Is Calorie Counting Right For You?

By Cassandra Forsythe, PhD, RD

Have you ever struggled with frustrating weight fluctuations? If so, you're not alone.

Maintaining a certain size or physique over the years is a tall order for most people. As we live our lives, our size and weight will fluctuate based on a variety of factors ranging from stress, hormones, and sleep habits, to our physical activity and calorie intake. Those who manage to maintain as the years pass are either simply “built” that way, or they pay attention to their calories in and calories out to some degree.

Calories /ˈkal(ə)rē/ (noun) – Tiny creatures that live in your closet and sew your clothes a little bit tighter every night.

That’s right, calories, love ’em or hate ‘em, are an unavoidable part of the equation. They influence our weight, health, and how our clothes fit from year to year. Slight size and weight fluctuation over time is normal to a certain extent, but yo-yoing to extremes can be detrimental to our health1,2. Paying attention to energy balance in your daily life can help you not only attain and maintain a healthy weight and size, but also better overall health.

I would like to emphasize here that I’m talking about a healthy weight, not an ideal weight. There is no “ideal” weight, regardless of what you will see on Height-Weight or BMI charts at your doctor’s office. Body weight is a result of many variables including breast size, muscle mass, bone density, water retention, hormonal factors, digestion and bathroom habits, and genetics. The calories you consume as well as the calories you burn will influence your weight, but the exact weight that is comfortable for you and supports your health is unique to you.

This article aims to help you better understand of calories and provide a practical approach to help you find the right balance for you.

What Is Caloric Balance?

In order for you to attain or maintain a healthy body weight, you need to understand that the food you take in must be less than, or balanced with, the calories you expend, respectively.

caloriecounting-eat-then-run-450x350Achieving caloric balance, by making sure that your calories in match your calories out, is an oversimplified explanation. True caloric balance is influenced by a lot more than what you eat and how much you move.

The “calories out” side of the equation, for instance, isn’t as simple as lacing up your sneaks. Just like your overall body weight, caloric expenditure (energy output) is also very individual for each woman. It depends on not only how physically active you are (both in terms of structured exercise and NEA, or non-exercise activity like standing at work rather than sitting), but also:

  • What stage of your menstrual cycle you are in
  • Your age
  • Your muscle mass
  • Your basal metabolic rate (the energy your body needs to allow your heart to beat, lungs to breathe, and brain to function normally)
  • The bacteria living in your gut

This means that, regardless of how much energy you think you need (even if you use a popular calorie-needs calculator to determine it), you might be way off the mark, which does your body a huge disservice and makes it frustrating to understand why your body weight isn’t moving in the expected direction.

Similarly, the calories you take in might not be accurately estimated simply using calorie-tracking programs or apps, such as MyFitnessPal. Even if you use these programs to track every morsel that goes into your mouth, you may be greatly overestimating or underestimating exactly what your body is getting, and this could affect not only your body weight, but also your mood, your ability and desire to exercise, and even possibly, your menstrual function.

(Our friends at Precision Nutrition created two easy-to-understand infographics that help explain some of the problems with the concepts of calories in and calories out.)

Calorie Counting: The Good, the Bad, and the Yo-Yoing

Some experts dismiss calorie counting in favor of using “intuitive eating” to help guide how much, and when we should eat. They believe that counting calories can lead to obsessive tracking and disordered eating behaviors—which is true. It does happen to some people.

caloriecounting-cass-at-gym-288x422In fact, it happened to me. Back in my early 20s, I constantly counted calories. I wouldn’t put anything into my mouth unless I knew exactly how many calories it contained, to make sure that it fit into my daily 1,200-calorie plan. (Insane, right?) I did get lean. At one point I clocked in at 6 percent body fat on a DEXA (the gold standard for body composition testing). But at 5’4” and 111 pounds, I was absolutely miserable, and my health was compromised. I completely lost my period, and it remained MIA for over five years. I became an antisocial, unhappy loner. I wouldn’t attend parties out of my fear of tempting food, and I would rarely go out to eat because (in my mind) I couldn’t accurately determine how many calories I was taking in. It was a sad, dark time in my life. I felt constant pressure to maintain a shredded physique at all times which, in light of all the consequences mentioned, was not realistically sustainable for me.

When I finally started eating more, and re-gaining weight and body fat, I thought that I was fat and disgusting and no one would love me or even like me. Eventually, I began to see clearly the craziness in this line of thinking, moved toward a healthier, more balanced way of eating, and vowed to never count calories again. I associated calorie counting with many negative health implications, and an unhealthy obsession with controlling food. This new approach allowed me to maintain a healthy body weight for many years—before my life went haywire.

In 2013, my husband and I divorced. Then, for the next couple of years, I struggled with the incredible stress of owning, and subsequently closing a business. There was a time just last year when I drank shots of vodka at night so that I could sleep—and I’m not even a drinker! The stress was horrible and killing my body. I yo-yoed over that time from 130 pounds (“the divorce diet”), to 146 pounds (stress eating). I was sick of it. I was uncomfortable and knew this is not how my body should feel.

No matter how much I thought I understood about food and eating, I still wasn’t able to bring my body fat and weight down. Yes, even a registered dietitian who has studied food and nutrition for more than 15 years and has both a master’s degree and Ph.D. doesn’t always have the answers when it comes to her own body. Sometimes you're just too close to a situation to see it clearly.

I refused to count calories because I thought, “Hey, I’m eating healthy food, so it doesn’t really matter how much I take in.” I was wrong.

