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Fitness and Weight Loss Why calorie counting doesn’t work for everyone - and what you should do instead

Even if you literally know nothing about losing weight, you've probably heard that counting calories is a thing people use to do it.

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Counting calories

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Feel like your calorie budget defines you? Read this.

Even if you literally know nothing about losing weight, you've probably heard that counting calories is a thing people use to do it.

While keeping track of your cals to get an estimate of exactly how much you're eating and whether your favorite foods are keeping you from reaching your weight-loss goal (can someone get on making calorie-free wine?!), there are some serious flaws with this method of dieting, says Michelle May, M.D.

Truth: No weight loss method works for everyone. And if you're thinking about taking the calorie tracking approach to drop a few pounds it's definitely worth looking into the downsides before diving in headfirst.

Here's why counting calories might not help you reach your weight loss goals and what to do instead.

You Lose Track Of Your Hunger Cues

When you're counting calories, you're sticking with a pre-prescribed amount of food per day (i.e. a calorie budget).

May says this can result in not eating when you're hungry in order to fit that cupcake into your allotted calories per day or eating even though you feel satiated so that you don't 'lose out' on those calories.

"This can lead to a preoccupation with food, disordered eating, orthorexia, compulsive exercising, and bingeing," says May.

The fix: A better way to get in touch with your calorie needs is to ask yourself if you're hungry and look for the signs.

Physical symptoms of hunger can include obvious hunger pangs, stomach growling, and an empty or hollow feeling, or subtler signs, like loss of energy, difficulty concentrating, and irritability, says May.

And when you do eat, make sure you do so slowly and check in with yourself throughout the meal to notice when you're becoming full, says May.

Make it your goal to finish eating when you feel good, not stuffed.

It Won't Solve Emotional Eating

Although substituting celery sticks for potato chips as your go-to stress food may decrease calories, trading one food for another doesn't help you break the habit of emotional eating in the first place, May says. "When the diet is over, you will go back to eating potato chips when you're stressed."

The fix: Instead of swapping a healthy food for your Flamin' Hots when you're stressed, bored, or tired, figure out what you're trying to achieve when you grab your trigger food of choice, says May.

Then, find healthier ways of addressing it. For example, if you find that stress is the catalyst, May suggests a hot bath, watching a funny video, or going on a walk with friends.

It Makes You Miss Pizza And Donuts

Putting pancakes on a pedestal is not good for your weight loss plan.

In fact, May says that counting calories makes us perceive high-calorie foods that are off limits as more valuable, making us feel deprived.

"When you finally give in, you feel guilty and out of control for eating your favorite foods, leading you to give up the diet and even binge on the foods you've been missing," says May.

The fix: She says it's possible to incorporate your favorite high-calorie foods into your diet and stiill lose weight.

"When you don't deprive yourself of foods you love, you are less likely to overeat them," she says.

Obviously, this doesn't mean going balls to the wall when cake shows up at your office or it's pizza night on Friday.

The best way to embrace the foods you love most is to eat them mindfully, savoring each bite without distraction (like TV) or guilt.

When you hone in on the food you enjoy eating, you become satisfied and stop eating sooner.

It Turns Exercise Into Punishment

One common component to a calorie-counting weight loss plan is the ability to "earn" more calories per day if you work out, depending on the type and duration of the workout.

But May says that incorporating exercise that way isn't healthy.

"This essentially turns exercise into punishment for eating," she says, "creating a negative association with physical activity."

Plus, you might skip out on your favorite hatha yoga class in favor of boot camp because it burns more calories, which can keep you from actually enjoying exercise.

The fix: There's no shortage of studies that show just how important developing a regular workout routine is for your overall health.

So May recommends figuring out what type of physical activities you really enjoy doing (regardless of how many calories they burn) and weaving them into your routine.

You're more likely to stick with it if there are positive feelings surrounding it, she says.

It Can Make You Feel Crappy

"Counting calories to try to achieve an idealized body shape or size perpetuates your belief that you are not good enough as you are," May cautions.

The fix: In order to successfully lose weight and keep it off, May says you need to believe that you're worthy of love and happiness no matter what size or shape you are.

"While it may seem counter-intuitive, when you accept yourself unconditionally, you create the circumstances necessary for change," she says. One way to start doing this is to be aware of how often you pass judgment on yourself, says May.

Become aware of the ways you compare, judge, and criticize about yourself, she says.

"Would you say those things to a child or a friend? If you did, would they be helpful or hurtful?"

Focusing on self-love will help you make healthy diet and exercise decisions on your own, without a strict calorie guideline, she says.

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