Does Counting Calories Really Benefit Our Overall Health?

Counting calories can help us understand our actual energy intake, but it shouldn’t be used as the only tool in a person’s path to wellness.
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Does counting calories really benefit our overall health?

It can be an effective tool in a person’s weight-loss journey. However, it should be done in conjunction with consultation with a licensed dietitian’s recommendations.

Mike DiBiasi, director, sports and performance nutrition with UPMC Sports Medicine, says counting calories can be effective in showing a person the actual energy they are taking in and what they need to burn. He stresses it is not an effective method if you don’t understand where your weight is coming from.

“It depends if an individual is really struggling on the number of calories and energy they are consuming,” he adds. “But, it doesn’t tell us the whole story of a person’s body composition.”

He says a professional can help you determine if the extra weight a person is carrying is coming from excess fat, muscle tissue, water or a combination of the three.

A calorie is defined as the amount of heat energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius, according to an article published by

“Calories are normally used to describe the amount of energy your body gets from what you eat and drink. Food and beverages are where your body gets the calories it needs to function. Those calories come from one of the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat. During digestion, your body breaks down the foods you eat into smaller units. These subunits can either be used to build your own tissues or to provide your body with the energy it needs to meet its immediate needs,” the article reads.

How many calories do we typically need each day? 

The USDA dietary guidelines show women should consume between 2,000 and 2,400 calories per day and men should consume between 2,400 and 3,200 calories, depending on their age and activity level. Children should consume between 800 and 3,200, depending on their age, sex and activity levels.

To gain a general idea of the number of calories needed to lose weight, you can calculate your estimated needs with a calorie counter

“People tend to underestimate the amount of calories they take in and overestimate the amount of activity they actually do,” notes DiBiasi. “Calorie counting can give someone a better idea of where they sit in terms of actual energy intake.”

While there can be pros to counting calories, DiBiasi says there are also a lot of negatives involved in the process.

“There is a lot of technology out there, along with the smartphone apps,” he notes. “They aren’t necessarily the most reliable methods. For instance, they don’t have every food, brand or variety listed to accurately assess calories. People also underestimate the amount of food they take in. They will eat dinner and write in everything they ate, but forget to add how it was cooked, or the beverage they drank or that extra cookie they had with dessert.”

He adds counting calories is often associated with various eating disorders. 

“This can result in more anxiety and potentially cause more restraint in dietary patterns, which can inadvertently lead to more reduction in nutrient intake or other issues,” he says.

Individuals looking to begin counting calories as another tool in a weight-loss journey should do so in a two-fold process.

“I recommend using an app you are comfortable with to roughly assess your food intake, but also meet with a registered and credentialed dietitian to go over your food intake and fill any gaps you may be missing to give you a better understanding of where those missed opportunities are,” he says.

DiBiasi feels if a patient is interested in trying well-known weight loss programs that help them with counting calories or weight loss, he will “never dismiss an opportunity for someone to enhance their health or lose weight.”

“It’s just important for them to have a really good understanding of where they are now and how to change things from that point.”

Calculating the number of calories you are using for everyday living and whether you are eating more nutrient-dense foods versus more calorically-dense foods will also help in your path to better health.

“We really should make it a goal to exercise at least 150 minutes a week, which breaks down to about 30 minutes a day, five days a week,” he says. “A lot of people say they don’t have that time. But, breaking it up into two, 15-minute bouts has shown to have the same effect. “These little ‘fitness snacks’ can certainly improve the overall quality and energy expenditure.”

He adds those who have a more sedentary lifestyle and spend much of their day sitting at a desk (hello, writers!), should try to get up and move a little once every hour.

“Not only does that help increase your energy expenditure, but it also helps clear the mind for better quality work.”

While moving more does help with weight loss, the biggest factor in becoming healthier is nutrition.

“We help our patients increase their water and fluid intake, as well as increase their soluble and insoluble fiber, like oats, oatmeal, your major fruits and vegetables and whole grains like rice, pasta and bread. This increases the feeling of fullness and helps to regulate your blood sugar. We also focus on steady protein intake throughout the day, such as a cup of edamame, a few slices of deli meat with cheese, chicken breast on your salad and protein shakes or smoothies,” he says. 

DiBiasi stresses weight loss is not for everyone. 

“You need to ask yourself, ‘Do I really need weight loss to improve my quality of life or do I need to change my body composition?’” he says. “A licensed professional can help you to understand your health needs, your physiology, mental health and budget needs. Putting all of that together leads to better outcomes.”

Categories: BeWell