Similarly, for many women, simply eating when our bodies “tell us to” can get us into a lot of trouble, especially when you haven't spent time practicing "tuning in" to your body. Some women’s brains tell them to eat all of the time in response to stress, boredom, or just because food is there, while other women don’t have enough of an appetite and may not eat enough to support activity and muscle growth. In the end, calories still matter and can be the difference between fat loss (not always scale weight loss) and fat gain—even if you are eating “healthy food.”

caloriecounting-cass-3months-450x431 2

That brings me to today: I’m 36 years old and, after finally deciding to add calorie-tracking back into my life in a sensible and practical manner, I’ve been able to get back to a weight that feels healthy to me.

Tracking your caloric intake is just one part of the caloric-balance equation, and should be coupled with physical activity to keep your heart and lungs strong, and your muscles happy. If you are using exercise as punishment, or are miserable doing it, you need to find a method you enjoy and can do with a smile on your face. For me, that’s lifting weights and mountain biking. For you, it could be doing group fitness classes and running. It’s your choice.

This was my recent three-month transformation. By tracking my calories, I reduced my body fat percentage and lost a few pounds of fat to get back to where I feel the most comfortable in my body.

How to Count Calories Without Letting Them Take Over Your Life

The good news is that you don’t have to track calories obsessively or even all that precisely to achieve the caloric intake you need for healthy weight loss or maintenance. You simply need to have a good awareness of what you’re putting in your mouth and its rough caloric content. That said, if it’s been some time since you last looked at the calories in the foods you eat and considered how they add up during the day, tracking your caloric intake for a couple of weeks may be a good way to refresh your caloric knowledge before you are able to do it more intuitively.

caloriecounting-casshappyworkingout-450x300As it turns out, calorie tracking was right for me, and I haven’t become obsessed about it. I do this by using the MyFitnessPal app to check my intake some days. Some days I don't track. I am just in a better place these days, and I don't obsess about having super-low body fat anymore. A lot of that came from intentional work I've done to move away from the obsessing, but age and maturity have also helped me gain perspective on what is important. I have found a balance between eating when I need it and eating when I want it, that helps me look and feel my best. And that’s my goal for you.

Your goal in calorie tracking is to bring more awareness to how much food you’re actually taking in, and learn if that amount of food is too much (or too little) for what your body really needs. Since we know that our estimation of calories in and calories out is just a guesstimate at best, we still need to listen to our bodies and never get to a place in which we compromise our physical health or emotional well-being.

That said, since it’s necessary to create a caloric deficit to achieve weight loss, it is likely that you will experience a little bit of discomfort and hunger. And it’s OK. If you were always full before, getting used to your tummy being a little empty for a few hours is not necessarily a bad tactic. We live in a society in which food is readily available at any time and in any place, and if you’re used to eating before you actually feel hungry, it may seem weird to go without food for an hour or two longer than your normal eating times. Waiting a little bit longer to eat and allowing yourself to feel a little bit hungry will help you tune in to your body’s signs of physiological hunger versus eating just because “it’s time,” or because “it’s there,” or because you’re feeling bored or stressed.

To regain an understanding of how much food and calories you are taking in, you can track your meals in a variety of ways, with as much or as little detail as you feel comfortable tracking. For example, you can track using one of the many calorie tracking apps available (I like MyFitnessPal). You can write down your meals in a diary (this can be a notebook, a spreadsheet, a piece of paper, a whiteboard, etc.). You can rate your meals on a number scale or mark them with a check or “x” based on a predetermined set of guidelines you want to follow for each meal such as whether the meal meets a specific portion size, includes a protein source, includes veggies, etc. You can also use portion-control containers. Use whatever method you feel will bring you more awareness so that you can avoid “mindless” eating without losing your mind.

Remember, there should never be a point during any of this process that calorie or meal tracking disrupts your life.

Yes, you should make better choices and may need to scale back your portions from what you previously ate, but you should never, ever get to a point in which you lose your period or become so obsessed with food that it ruins your relationships with your body or with other people.

caloriecounting-cassandmollyfitnesssummit2016-270x438Also, know that if you have a history of disordered eating you need to reach a better place mentally and physically, with an appreciation for your body on multiple levels (function, process, and appearance) before you try to change it through caloric balance. Basically, if you don’t love your body now, you won’t love it at any weight or size.

Go Forth and Count… or Not!

The case for calorie counting may be compelling to you, or it might seem scary. I encourage you to approach your health and weight in a way that feels right for you.

Like I said, for me, when I recently integrated calorie counting back into my life, I was in a place in which I was ready to look at calories again in a healthy, balanced way. It affected my body in a positive way that has allowed me to feel like me again (a healthy me, not a calorie-obsessed, sick me).

Ultimately, whether you choose to count calories—again, or for the first time—or decide not to count calories at all, I leave you with this: whatever you want to achieve with your body will be much easier to attain if you approach it with balance, from a place of love and compassion rather than one of punishment and shame.

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About the author:  Cassandra Forsythe, PhD, RD

Cassandra Forsythe, PhD, RD, CSCS, CISSN is an Assistant Professor at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). She is a mother, entrepreneur, health and fitness enthusiast, and the author of The Modern Woman’s Guide To Good Nutrition. Cass is also on the advisory boards for Women’s Health magazine, and You can learn more about Cass on her website.


  1. Olson, M.B. et al. Weight cycling and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol in women: Evidence of an adverse effect. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. November 1, 2000. 36(5):1565-1571.
  2. Stevens, V.L. et al. Weight Cycling and Cancer Incidence in a Large Prospective US Cohort. Am. J. Epidemiol. July 23, 2015.

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