People often ask me why I don’t emphasize counting calories, especially for people who are looking to lose a lot of weight. I always answer that while I feel there is an importance in understanding and keeping track of the types and amounts of food that you consume on a daily basis – especially if you generally don’t pay attention – I’ve always felt that it is better to spend your efforts keeping a food log rather than endlessly racing between the treadmill and your mouth. 
The basic idea of calorie counting is that you simply write down everything you eat in a day, tally up all the calories and insure you stay below a fixed number for the day. Some people even to take it a step further, and also log the number of calories burned during the exercise, so they can better calculate their daily goal. Lastly, some people even go so far as to test their base metabolic rate using fancy devices like activity monitors. Base metabolic rate is the short way of saying “calories burned sitting around all day doing nothing”.

Keeping a journal of your food does require writing down all the things you eat throughout the day, but it emphasizes the actual portions of food rather than the calories. Generally, it also has information pertaining to the time of your meals, and other activities such as exercise or even just sitting down and watching TV. It also is important log how you feel after you eat a meal. You should also be looking at how much you eat, the times of the day that you eat, why you eat, and of course what you eat as well. The idea is to look at your actual eating habits, as this will generally play a part in your lifestyle. You can then go and take this information and figure out what works best for your particular lifestyle.

However, if you find that counting calories works for you, then by all means keep doing it. But here are my seven reasons that I feel a food journal is better than simply counting calories.

1. Mindfulness Is Key

I don’t mean to take the wind out of your sails, but if you are a successful calorie counter that it’s likely not because you’re a math expert. Research has shown that simply keeping track and recording your daily food intake entices people to choose better meals for themselves, even if they don’t realize it. This is probably the reason why many people swear by counting calories. But having a food journal also provide you with this benefit.

2. Calories Are Usually Very Inaccurate

If you do calorie counting then you’re likely relying on the nutritional information printed on the back of a food container. While this may be shocking to some people, it’s not illegal for the caloric information on foods to be off by as much as 25%. And I’m pretty sure that most of the food manufacturers don’t underestimate their values, that’s for sure! This is also true of restaurants, which are usually very far off the mark when it comes to true caloric data.

The same also holds true for non-processed foods, such as vegetables/fruits and meats. The calorie counts in these are typically averaged, and the food you actually consume is often times highly variable in terms of actual overall calories. Simple things like soil, season, and servings (what exactly is a large tomato, anyway?) Can have an effect on the amount of calories in the food you eat.

Measuring how many calories you burn can also be a bit difficult. Simply using a rough calculation based on average body mass index doesn’t really take into account your individual metabolism or how intense or effective your workouts are.

3. Your Caloric Needs Will Vary Daily

To take the numbers issue a step further, setting up a goal for your daily calorie intake can be problematic. For one thing, our needs can fluctuate daily, depending of course upon how physically active we were during the day. Also, if you are looking to lose weight your caloric intake should be decreased as well. Calculating how much is a bit tricky however, as that will depend entirely upon the amount of muscle and fat in your body. To put it another way, your caloric needs today will vary greatly from your caloric needs next week and vice versa.

4. Limiting Your Calories Encourages Binging

Having an arbitrary goal set for your caloric intake can also encourage a bit of binge eating. Studies have shown that people who are dieting tend to have “good” and “bad” days, wherein if they stayed within their goal for the day they tended to stick to their food plan, but if they won above their goal, they would often times eat much more than necessary, since they felt that they screwed up and would do better the next day. What ends up happening is that dieters will tend to eat more than they would if they weren’t dieting, which would undo days of good behavior. Having this psychology can actually cause great harm to your dieting plans in the long run.

5. When You Count calories, You Encourage “Nutritionism”

Nutritionism is a new buzzword coined by the processed food industry. Basically, the large food conglomerates have used this technique to market many unhealthy processed foods and label them as healthy. Counting calories encourages a linear way of thinking, and ignores the importance of consuming whole foods. The food you consume should be of good quality, especially if you’re on a diet as you will be limiting the amount of food you intake on a daily basis. This makes it important to get as much nutrient rich food into your diet as you can, because nutritionally deficient people cannot exercise or lose weight effectively.

6. Keeping A Food Journal Will Help You To Form Habits

Food journals do much more than simply track your calories and portion size. If you are studious about recording the exact times of the day that you consume your meals, and the other activities that relate to your food consumption, you will be able to quickly notice a pattern emerging. This will help you become aware of your eating habits and you can identify what triggers them, and the mental or physical reward that reinforces them. Having this knowledge is incredibly helpful because you will be able to create a new habit and avoid the ones that are keeping you from achieving your goals. That’s why it’s important to emphasize habits instead of simply counting calories.

7. Counting Calories Is A Bit Tedious

When it comes to keeping track of your food and health, it should be enjoyable; not a tedious chore. Calorie counting goes against this mantra. The key difference between keeping a journal and counting calories is that one is temporary and the other is not. Keeping a journal of your food habits helps you to build awareness, will teach you how to better judge your portion sizes. Once you have enough practice, you can forgo keeping a journal entirely.

Bottom line: Counting calories doesn’t really teach you anything. You will only be able to tell if you had a good day or a bad day. And since people typically stop paying attention to calories once they reach their desired weight, most people will gain that weight back gradually once they stop counting calories, since restricting your eating is not something that comes naturally to humans. If you wanted to keep the weight off indefinitely with the calorie counting method, you would have to keep track of your calories indefinitely and restrict your eating constantly. This does not seem very fun to me in the long haul.
If you keep a food journal, you can always turn back to it if you have a plateau or start to gain weight again. But the idea is to not become obsessed with journaling, unlike calorie counting. The way I see it, life is a little too short to be so worried about every calorie you take in on a day-to-day basis.