough calories to last them for 2 days, but zero nutrition. I think drawing their attention to that fact is actually good progress. I realize that it’s terrible advice for people struggling with an eating disorder, but I don’t think Jillian’s target audience was bulimics, I think it was the average housewife who’s 30 lbs overweight and plopped on her couch all day. And for her, a little attention tug might have been a lifesaver.

So should she have given advice to target people with an eating disorder, who represent about 1 to 4% of the population in the US, or should she have given advice to target the 62% of overweight people in the US?


Marcia July 21, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Hmm… I don’t think calorie counting is a universal rule, no. But I do totally see where Jillian is coming from. And for the record, she used to weigh around 175 lbs, so she knows of what she speaks.

The “listen to your body” idea is great – GREAT!! If you can do it. Not everyone can. Some people have screwed their bodies up so much over years of bad eating that they simply don’t have the ability to “listen to your body”. And making small, gentle changes in your diet WORKS!! But it can take a long time…my friend at work (a guy) lost 30 lbs this way. In 3 years.

Personally, I lost 57 lbs on weight watchers. Basically calorie counting. Say what you will about the WW plan, but if you truly follow the plan and the recommendations, you will be eating a well-balanced diet. The “free” foods on WW are veggies, and you aren’t going to get fat on cucumbers and carrots.

I stopped WW when I kept adding more food back into my diet and lost weight even faster.

But when it came to losing those last 15-20 baby lbs…I *had* to start counting again. And periodically, if I gain weight on vacation, I *have* to do it. The older you get (I’m 39), the harder it is to maintain a certain weight. I simply cannot eat like I did in my 20’s (course I couldn’t then either, ‘cuz I weighed 182 lbs). Every once in awhile you have to revisit what you are eating.

For some people, this means gently cutting back…1/2 glass of wine instead of a full. Give up cheese 3 days/week. Cut back to 1/4 avocado on your salad. For others, it has to be more concrete.

For the record, I expect I’m eating 1800-2000 cals/day. I am not currently counting. But I occasionally still do, and it’s a wake up call when I can’t trim off those few lbs I’ve gained here and there.

It’s easy to get obsessed by calorie counting, but for me it was part of the journey. NOW that my eating habits are very healthy AND I exercise regularly, I can maintain my weight pretty easily. But it was a hard road to get here and there are more bumps to come.

I have a couple of friends who are trying to lose baby weight. They haven’t adjusted their eating to the post-nursing stage. Or they don’t exercise. They are starting to make the commitment to work out more and eat less.

I have another friend who has recently gained a few lbs. Her answer has never been to watch her diet, and I think if she counted calories for a few days, it would be a wake-up call.


Angela (Oh She Glows) July 21, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Awesome thoughts guys! Loving reading through them. I think one thing is very clear- counting WORKS for some, and doesn’t for others! Of course it is a useful tool for some and not for others. Like many of your pointed out, that is her tough love approach, take it or leave it, I guess! :) ~A


Jenn July 21, 2009 at 4:28 pm

I completely agree with you Angela (and with many previous comments as well)

The context, or lack thereof, is what sets this statement up for failure. To say “It’s a universal rule.” implies that every individual in the world should be bound by it. This is simply impossible with poverty, famine and hunger in many places.

I think it’s obvious that the people in the world who are starving need to eat MORE calories and the people who are overeating need to eat LESS calories. Duh….but her statement didn’t come across that way, did it?


kelly July 21, 2009 at 5:10 pm

I have counted calories or points on and off for a long time and I just don’t want to do it any longer. I am really trying to listen to my body. I feel like I’ve been ruled by counting calories for most of my life and I want to be done!!!


Michelle Hisae July 21, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Amen, sister! Wow, what a great response from everyone. I totally agree that calorie counting IS NOT the way to go. For me, it just creates unwanted stress in my life. Sure, it’s a quick fix, but in the long run, you won’t know intuitively what you need/want to eat because the labels on food were dictating that for some time.


Becky July 21, 2009 at 7:33 pm

Yikes!! I agree, calorie counting doesn’t work for everyone, myself included. I am the same, it would consume me and I feel like I would be depressed because I couldn’t eat what I want or even if I was hungry. Who wants to be a grouchy, obsessed person all the time?! LIFE IS TOO SHORT :)


[email protected] July 21, 2009 at 8:04 pm

That is horrible advice. Calorie counting would never work for me. Eating real food, knowing when I have had enough or too little, moving and resting my body, drinking water, and really just getting in tune with myself is how I stay fit and healthy.


