20 Truths and Lies You’ve Been Told About Counting Calories

You’ve probably heard the benefits of counting calories. It’s an easy way to track what and how much you’re eating and make sure you’re living a healthy lifestyle. But you also know not to believe everything you hear or read. Although maintaining a calorie-conscious lifestyle certainly has its pros, the list of cons are equally long. Here are some of the facts and myths of calorie counting.

True: Eliminating 500 calories per day helps you lose weight

A bowl of fruit sits next to a scale

Healthy eating will further your weight-lose goals. | iStock.com/demaerre

Once you figure out how many calories you’re eating, on average, you can use this information to cut back. For example, if you’re eating 3,500 calories per day, you can cut back to 3,000. Over time, you could lose about a pound per week, says Toby Amidor, R.D. and author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen. According to the National Institute of Health, a safe rate of weight loss is 1 to 2 pounds per week.

False: It’s an accurate way to lose weight

Woman writing down calorie consumption

Keep an honest log of your daily calories. | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

Yes, losing and even maintaining weight is all about calories in versus calories out. But tracking these numbers is very tedious and easier said than done. In fact, studies have found many people under-report what they eat, which leads to a calorie count that’s inaccurate. But tracking what you’re eating is a good way to hold yourself accountable, so consider jotting down the amount of calories in your meals directly after eating to maintain realistic measurements.

True: Labels can lie (and often do)

Magnifier highlighting nutrition fact label

Nutrition facts aren’t always accurate. | iStock.com/chyenchyen

While it’s important to keep an eye on the nutritional value and calorie count of the food you eat, don’t believe every single label you read. Recent studies show the production work that goes into creating your favorite foods — crushing, slicing, mashing — can significantly affect the number of calories in each box or container, meaning they can vary. Therefore, it’s important to remember nutritional values are mere estimates, and the quality of the content you’re eating should play a key role.

False: If you burn 3,500 calories, you’ll lose a pound

people at gym on elliptical bikes

Burning 3,500 calories doesn’t necessarily equal a pound lost. | iStock.com/MaxRiesgo

Not so fast. “In theory, this concept may be true, but in practice our bodies are programmed to hang around a set weight, so this may not as evenly equate to 1 pound lost as you think,” explains Isabel Smith, R.D., a New York City-based celebrity dietitian and fitness expert. “Also, fluids are involved (especially for women) with weight, so while you may have cut 3,500 calories, you may be eating a lot of salt that’s causing you to retain fluid.” And it’s this fluid that might be preventing you from actually seeing this theoretical 1-pound weight loss.

True: Calories work differently depending on the food source

Raw chicken breasts

Protein requires more energy to digest. | iStock.com/voltan1

Digesting a high-protein calorie source, such as steak or chicken, will require a lot more energy — an estimated 10 to 20 times more — than digesting fats or sugary foods, such as candy. But remember this isn’t shown on the food’s nutrition information. While a cupcake might say it’s the same amount of calories (or fewer) than a serving of grilled chicken, its effect on your body will be entirely different.

False: Drinks don’t count

iced tea with lemon slice

Don’t forget beverages when counting calories. | iStock.com

When counting calories, it’s vital you include anything that goes in your mouth, including (and especially) any beverages. According to the 2015 dietary guidelines, one of the top sources of added sugar is drinks, such as lemonade, soda, and sweet tea. Even specialty coffees and alcohol should be counted in your daily calorie tally.

True: Cutting calories too drastically can have negative side effects

Woman is looking at donut

Drastically cutting calories isn’t healthy. | iStock.com/YakobchukOlena

“This is the biggest misnomer that I find with my clients,” Smith says of cutting calories drastically. “They want to lose weight, so they pull back the reins on eating, which can cause two issues. First, it can majorly slow down metabolism, which can get in the way of weight loss. And second, it can also cause us to be really hungry and reach for more sugary, starchy, and less-nutritious foods on the whole.” Her advice is never to dip below 1,000 calories a day, so you keep your metabolism revved up on a constant basis.

False: It’s all you need to do to be healthier

Businessman having a salad

It’s the type of calories you consume that counts for your health. | iStock.com/demaerre

Sure, if you stay under a certain amount of calories a day, you might lose weight. But that doesn’t mean you are healthier. There is a lot more than just calories when you’re talking about keeping your body healthy. “What you eat is just as important as how much you eat,” Amidor says. “So it’s important to have a varied diet that includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low or nonfat milk, and lean protein.” These key nutrients and food groups will help you become your healthiest self.

True: It encourages you to make better food choices

Happy woman eating green apple

Learn the caloric content of your usual foods. | iStock.com

When you are focused on counting calories, you become more aware and informed about the calorie costs of foods. For example, if you’re heading to your favorite lunch spot to get your usual salad, consider inquiring how many calories are in the dish. Depending on the type of dressing and ingredients in the salad, you might be surprised to learn your so-called healthy lunch is costing you just as much in calories as your co-worker’s burger and fries.

