Short answer: yes, maybe but also no. How's that for clear? Keep reading as I dig into the complicated answer to that question.
I've personally tracked calories (which is what's apparently now being coined as the CICO diet, because if you tell enough people something is a quick and easy way to lose weight, it'll become a fad diet - ugh).
I've done "low-carb". I've done "clean-eating". I've pretty much done it all.
In my early teens I gained like 3 pounds. If I had known then, what I know now, my entire life would have turned very differently. But it was the atkins days and his low-carb food rules started a 2 decades long battle with food and weight gain.
In my early thirties, I decided to stop trying to restrict foods or food groups to get my weight under control and just track what I was eating. Basically, what has apparently now been coined the new "CICO diet". *insert facepalm here
I lost 40lbs in about 4 months. Eating sugar, fast food, literally whatever I wanted. It was easy and I was thrilled.
And it helped me start to learn about food because I started noticing that if I made a choice like fast food, or something high in fat or sugar, it would really be about the only thing I could eat all day if I wanted to stay within my "calorie range" and I noticed that I wouldn't feel very good by the end of the day. So, sometimes I'd actually opt away from those things because I wanted to make choices that made me feel better. In many ways, it was a very positive experience.
But, it was, in many ways also a destructive experience in the beginning. While I reached my "goal weight" really fast, I had basically starved myself to get there (I refused to eat more than 1000 calories) AND I still hated myself and how I looked.
I also felt a lot of guilt & fear if I ate over my daily calorie allotment. I was always thinking about numbers and obsessed over food -- which I now know is disordered eating/thinking and a pretty big warning sign of underlying pathologies that can put people at a higher risk of developing a full blown eating disorder.
In my attempt to transform my body even more, clean eating entered my life and with it (within 4 days), I was in the middle of that full blown eating disorder. Bulimia to be exact. I hired an online trainer because I wanted to start lifting to transform my body even more and body re-composition simply requires more focus on where calories are coming from than does just losing weight. But the restriction required for clean eating was for me, like many people, too much and it prompted my first binge and compensatory behaviors.
The first thing my eating disorder therapist told me in my first session with him was that the clean eating rules and restrictions were a big part of the problem and needed to go. I refused. That's ridiculous, I thought. I'm trying to lose weight and eat "healthy", over here! Why was he telling me not to?!
I didn't get it then and I wasn't ready to hear it yet but he was 100% right.
Because for as long as I refused to stop trying to force myself to eat according to someone else's rules, I was bingeing. BAD. And for as long as I was attaching my self worth to the size or shape of my body - I was obsessed with food and what my body looked like.
When I finally decided that my mental health and happiness were more important than what my body looked like (partly because I was bingeing so bad that I often felt like I may die in my sleep so my physical health was also suffering big time by "clean eating") I started actually learning to connect with my own body again.
I started learning to listen to what it wanted and needed and just give it that. Not what my HEAD was telling me I wanted or "should" eat based on someone else's rules -- but what my body wanted.
The point of all that is to say that trying to follow someone else's food rules is a recipe for disaster. This is not a unique scenario to me and my experience. I hear similar stories from women every single day.
So, tracking calories to lose weight can, in this case, be the better alternative. It allows you to learn about what's in the food you're eating -- which I believe is important and empowering. And it can help allow you start to recognize the things that make you feel more satisfied.
So, in some cases, it can be empowering, super helpful and just about the best (in my opinion) ways to lose weight -- if you insist on focusing on weight loss. (note: that's only if you're just working on weight loss. It's not super helpful for body recomposition so if you're in the gym trying to build muscle, you're going to need to focus a little more on where the calories are coming from. For the purposes of this piece, I'm not talking about that though, I'm only talking about weight loss).
So, it's not an automatic, yes you should track calories. It is, like any other attempt at food restriction for the purposes of weight loss, extremely dangerous for people at risk of eating disorders or who have already strained relationships with food and their weight.
And starting to track calories just because you want to lose some weight is just a terrible an idea as starting any other diet.
In the same way that ANY diet will result in weight loss if followed, most people won't end up following it and of those who do, 98% who lose weight will regain it all, 2/3's will end up heavier than they started and 1 in 4 people who diet to lose weight end up with an eating disorder.
Tracking calories to lose weight, will have pretty much the exact same outcome as any other diet for most people.
Because again, for those in the back, DIETING DOESN'T WORK.
I mean sure, in the most simple way, calories in-calories out sort of does help with the basic cause. We gain weight because we're consuming more than we're burning, so it makes sense that if we start counting how much is going in and stopping when we hit that magic number that's the solution. And for some people, it may well be that simple. As well, in some ways, it's a far less risky route than the entire food group restriction that most diets insist upon because it doesn't come with all the restriction that's so dangerous (as long as you're not severely restricting your calories) or morality labels around food that are SO incredibly damaging.
