Counting Calories – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

March 30, 2017 Kara McMahon


I spent two months counting calories, and I encountered good, bad and truly ugly aspects. Calorie counting consists of logging everything you eat, usually using a phone app like MyFitnessPal. The app calculates how much you should eat to maintain your current weight. A surplus of calories means that you are eating too much and a deficit means that you are eating at the level required to lose some weight.

At first, calorie counting was right for me. I never realized exactly how many calories I was burning while exercising. I could compare the output to what I’d eaten. It was good to know that my twenty minutes online HIIT training video equaled one scoop of Ben and Jerry’s.

However, bad situations with calorie counting cropped up as well. One day, I got a calzone with my friends, and there was no way to log this meal into the app. I would have liked a way to estimate or count out how much cheese there was, and so on.

Instead of letting it go, I delved into the ugly aspects of counting calories. Instead of spending time with my friends, I spent half an hour estimating exactly how much calzone I could eat without exceeding my calorie limit. My experience was just a small sample of benefits and disadvantages people face when trying to record their caloric intake. Let’s look at some more.

The Good
Calorie counting gives you a realistic view of what you are eating. Remember the days when restaurants didn’t list the calories in foods? I never would have guessed that coffee shakes would be 800 calories. People face the same realizations when they start counting calories. But this is a good thing because then you develop a better understanding of how many calories are in each type of food. Once you understand, you can make better choices to avoid over-eating and lose weight.

Counting calories can also be additional motivation to exercise. When I saw that I had exceeded my calorie limit for the day, I immediately busted out a cardio workout video. As the calories from working out were calculated, I got back on track. Checking the calories, you consume is a great reminder to work out. It also gives you a realistic idea of how much you need to work out to eat what you want.

The Bad

Despite technology’s best efforts to make calorie counting easier, it still sucks up a lot of time. You are always scanning bar codes, estimating what is in your food and tabulating every sauce and condiment. Keeping a food diary uses a lot of time. If you’re already time-stressed, it’s hard to make room to count your calories. Plus, any app glitches can be super frustrating. At 10 pm, you may notice that it had the wrong serving size for your lunch and you went over your calorie limit. Are you going to get out of bed to do a workout to get back on track?

With calorie counting, there is only one variable, calories. They go up and down, but that’s it. Technically, you could “game the system” and stay below your limit by eating celery all day. But isn’t that miserable? The system does not consider dietary needs (like fat and protein). It’s quite easy to drop your number of calories by focusing on low-fat and low-calorie foods, but many of these foods do not have the nutrients our bodies need. Happiness is also not a factor tracked in most apps. Some of us run the risk of oversimplifying our lives by focusing on calories alone. There are so many other factors that contribute to weight loss and enable us to live healthier lives.

The Ugly
You know it’s gotten ugly when your child tugs on your sleeve and you mumble something about counting calories and don’t look up from your phone. Counting calories can distract from social situations (and parenting situations). All that time devoted to counting calories is time away from friends and family. Working on your phone during family time is often perceived as anti-social or rude. Plus, you sometimes miss out on interesting conversations or sweet moments with your kids. 

The key is to avoid becoming neurotic about it. If you can set down your phone and cuddle with your kid for a few minutes before returning to work, you’ll probably be fine. If you can give yourself a break when you are at a restaurant with friends and turn off your phone, you’ll probably be fine. However, if you are the type of person that becomes very anal about goals (I would raise my hand at this point), calorie counting can become so important that you get neurotic about it. It’s not worth missing out on life to count calories, no matter how much you learn.

Cue the Western music. Calorie counting has both good, bad and ugly aspects. While it is a great learning and motivational tool, the time investment and potential for being neurotic are costly. To keep calorie counting firmly in the good category, it’s important to keep in mind that it is just a tool, not a lifestyle. With these limits in mind, you can confidently ride off into the sunset, confident that you will hit your goals.


Kara McManus from Home Fitness Life is passionate about helping people meet their fitness goals without having to leave the house. She works from home as a webmaster raising her 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. She hopes her content will make the world a fitter, happier place.

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