Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Work

counting calories doesn't work

counting calories doesn't work

In the four years since my wife and I have been married, I have gained (at the peak) 40 lbs. Surprisingly (or not), 30 of that came during 2014. Between the stress of family issues, living on my own for a couple of months (nachos for a week, anyone?), and having little spare time to exercise between balancing a full-time job and a freelancing career, I sort of really let myself go.

At one point during one of my sporadic bursts of resolve, I decided that if I couldn’t find time to exercise and burn calories, I was just going to count them. After all, it’s just like money, isn’t it? I have a certain budget to work with every day and I’m not allowed to go over budget. I’m all about financial surpluses, so why should this be any different? So I downloaded just about every calorie counting app I could find to see which one worked the best and away I went!

Thinking about food all the time makes you want food

I think about my financial budget every day. Reaching our financial goals is important to me. But when I’m thinking about my budget, it doesn’t make me want to go out and spend. It makes me more conscious about where I can save. What about the calorie budget? Well, let’s just say it’s not a good idea to tell an overweight person the best way for them to lose weight is to think about food more. 


I was obsessing over how to balance three meals and snacks in between without going over, and analyzing everything I saw. “Hmmmm I wonder if I could fit that in,” or “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper? How about I do a banana until dinner, then I can eat half a pizza?”

It’s less about what it is and more about how much

When I was focused on budgeting my calories, I was so hell-bent on getting that energy deficit that I wasn’t paying attention to what I was putting into my body. Take the pizza example above. To someone with a goal of 1,750 calories, a banana and half a pizza doesn’t sound too off, right? But eating half a pizza is always a poor life choice.

Rather than focusing on making sure I eat the right foods, like fruits, veggies, and less meat and carbs, I was twisting the program to make sure I could still fit in all the garbage food (I still miss you, ramen). The only purpose fruits and vegetables served was so I could keep my nachos.

You lose sight of the big picture

Budgeting for the sake of budgeting is crap. It’s a means to an end, not an end unto itself. When I did get a chance to exercise, it was only to increase my budget to buy me more calories. Sure, my goal was still to lose weight, but after a while that goal was swallowed up in “I’m going to go for a run. Sweet, when I get back I can eat that brownie” or “I’m going to be so pissed if this potluck kills my calorie goal today.”

As far as potlucks, traveling, holidays, and all those other roadblocks, life is like that sometimes. But one day (or even a week) isn’t going to kill you or your long-term goal. The same goes for your financial life, by the way. If you’re obsessively counting beans just because, you’re missing the point. What’s the goal? What happens if your car breaks down? To be able to reach your goals while maintaining your sanity, you have to be able to see the forest through the trees.

Have fun not splurging!

When I first started budgeting as a single dude back in September 2009, I was doing pretty darn good until December (that magical month of financial and gastronomic binging). I felt like I had been doing pretty well, so I decided to let myself splurge just a little and not track my budget. During the first week of January I decided to check on how I did, and my “little” splurge turned into over $500 more than I had planned on spending. Yikes!

With my calorie counting, the same thing happened. Every. Freaking. Time. “You know what? I’ve done awesome this week. I’m going to treat myself with this pizza.” 15 minutes later… “Did I just eat that whole thing?” The evening was actually the worst time for me, and still is. I’d save up my calories just because I knew I tended to graze after dinner, but that rarely stopped me from overdoing it.

As embarrassing as it is to say this, it never really crossed my mind that the behavior of grazing after dinner is one I should give up.

Why counting calories doesn’t work

It’s simple. Counting calories doesn’t work because it does nothing to change your lifestyle or your behavior. It’s just a way to try to fit your current behaviors into a smaller box. It’s also just not sustainable. Sure, it’s exciting when you first start, but after a while it’s just downright annoying.

When I think back on a similar weight gain I had in high school, I didn’t lose it all because I was counting calories like a mad fiend (I don’t even think it was a thing back then). I lost 40 lbs. in high school because I did three things:

  1. I exercised almost daily.
  2. I cut out high-fat and high-sugar foods from my diet (including soda).
  3. I stopped eating after 7 p.m.

