Calorie counting is a popular weight-loss method that involves tracking your daily intake of calories. But have you ever wondered if you can lose weight without counting calories?
If you’re on a weight loss journey, it is likely you’ve at least considered tracking your calories, or maybe you’ve been doing it on and off for years. Either way, you may be wondering if it is necessary, especially if calorie counting isn’t serving you.
While counting calories works for some, it’s not necessarily for everyone. You can implement other habits to support your weight loss goals that don’t involve tracking your calorie count.
In today’s article, I will be going over the pros and cons of counting calories and giving you 10 ways to lose weight without counting calories. Keep reading to learn more!
How weight loss works
Before we dive into the pros and cons of calorie counting, it’s helpful first to understand how weight loss works.
Calories are the unit of energy that a food or drink provides. The amount of calories that something contains is generally listed on its food label.
The basic foundation of weight loss is to achieve what is called a calorie deficit. A calorie deficit is when you are eating fewer calories than you are burning.
Have you heard of the term “calories in vs calories out”? This refers to a calorie deficit and paying attention to what calories you are taking in through food vs. the amount you are exerting.
Your body burns calories through exercise, daily activities, breathing, and more. When you eat more calories than you burn, your body may store this extra energy as fat, leading to weight gain.
On the flip side, when you are in a calorie deficit, your body starts to utilize fat stores for energy, leading to weight loss.
I help my weight loss clients create a modest calorie deficit in their diet, just enough to tip the scale in the right direction but not too low that they feel hungry or restricted.
The pros and cons of counting calories
Let’s go over some pros and cons of counting calories.
Calorie counting has been used as the “gold standard” for weight loss for decades. And for a good reason, counting your calories can have benefits and help you reach your weight loss goals.
Pros of calorie counting include:
Brings awareness to what you are eating.
Tracking your calories can bring awareness to what foods you are eating. It causes you to pause and think before eating food since you will have to track it. This extra step of accountability helps some people not overeat or mindlessly snack.
I have had many clients who were initially unaware of how much they were eating until they started calorie counting. It helps many of them increase awareness of their habits and what may be hindering their weight loss.
Encourages you to read food labels.
Since you need to look at food labels to track calories, it encourages you to read and notice the rest of the labels. You may be more inclined to pay attention to ingredient lists and other nutrient levels that are important for weight loss, such as protein and fiber.
Ensures you are in a calorie deficit.
Calorie counting is the easiest way to ensure that you are in that calorie deficit I discussed earlier. If you aren’t tracking the numbers, it may be more difficult to know when you are overeating.
Promotes weight loss if done strategically.
Many studies support the idea that if you are accurately and consistently tracking your calorie intake, you are likely to lose weight throughout the process.
Calorie counting does have cons to consider alongside the pros.
Cons of calorie counting for weight loss include:
A huge downside to calorie counting is that it can feel tedious and time-consuming. You have to make sure you are measuring out serving sizes, checking food labels, and likely using some sort of tracking app such as MyFitnessPal.
Many people are turned off by the time it takes to log everything they are eating or find it causes more stress.
Needs to be done accurately to work.
Calorie counting has a lot of room for errors. It is easy to forget to track all of the food you eat or inaccurately measure portion sizes. Many people underestimate portions and how many calories they are eating. If you aren’t tracking accurately and consistently, it isn’t going to give you proper results.
If you are tracking, it is going to be most accurate if you do it right after eating versus waiting to the end of the day.
Can promote disordered eating habits.
Tracking your calories can promote disordered eating habits. Many people begin to obsess over the numbers, not allowing themselves to eat meals or foods that would be higher in calories out of fear.
Doesn’t reflect the quality of your food.
While calculating your macros for weight loss focuses on the numbers, it doesn’t take into account the quality of your food. Your food is more than just the calories inside it, which is why I often take an 80/20 diet approach with my clients.
For example, 100 calories of french fries vs. 100 calories of black beans are going to have very different nutrient profiles, and that is important to take into account as the beans are going to be more nutritious and more filling for the same amount of calories.
10 ways to lose weight without counting calories
If calorie counting is not for you, there are many other healthy habits you can focus on instead in your weight loss journey. Let’s get into 10 ways to lose weight without counting calories!
1. Prioritize protein at most meals
Protein is one of the three macronutrients (in addition to carbohydrates and fats) and is essential for weight loss. Studies confirm that eating a higher protein diet promotes sustainable weight loss by helping you feel fuller for longer, therefore eating fewer calories.
It is important to prioritize eating a protein source with most of your meals. Foods that are high in protein include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, tofu, dairy, beans, and lentils.