But it's almost never that simple for most people.
People gain weight for a reason. We gain weight because we're eating more calories than we burn. That's it. And we have no idea what's in what we're eating.
But we eat the things we eat in the ways we eat for sooo many different reasons that have nothing to do with physical hunger.
Here's the thing -- we're born with the innate ability to just... eat. In the same way we are to breath when we need air, drink when we're thristy, etc.
Those are not learned behaviors. Our bodies innately know how to eat & when we're full.
We're born into bodies that KNOW how to do those things on their own.
But our life experience involves every one and everything around us working to UNTEACH us those things. From well meaning parents pushing us to "eat everything on your plate!" regardless of whether we're still hungry or want it, to diets that tell us we're bad if we eat bad things and create auto-pilot habits that we don't even really control after awhile to being comforted and soothed with food by well-meaning grandmas who just want us to feel good. Because back to the point about band-aiding gunshot wounds that I spoke of in the link above -- WHY are you eating more than you're burning?
Are you bingeing? Are you feeding emotions? Are you eating on auto-pilot? Are you eating for comfort or feelings of safety? Are you punishing yourself with food? Are you living with a scarcity mindset around food?
There's not a diet or calorie tracking app on the planet to help with any of those things.
Some super common reasons I've seen in clients for close to a decade include but are not limited to:
People who have a history of physical or sexual abuse often subconsciously feel safer carrying extra weight so their brains work on autopilot to make sure they keep extra weight on. It’s sadly way too common and there's not a calorie tracking app or diet on the planet that will help with that.
Some people's self-worth is so damaged that they use food, overeating, bingeing, etc as self-punishment (I was one of them). There's not a calorie tracking app or diet on the planet that will help with that -- they all are equally bad for making it worse.
Some people overeat because a scarcity mindset causes them to overeat whenever they do eat for fear that won't be able to have it again later. There's not a calorie tracking app or diet on the planet that will help with that
Using food to soothe, numb or and/or comfort difficult emotions, or to celebrate, or when they’re bored. Again, here's not a calorie tracking app or diet on the planet that will help with that.
People who have been dieting for decades have brains that are wired for failure (repeatedly caving) because of the way our brains respond to forced food restriction. There's not a calorie tracking app or diet on the planet that will help with that. Again, they just make it worse.
What about if you put weight because you quit smoking or some other habit you've had for years? Again, that’s just how our brains are wired. They cannot just quit a habit once they’ve learned it, they need to learn new habits to override the old ones so smoking often just gets replaced with eating. Again, that’s all more stuff our brains are doing unconsciously behind the scenes to drive our behavior without us even knowing and there's not a calorie tracking app or diet on the planet that will help with that.
What if you're just happy eating what and how much you're eating that you don't care enough about cutting back to do it consistently? Again, here's not a calorie tracking app or diet on the planet that will help with that because it's just not high enough priority.
MOST people who put on weight fall into one (or more) of those areas. There is ALWAYS a reason we gain and diets don't take any of them into account. That's why they almost always fail. No matter what diet you do or how many calories you track.
So, I've covered the yes: it can be effective and less likely to set you up for binge eating.
I've covered the no: it can put you at risk of developing an eating disorder, isn't great for body recomposition if you're relying mostly on carbs & does nothing to help the underlying reasons why you gained weight in the first place so you're just as likely to put the weight right back on as you are with any other diet.
Now let's cover the maybe. I sometimes recommend tracking to my clients because when it's done right, it can be empowering, it actually can help with mindfulness and accountability and it can teach you a ton about what you're eating. When it's done right, from a healthy mindset.
I used to recommend it to all my clients. My theory was, when they see how tough it is to keep it up because of all the reasons they eat when they're not hungry, then we'll get down to working on those things. But that wasn't happening. What was happening was that they'd just get frustrated with themselves when they couldn't "stick to it" and they'd quit.
So I stopped. I've basically even stopped helping people focus on weight loss all together. Now, I exclusively work with clients who are ready to dig into all the reasons they're eating self-destructively.
I help clients figure out why they're eating the way they're eating and how to stop -- because that really is the key right there. When you fix the underlying causes, weight and food just aren't issues anymore.
Some of my clients do still track sometimes. But it's with support. It's after they've worked on those underlying causes and when they feel ready to start being more accountable with their mindfulness and learn about what's going in.
So, the answer to should you track calories is yes, maybe but also, probably no, at least not on your own - especially if you have a disordered relationship with food and your body. Clear as mud, yeah? ;) If you've been struggling with your weight, with failed weight loss attempts, with overeating stuff that makes you feel like garbage, with binge eating, or anything I've discussed -- I created The Cognitive Eating Academy just for you and it starts again on Monday.