Counting calories is a messed-up way to think about food

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A recent story in The Atlantic argued that calories aren't a useful metric for weight loss: They're calculated in flawed ways, and there are differences in how individual bodies digest and metabolize them. Some researchers think dieters would be better served by focusing on nutrient density or some kind of as-yet-undetermined satiety value. These are great scientific arguments, but the psychological case against calories is also worth considering.

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People can and do lose weight with calorie-counting, and some swear by the system. But is it not unbelievably time-consuming and soul-sucking?

The existence of a calorie-counter is often defined by an obsessive focus on how to "spend" one's daily allotment. In this reductive schema, Skinny Vanilla Lattes, Diet Coke, and fat-free yogurt are all arguably smart choices because they help maximize the amount of food you can eat without going over your limit. This mentality is problematic, to say the least.

So-called "diet" foods, often low-fat and artificially sweetened, not only don't help you feel full, they can make you even more hungry. (In the case of fake sugar, when your brain doesn't actually get the sugar calories it thinks it's getting, it seeks them out.) Plus, they taste like garbage. But isn't bad-tasting food and a growling stomach the price you must pay in order to lose five, ten, or 100 pounds?

Not really. Although calorie math gives the illusion that you can exert some control over your body by tallying (and, of course, limiting) what goes into it, the evidence says you can't. Calorie counts aren't as exact as we're led to believe, and they don't take into account gut microbes, which experts increasingly think play an important role in our digestion and, ultimately, our weight. The margin of error is so big that people can literally do everything by the book and still not slim down, as the Atlantic piece points out. Cue frustration and possibly more restriction that could veer toward unhealthy levels.

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And for what? Experts agree that dieting doesn't work in the long run. Sure, you're likely to lose some weight at the outset, but most people won't keep up a strict plan forever. And no wonder, since the concept of a calorie-counting diet is a killjoy: You must deny yourself the things you want in order to be "good." If you do eat something pleasurable, you must do penance the rest of the day. And if you go over your calorie count, you were "bad" — and your handy tracking app has a record of every time you failed.

Deep down, we know what we should eat, namely a mix of nutrient-dense foods like lean meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables, beans and peas, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and dairy. That's not to say that high-calorie processed foods like Doritos and triple-fudge-chunk ice cream are off the table — on the contrary, research suggests that when foods are considered forbidden, we have stronger cravings and eat more of them when given the opportunity.

The idea that no food is off limits is a hallmark of intuitive or mindful eating, a practice that also advises people to eat when they're legitimately hungry and stop eating when they're full. Intuitive eating might sound like hippie anarchy (after all, we do have an obesity epidemic in this country, not to mention structural impediments to people of all classes eating healthily), but it could be a huge relief to erstwhile calorie-counters who look at food and only see numbers.

Time previously spent tracking and worrying about calories could be better used shopping for and cooking or prepping food, or finding out which vegetables you like and how to cook ones you're only lukewarm about. Learning portion sizes would be helpful, too, but not because of caloric content. Intuitive eating means consuming things that genuinely make your mind and body feel good; happy and satisfied but far short of a food coma. This approach can help people lose weight and keep it off longer than traditional dieters.

This lifestyle isn't for everyone, but it's worth remembering that food is meant to be enjoyed, not analyzed to death, or, alternatively, shoveled into your maw while scrolling through Instagram. Savor your food, eat well most of the time, and don't shame yourself for eating some demonized item. Even if you never lose weight, you'll be a hell of a lot happier.

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