There were times here and there when I broke the rules a little, but I generally stuck to those behaviors and was able to reach my goal in just a few months. So if you’re trying to lose weight, like I am now (again), let’s focus more on that lifestyle.

p.s. Don’t even get me started on those stupid fad diets. Save your money and work on yourself rather than making others rich.


20 thoughts on “Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Work

  1. I completely agree with you on this!! Counting calories makes you obsess over food and you wind up eating more. My husband and I are trying to eat healthier and get back into shape, and like you said – it’s all about changing your lifestyle. My biggest weakness is baking and eating sweets (confession: I had no-bake cookies for breakfast) but I love fruits and veggies so it’s just a matter of cutting out the crap and adding more of the healthy items!

    Good luck to you on this journey!!

  2. I see what you’re saying Ben, though I would take a somewhat different angle. Before my wife and I started losing weight we both counted our calories for a week or two. We ate how we normally ate, at the time that is, and used it as a means to see what we were really consuming. That was the first step to us losing about a combined 130 pounds thus far. For us, it went back to the idea that we couldn’t make any changes unless we knew what we were doing and counting the calories helped us towards that end as long as we weren’t gaming it to excuse things of course.

    I knew, of course, that I couldn’t lose much weight at all if my diet largely consisted of things from the Little Debbie line of snacks, but I had to see what exactly I was consuming in a day so I could begin the process of knowing what to cut. Ultimately, we’re not counting them now because we’ve changed our outlook on eating entirely and know the choices we need and should be making, but counting calories for a few weeks helped us jumpstart that.

    Good luck with the weight loss Ben, I’m right there with you trying to kill my goal with it too. 🙂

    1. First of all, NICE WORK on 130 lbs. together. That’s awesome! I can agree with your thought process. I’ll be honest, before I started counting calories, I was generally clueless about how many calories were in pretty much anything. So yes, I think it’s good as a way to find out where you’re not doing so hot and what foods you can focus on to get to where you need to be.

      Good luck and keep on keepin’ on 🙂

    1. I’m sure it’s extra hard to do in NYC. I’ve only been there once for a couple of days and I’d say the food was my favorite attraction 🙂 But yes, you’re right. Being honest with yourself is definitely important. I have to catch myself at that often.

  3. I also think people should find their own preferred method(s) of exercise. I hate running so any time I’ve set goals about running I never meet them. I found out that I like weightlifting and now I got 5-6 days a week and wake up extra early just to have time for it in my life. You need to be very forgiving and experimental when you start looking for new healthy habits. Who knows, we may see Ben in the CrossFit games in a few years!

    1. Is it bad that I didn’t even know that CrossFit does games? You’re right though. I’ve only recently started doing calisthenics with a long-distance workout buddy, but I basically told him I’m not doing machines because I hate them. I do enjoy running though, and swimming. So those are easier to schedule and do without wanting to quit immediately afterward.

  4. I think there is an argument for both. Using sites like myfitnsspal to count calories is a great way to learn about portion control because so many people do not understand what they are eating and how much. So you start learn those tools. But I agree you DO end up thinking about food ALL. THE. TIME. So I would never do it long term because for me then it comes down to sensible choices. So I wouldn’t discount it entirely, but maybe long term it’s not such a good idea.

    1. Myfitnesspal works really well and has helped many people I know lose weight. A lot of my friends have also had lots of success with Weight Watchers. Like Tonya said… it is all about portion control and those two sources can teach you portion control and that when you make a choice you may have to sacrifice somewhere else. My friends who have kept weight off is because these tools helped them do a lifestyle change, which is what is really needed to keep it off long term.

      In the end, what works for you, may not work for me and vice versa. The key is to just make a change and keep going until you find something that works for you.

    2. Yeah I think you have the same idea as John. It’s a good starter to understand that, hey I’m actually eating twice as much of EVERYTHING as I should. Seriously, the stats on portions these days are terrifying.

  5. Love the comparison with budgeting. I don’t really budget anymore, because when I had a strict one I would just try to make things fit and that’s all i cared about. Once I realized I spent a good amount less than I bring in, I just decided to get rid of the headache of keeping a budget and focus on making more and spending less. Great post Ben.

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