Calorie tracking is a popular practice within the dieting community. According to 2021 research published in Eating Behaviors, nearly one-third of respondents report having used a calorie-tracking app. These applications are some of the most popular dietary monitoring tools on the market, and their popularity hints at the growing trend of keeping track of caloric intake.
However, associations between calorie tracking and eating disorder symptomatology are a rising concern. Researchers have found that dieters using a calorie-tracking app for weight-control reasons were more likely to report several eating disorder symptoms than dieters using an app for health or disease prevention reasons. These symptoms include food preoccupation, all-or-none thinking around food, food anxiety, purging behaviors, and more.
As such, while the use of effectively designed calorie tracking methods and apps can still aid in safe and sustainable weight loss, it is important that we understand losing weight beyond the practice of counting calories.
The science of calorie counting
Counting calories can help many people lose weight because, biologically speaking, weight loss requires creating a calorie deficit. However, many people who count calories may fail to consider the quality of what they eat or underreport their calorie intake. It may also become easier for people to not meet their nutritional requirements because they have focused too much on factoring in calories instead.
Furthermore, calorie counting can increase anxiety about food and social evaluation. Melinda Karth M.S., M.A. writes that, from a neuroscience perspective, roughly 70-94% of individuals experience anxiety prior to an eating disorder onset. People who are consequently diagnosed with a restrictive food intake disorder have different ghrelin levels, wherein the hunger hormone is excessively secreted and stays elevated. This can cause people to count calories more obsessively while combating hunger, as the food restriction reduces the anxiety they may feel when encountering food.
The complex truth of weight loss
There are other variables beyond calorie intake that can affect an individual’s ability to process weight loss or gain. For instance, For one, there may be individuals whose bodies naturally have different ghrelin levels. These leptin-deficient patients have mutations in the leptin gene — which regulates hunger by providing the sensation of satiety — and require the prescription drug metreleptin to lose weight successfully. Prescription drugs for controlling obesity are common – there are also those who use GLP-1 for weight loss, drugs such as semaglutide, which increase the blood sugar levels after eating, helping you feel fuller, and hence less likely to snack.
Such medication targets biological mechanisms, such as hormones or metabolic functions, that affect individual weight. As such, FDA-regulated medications like orlistat, liraglutide, phentermine-topiramate, and naltrexone-bupropion are examples of other prescription drugs that induce medical weight loss. Through this, users (especially those with chronic weight issues) can better regulate their weight and address relevant concerns like preventing fat absorption in the intestines and helping the pancreas release insulin correctly.
These medications are commonly used in tandem with lifestyle recommendations, as a 2022 weight loss maintenance study in Obesity Science & Practice would demonstrate. Here, obesity pharmacotherapy, such as phentermine and topiramate, was combined with increased physical activity and reduced caloric intake via low glycemic diet, calorie counting, or meal replacements. 65.3% of patients achieved long‐term weight loss maintenance by the end.
Meanwhile, other people can achieve weight loss entirely without calorie counting. Here, they focus more on filling up with vegetables and whole foods. They also stay strictly away from ultra-processed foods, which are engineered to be hyper-palatable with high concentrations of added sugar and oils. The body can’t digest fiber for energy; hence foods rich in fiber tend to help you feel full on fewer calories. This allows an individual to reduce their food intake and naturally achieve a calorie deficit without any induced stress from calorie counting.
Calorie counting can be a helpful tool for weight loss, but when used incorrectly, it can easily backfire and produce undesirable results. It is important to do your research and craft a comprehensive weight loss plan that can help you sustainably achieve your weight loss goals.