Calorie Counting: Helpful or Unproductive?

An abundance of caloric information is available to us on a daily basis. It's on food labels, diet-tracking websites and on restaurant menus, to name a few.

With the ever-expanding waistlines of many Americans due to moving less and eating more, people have turned to calorie counting as a way to manage weight, according to the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. But even with all of the caloric information at our disposal, is this really an effective or sustainable tool for maintaining weight?

Consider these guidelines when looking at the calorie-count debate.

1. Calories provide baseline information: If you're beginning a nutrition plan or trying to lose weight, getting an initial idea of daily caloric intake can be helpful. Although calories aren't the only determining factor of weight status, they certainly play a part. Consuming excessive calories on a regular basis leads to storage of fuel as fat in the body. Conversely, consistently consuming inadequate calories leads the body into starvation mode, where metabolism slows and the body holds onto fat for dear life. Neither of these situations is good.

More: The Truth About Calories, Fat and Fiber

2. Calories only provide an estimate of intake: Much of the criticism surrounding calorie counting stems from the reality that calories are really only an estimate of the energy produced by food and drinks. Translation: There is plenty of room for error in this measurement tool. Even when more intensive strategies are applied to calorie tallying (measuring and weighing), there's still variation in total calories produced.

More: Calorie Calculator

3. Calories are not the end-all measurement of dietary intake: Calories consumed relative to calories burned solely determine weight status, right? Wrong! There are several other factors to consider, one of the most important being resting metabolic rate (RMR). RMR represents the minimum number of calories needed to sustain vital body function, or how many calories one burns in a day. This number varies immensely among individuals based on fueling regime, exercise amount and activity throughout the day.

More: The 5 Biggest Fueling Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

The higher the better when it comes to RMR. Interestingly enough, low-calorie diets, as well as high carbohydrate/low fat diets, actually decrease RMR. "The body is designed to conserve energy when it senses a shortage of incoming available energy," says Tom Nikkola, senior director of nutrition and weight management at Life Time Fitness. Therefore, using calorie intake as the sole measure of weight status is far from accurate.

One should also consider macronutrient (carb/protein/fat) intake by percentage. As mentioned above, both low-calorie and high-carb, low-fat eating regimes prevent individuals from tapping into fat fuel stores. Sports Dietitian Bob Seebohar says that to truly be metabolically efficient, one needs to become less reliant on dietary carbohydrates and better equipped to utilize fat for fuel by consuming less carbs, more fat and adequate protein.

More: Do Low-Carb Diets Sap Performance?

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About the Author

Brooke Schohl

Brooke is a registered sports dietitian and the owner of Fuel to the Finish Endurance Nutrition Coaching/Destination Kona Triathlon Store in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is an avid triathlete, having recently completed her third Ironman. She integrates that personal experience and knowledge into developing customized, sport-specific fueling plans for her clients.

Brooke is a registered sports dietitian and the owner of Fuel to the Finish Endurance Nutrition Coaching/Destination Kona Triathlon Store in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is an avid triathlete, having recently completed her third Ironman. She integrates that personal experience and knowledge into developing customized, sport-specific fueling plans for her clients.

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