False: Nutritionists’ estimates are always right

Tacos on a plate with guacamole

Take a nutritionist’s advice as another opinion rather than fact. | iStock.com

Although we’d like to think our food-focused experts know all, they also make mistakes in judging how many calories are in certain foods. In fact, while researching for her book The Portion Teller Plan, Lisa R. Young, R.D., showed 200 dietitians five different restaurant meals and found their caloric estimates for each meal were significantly inaccurate. Some meals even contained twice the amount of calories as the experts predicted.

True: It might encourage you to be more physically active

woman running up on mountain stairs

Focus both on calories you take in and calories you burn. | iStock.com/lzf

If you’re focused on calories in and calories out — meaning the food you eat for fuel and the amount of fuel you burn off by physical movement — you might be inspired to work out more often. Doing so might allow room for more food choices. This also serves as increased motivation to live a healthier lifestyle overall. “When you know that you’re taking action to make better food decisions, you feel more in control at addressing health issues,” says Vandana Sheth, R.D. in Palos Verdes, California.

False: It works for everyone

nutritionist working at desk and writing medical records

Seek help from a nutritionist. | iStock.com/demaerre

Calorie counting just doesn’t work for some people. Weight loss needs to be individualized, and some folks aren’t as well-versed in nutrition to know exactly which foods they eat and drink are costing them major calories. But if it doesn’t work for you, don’t fret. You can seek the help of a registered dietitian nutritionist in order to find some other tactics that work. Find one in your area on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ website.

True: It’s one of many things to focus on for healthy eating

calorie count of food on a plate

Combine calorie counting with other healthy choices. | iStock.com/ssuaphoto

Although calorie counting can be helpful for people interested in seeing the effects of food and exercise on their bodies, it’s not the only thing to focus on for a healthy lifestyle. Instead, focus on eating regular and well-balanced meals, be mindful of portions, keep track of your food and beverages through a food journal or an app, and make time for regular physical activity.

False: Types of calories you consume don’t matter

Meat, fish and eggs on wooden surface

Choose nutrient-dense foods. | iStock.com/grinvalds

Calories are certainly important, but the types of calories you’re eating are key. “One thousand calories of starch will be different when it comes to how they make you feel (less satisfied) than 1,000 calories of fat or protein (more satisfied),” Smith says. Our body releases satiety hormones when we consume more nutrient-dense foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds. “These foods keep us satisfied for longer and also take more energy for break down from our bodies,” Smith says.

True: We don’t absorb all the calories we eat

almonds in a bowl

Almonds might have fewer calories than previously thought. | iStock.com

Especially when it comes to foods higher in fat and fiber, scientists have found the standard ways of measuring calories don’t suffice. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found almonds might have about 20% fewer calories than previously documented. More specifically, when our body breaks down the fat content, we’re not actually absorbing all of it.

False: The fewer calories you eat, the more weight you lose

Salad and apple surrounded by measuring tape on rustic wooden table

Your body needs a certain amount of calories to function. | iStock.com/Martinina

According to the National Institute of Health, you shouldn’t eat fewer than 800 calories a day. Otherwise your body will assume it is lacking food and go into starvation mode. It will start holding onto fat and calories, making it tougher to lose weight no matter how few calories you’re consuming. The lowest amount of calories recommended for women is between 1,000 and 1,200 per day and for men it’s between 1,200 and 1,600 per day. Aim to make smart food choices that won’t allow you to drop lower than those recommended amounts.

True: It’s easy to incorporate into daily life

Woman using calorie counter app

You can try using a calorie-counting app. | iStock.com/DragonImages

Although it’s certainly tedious and time-consuming, counting calories is relatively easy. There are many apps available that make it simple to track calories and maintain eating journals that help you forecast your success. Sure, you still have to enter the data, but it’s much easier than doing all of the calculations yourself.

False: People have been doing it forever

scientist checks strawberries under microscope

Calorie counting originated in the 20th century. | iStock.com/luchschen

The concept of counting calories didn’t come to fruition until the turn of the 20th century, with the introduction of chemist Wilbur Atwater’s bomb calorimeter. He discovered if you put food in this machine, you could measure the ash and find out how much energy — or calories — was released. This introduced the concept of attributing caloric numbers to certain foods.

True: It might lead to more stress, which can cause weight gain

Overweight woman sitting on exercise ball with scale

The stress of counting calories can hinder the weight-loss process. | iStock.com/abadonian

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about in our day-to-day life, the thought of adding another to-do is exhausting. Plus, calorie counting is something we have to do multiple times a day, every single time we eat. Often, this can lead to more stress. And stress can be contradictory to the entire calorie-counting process by causing us to gain weight.

False: It automatically makes your diet balanced

Different foods on a wooden background

Base food choices on nutrients, not calories. | iStock.com/iprachenko

If you base all your food choices strictly from a caloric perspective, you might miss out on important nutrients. That could affect your health and well-being. For example, a small order of fries from a fast-food joint might cost you about 230 calories, and the same amount of calories might be acquired when you eat a mango. But the calories in a mango contain significantly more nutrients than the calories in the fries, not to mention a whole lot less saturated fat.