Meredith (Pursuing Balance) July 21, 2009 at 9:02 pm

I think getting an idea of how many calories is in different food products is a good idea, but counting every calorie is not! It’s so much more important to learn to eat intuitively.


Kate July 21, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Great post! I am currently struggling with obsessive calorie counting and it seems the more I try to stop, the worse it gets :( I don’t need to lose an weight, just maintain. I’m a runner and very active (and not obsessive with it), so that helps. Is there a book someone can recommend that might help me get things under control? I already read Intuitive Eating and that was helpful. I seem to do well when everything in my life is going great, but when I feel like things are out of control I try to control it by counting calories. I’m really struggling right now because it’s taking over my life. Thank you!


Jessica July 21, 2009 at 9:55 pm

i agree… if you can listen to your body who needs to count calories?


Molly July 21, 2009 at 11:39 pm

wow, what a damaging statement to make — especially for those who have had a history of eating disorders. i agree that everyone should have a KNOWLEDGE of calories in versus calories out and the general number of calories in a given food. i also agree that the people she trains on the biggest loser probably do need to calorie count in order to obtain this type of awareness of calories. but to make such a blanket statement really annoys me.

i am with you- once i stopped counting calories i gave myself license to ate whatever filled me, even if that meant healthy but calorie-dense foods (pb, avocado, etc.). when you are calorie counting the emphasis is strictly on one data element and doesn’t take into account the other nutrients in a food. ugh! thanks for addressing this.


leslie July 22, 2009 at 9:32 am

I know I’m really late to this discussion, but I loved the post, so I’m still adding my thoughts.

I really could not agree more with your last statement about getting back to basics. I have days where calorie totals enter my head – it’s one if the last bad habits I am still breaking. But my method now is simply to remember that the foods I eat are nutritious and real. Some days I eat more of them, some days less. It always evens itself out.

There is such a focus on the overweight side of our society, and I
understand that it is an issue that has to be addressed. But it
drives me crazy that the other side, the people who take the advice
too far and suffer from eating disorders are basically ignored. But
as long as the media and so-called respected fitness professionals
create diets and focus on calories, those of us prone to eds/with ed
histories will lose out. Calorie counting is not a necessity. Eating
real food, exercising, and accepting ourselves is. That mentality helps everyone, no matter which end of the weight spectrum you are on. I don’t know what has to be done to make this way of thinking mainstream – I would love to find a way!


PY July 22, 2009 at 9:36 am

Is there any way to slowly STOP counting calories when I am already depending on it to maintain my weight?


Andrea (Off Her Cork) July 22, 2009 at 10:57 am

I like Jillian but I think it’s a bunch of hooey. I do not count calories. I have no patience or desire to do so. I could not even begin to tell you how much I consume in a day because I have no idea how many calories are in what. I eat what makes me feel good, watch portions, and create a healthy balance. Works for me! :)


liane July 22, 2009 at 1:21 pm

I actually picked up Jillian’s new book at the library, and have been reading it the past few nights. In it, she actually says it’s not all about calorie counting, that eating whole foods is the better option. There was an example about eating a processed food package which was 200 calories versus eating an apple and another non processed food which had the same caloric amount, and the whole foods would be the better option.
But she does mention that calorie counting is good for people who are just starting out in their weight loss journey, or those who tend to overeat, so having that restriction helps them figure out portion control etc…
So… i’m just wondering the context of her discussions on that TV show… was she discussing people like the contestants on the Biggest Loser who have to pretty much start at the beginning and learn how to make healthy choices, where calorie counting would be benefical?


Sarah August 4, 2009 at 9:23 am

I definitely would not call it universal but I do think it is essential for initial weight loss. I did it for over a year before I hit my goal and now I pick it back up occasionally when I have a slight weight gain, just to get some perspective on how much I am really eating.

The key is to not get obsessed and obviously to stay within a healthy range. I don’t think people with a healthy relationship with food need to do it to maintain their weight. I just know for me, I have a bi-yearly “slip up” (usually once in the Summer and sometimes the Christmas holidays) that requires me to go back and reassess.


Kathryn August 5, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Again, late on the game with this one – but I’m finding that I need to revisit a day or two of calorie counting every month or two. Just to get an idea of where I’m at and what does my day look like…am I slipping into bad habbits? I dropped calorie counting a while back and I started liking food again. I did feel my pants getting a bit more snug the other day so I’m thinking I may need to revist it, but first I’m going to just try even harder to listen to hunger cues and make consicious decisions when I eat…do I really need a heaping tablespoon of almond butter? Maybe just a slightly rounded one :)


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