There’s a UK Telegraph article published today entitled, “The big fat calorie countiing con.” The article claims that calorie counting is “scientifically flawed”, and that “it could be doing more harm than good.” The article then links to an OPINION paper and calls it “research.” The paper, entitled “How calorie-focused thinking about obesity and related diseases may mislead and harm public health. An alternative”, as well as the Telegraph article linking to it, create a giant strawman.
The strawman is that the concept of calorie counting is flawed because it ignores food quality and treats all food calories the same. This is utter nonsense. Calorie counting is simply an awareness tool, no different from regularly stepping on the scale to check your body weight. Both are types of self-monitoring. Now, just because the scale can’t tell you how much fat or muscle you’re losing doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Likewise, just because calorie counting can’t tell you the quality of those calories doesn’t mean it’s not useful. You can still overeat on “quality” calories and not reach your weight loss goals. Ultimately, calories still matter whether you like to believe it or not.
The article brings up the usual “a calorie is a calorie” strawman as well. Technically, yes, a calorie is a calorie in terms of energy. This doesn’t mean they will have identical impacts on your body; no one that I know who considers calories important takes this position. This is why it’s a strawman. No one is saying that eating 1000 calories of jelly beans is the same as eating 1000 calories of steak. Of utmost importance is satiety; for example, protein calories are more satiating than carbohydrate or fat calories in general, allowing you to eat less. In this sense, the quality matters. But if you’re trying lose weight and fat, ultimately you still need to eat less calories than you expend. In this sense, calorie counting simply becomes an awareness tool to help you achieve that goal.
The research is very clear on calorie counting, and it demonstrates that calorie counting is beneficial. In one study, people who frequently recorded their food intake lost over twice as much weight as people who infrequently recorded their food intake. Another study showed that self monitoring of food intake was positively associated with weight loss success, and not monitoring at all was negatively associated with weight change.
This doesn’t mean you have to count calories to be successful. But the research shows that you are more likely to be successful if you do. Again, it’s just an awareness tool. There is no credible scientific data that I am aware of to show that using this awareness tool is misleading or harmful. What is misleading or harmful is when people create strawmen over what calorie counting actually means.