Do we still need to count calories?


Back in 2003 an obesity working group was established by the US Commissioner of Food and Drugs, charged to develop an action plan to deal with the nation’s obesity epidemic from the perspective of the US Food & Drugs Administration. In March 2004, the group released Calories Count: Report of the Obesity Working Group, addressing issues connected to food labelling, obesity therapeutics, research needs, the role of education, and other topics. Yet almost fifteen years later the problem has continued to grow – and not just in America. So, have calories counted? Or might counting calories be part of the problem?

With fears that a third of the US population is on its way to becoming diabetic and suggestions from prominent American real food alliance campaigners such as Dr Robert Lustig that type 2 diabetes should be renamed “Processed Food Disease”, increasingly it is being accepted that simply counting calories is not the solution to the obesity epidemic. Yet addressing the critical importance of what we eat remains on the margins across the world in the fight against the rise of chronic disease.

Is calorie counting satisfactory when it comes to evaluating food?

The short answer is NO. It seems extraordinary that this is still an issue, but to fully appreciate and understand food the sophisticated biochemistry of foodstuffs must be embraced. So, while calories are a perfect arithmetical measurement of energy, and useful for Big Food and the diet industry to use to compare their products to real food, they fail to assess the full benefits of the nutrient-dense quality of real food. Calories don’t identify the difference between consuming food with minimal processing and refining, maximising nutrition from natural ingredients, rather than artificial substances. (For futher reading check out four excellent studies on our Philosophy page.)

Calorie counting also doesn’t help identify whether we are eating foods that help protect the body, rather than foods that risk damaging it. If our diet is dominated by highly processed food, we cannot always be certain what we are consuming. When considering the production, processing, labelling and marketing of food, it’s hard to take anything at face value. Research continues to expose how increasingly sophisticated the food industry has become in engineering addictive processed products, filled with “empty calories”. These are foods that should be eaten rarely, yet these products continue to dominate the diets of much of the US population and increasingly that of other countries around the rest of the world.

An alternative approach to calorie counting

Addressing the importance of balance and variety in eating should be our primary goal. A routine nutrition high in plant-based foods i.e. consuming fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts can help alleviate part of this problem, and it is an approach that has been advocated by international agencies.

There is another reason for this. In the developed world, we might assume that micronutrient deficiency and malnutrition is not relevant, but obesity is a common example of malnourishment. A balanced routine nutrition is now strongly associated with the promotion of health and the reduction of major chronic disease.

The Just Routine approach

Of course, our relationship with food is a very personal one that develops from birth, heavily influenced by nature and nurture including our sex, taste, culture, society, wealth plus many other psychological and emotional issues, so keeping an open mind can be the first challenge when considering what we eat and why we may need to change.

Just Routine focuses on what we eat. Consuming more real food is the aim, as they make the metabolism work harder, a significant advantage in weight management, while also aiding our overall health. We also minimise the risk of loading ourselves up with empty calories from foods high in calories but low in nutrition. High-quality nutrient-dense real food takes more energy to break down and digest, in the process keeping blood sugar levels stable and better fulfilling energy demands. Powerhouse fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats will work together with all the elements to optimize nourishment, leaving a feeling of satiety and fullness.

Start small
  • Switching to healthier alternatives can require simple tweaks, good examples being:
  • Soda: switch from soda (regular or diet) to fizzy water or naturally flavoured water with cucumber, lemon & lime or orange
  • Carbohydrates: switch to 100% whole grain carbohydrates
  • Protein: keep it lean and eat red meat in moderation
  • Fats: don’t avoid healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, fatty fish)
Then just try to aim higher

If you would like to find out more about how to distinguish between foods that can benefit your health versus those that might damage it check out Just Routine.


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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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