2. Eat high-volume foods
Incorporating high-volume foods into your day can help with losing weight. High-volume foods are foods that are low in calories and high in volume so that you can eat more of them while staying in a calorie deficit naturally.
High-caloric foods often lack nutritional value, so you get more bang for your buck with high-volume, low-calorie foods.
3. Create a plan
There is nothing worse than feeling like you don’t have a plan! Sitting down and creating a basic meal plan for yourself can promote weight loss and confidence in what you are eating.
Pause and take 5-10 minutes at the beginning of the week to roughly plan out your meals and snacks. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but even a starting plan can help you stay on track and feel motivated toward your goals.
4. Choose whole, minimally-processed foods
Focusing on the quality of your food is a great way to lose weight without tracking numbers. Research supports the idea that a diet full of ultra-processed foods leads to weight gain and a higher risk for obesity.
When possible, try to choose whole, minimally processed food choices. These options will be filled with more vitamins and minerals that your body needs. It can be helpful to shop mainly around the perimeter of the store where the whole foods tend to be.
5. Cook your meals at home
Try to cook your meals at home as often as you can, as you have full control over what’s going into your food. You are more likely to be mindful of your ingredients and portion sizes when you are cooking at home vs. eating out at a restaurant.
Further, restaurants and fast food are often high in sodium, sugar, and calories. Even if you choose a meal like a salad, the dressing and toppings can make it a less healthy choice than you’d think.
6. Be mindful of portion sizes
The quantity of your food still matters when it comes to weight loss. Make sure to be mindful of your portion sizes, even if you aren’t measuring every meal. Otherwise, the extra calories can start to add up fast!
For example, 3 tbsp of peanut butter has significantly more calories than 2 tbsp. The same goes for other higher-calorie foods such as avocados, coconut oil, cheese, and more.
7. Add more fiber into your day
Fiber is truly a superstar nutrient for losing weight. Increasing your fiber intake throughout the day can help suppress your appetite, which is likely to reduce your overall caloric intake.
Dietary fiber is found in whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Add a hearty salad to your day, or sprinkle chia seeds over your oatmeal to boost your fiber intake.
8. Tap into your hunger and fullness cues
If you eat when you aren’t hungry, it adds unnecessary calories to your day, decreasing your chance of staying in a calorie deficit.
By learning your hunger and fullness cues, you can ensure that you only eat when you are hungry and not out of boredom or negative emotions.
9. Focus on a good night’s rest
Getting adequate sleep is an underrated component of weight loss, but it can really make a difference. Studies confirm that getting a good night’s rest can promote weight loss, prevent weight gain, and improve other aspects of your overall health.
If you want to enhance your sleep quality, you can shut off any blue light at least 30 minutes before bed, put on a white noise machine in the background, or have a cup of chamomile tea.
10. Increase your daily movement
One way to get into a calorie deficit without eating less or tracking calories is by increasing your daily movement. The more you move your body, the more calories you will burn.
While an exercise routine is important, you can also focus on increasing movement in other areas of your life. A few examples are going on a walk with your dog after dinner, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and playing with your kids outside at the park.
This type of movement outside of scheduled exercise is referred to as “NEAT” exercise and is an important piece of the energy-burning equation.
I have had several clients see success from tracking calories, which it really helped them become more mindful and accountable for sticking to healthy eating habits.
I have also had clients that preferred not to track calories but to focus on tracking their habits instead. Because of this, I recommend several tracking options to my clients, and it doesn’t always have to be a calorie-counting app like MyFitnessPal or Lose It!.
There are other mindful eating apps I use, such as the food journal app called Ate. This is a visual mindful eating app where you simply take a picture of what you’re eating, your hunger level, and how you feel before and after you eat it.
This app has been very helpful for many of my clients to change habits and is less time-consuming to use compared to the traditional calorie-counting apps.
As a dietitian, part of my goal is not to have my clients track calories forever. I hope that through our work together, you can get to a place where you have the tools to know the nutrition breakdown of what you’re eating and more easily make choices that align with your goals.
While calorie counting can effectively ensure you are in a calorie deficit, it is also time-consuming and can lead to disordered eating habits.
Instead, you can lose weight without counting calories by focusing on the quality of your food, getting a good night of sleep, and increasing your daily movement.
Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss. What works for one person may not work for you, and that’s okay! A personalized approach is necessary to reach your health and weight loss goals.
If you want to stop worrying about every calorie and instead learn how to listen to your body, contact me to schedule a complimentary nutrition call. We’ll talk through your biggest goals and see if my sustainable weight loss program is a good fit for you.