5 Things That Happen When You Stop Counting Calories

In addition to taking away the distraction at dinnertime, giving up the count has a slew of health and mental health benefits. Here, five things that happen when you stop counting calories.
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By Kasandra Brabaw, Prevention.com
(Photo: Getty Images)

You sit down to dinner with family, everyone chatting about school days, work days, friends, and coworkers. But instead of joining in the conversation, you look down at your plate and start the formula in your head. Grilled chicken breast -- about 230 calories. Steamed asparagus -- 12 calories. Brown rice -- another 100 calories.

Good, you think to yourself, maybe you can have dessert tonight.

While doctors and nutritionists have recommended counting calories as the best way to start -- and stay on top of -- your weight loss journey, the constant calculating can feel like homework. (Lose up to 15 pounds WITHOUT dieting with Eat Clean to Get Lean, our 21-day clean-eating meal plan.)

And for nutritionists, it actually is homework. When Lily Nichols, RDN, was working toward her nutrition degree, counting calories was one of her least favorite assignments. "The more I counted calories, the less I was paying attention to the food in front of me," she writes on her blog. "It was like looking at a spreadsheet on a plate." She gave up just a few weeks after she started and now actively encourages clients to stop counting calories and just eat fresh, whole foods.

In fact, many nutritionists have given up on the idea that a set number of calories -- no matter the source -- leads to a healthy, happy person. (Make these 15 teeny tiny changes to lose weight faster.)

In addition to taking away the distraction at dinnertime, giving up the count has a slew of health and mental health benefits. Here, five things that happen when you stop counting calories.

1. Those mini chocolate bars will stop having such a hold on you.
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When you quit counting calories (and inevitably cheating), your urge to snack all day every day will disappear. "When you stop focusing on calories but rather what actual foods are colorfully adorning your plate, chances are good you'll also start paying more attention to the flavor, aroma, color, texture, temperature, and experience of the foods on the plate," says Wendy Bazilian, RD, co-author of Eat Clean, Stay Lean and Prevention's nutrition advisor. She calls it "conscious chewing," and when you start paying attention to your body, you'll know that reaching for an unhealthy snack has more to do with stress than it does with actual hunger.

2. Eating will actually be pleasurable again.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Life is stressful enough--eating should be easy. But constantly weighing, measuring, planning, and calculating meals just adds to a host of other stresses you already deal with daily. When you focus on building meals around fresh and flavorful foods like nuts, beans, herbs, spices, and lean proteins instead of the math of calorie counting, you can feel good about the quality of food on your plate. And when your brain is calm, your gut is calm as well. "There's a reason why 'irritable' and 'upset' are words associated with the stomach and digestive system," says Bazilian. "Relaxing a bit about and around the meal while eating clean with real wholesome foods--preferably seated and without distractions--you'll enjoy a stress-free moment in an otherwise time-strapped and stressful life."

3. You'll lose weight (yup!).
With all the effort that comes with counting calories--you literally have to weigh everything you use in a recipe--Nichols says most of her clients turn to pre-calculated packaged foods and stray away from home-cooked meals. In addition to being almost nutritionally worthless, packaged foods actually have more absorbable calories than whole foods. "You don't absorb all of the calories found in whole foods, thanks to the fact that your body has to break them down," says Nichols. "Studies show that you only take in about 20% of the calories in nuts, for instance, but because nuts are high in calories, people who count calories shy away from them and opt for something like a highly refined breakfast cereal instead." While the label on the cereal box may show fewer calories, your body will actually absorb more calories from the refined carbs in the cereal than it would have if you went with the nuts. It'll also miss out on the fiber and healthy fats that can help you slim down.

"When you start focusing on whole, real, nutrient-rich foods, you benefit from water-rich fruits and vegetables, fiber- and protein-rich beans and nuts, and other foods that satisfy appetite and boost metabolism," says Bazilian.

4. You'll have more energy.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Calories are technically a measure of energy, but eating a set amount of calories without focusing on the quality of the food on your plate can leave you feeling tired. That's because some calories, like those found in processed foods, burn off more quickly than others. "Numbers don't nourish you," says Bazilian. "When you focus on what you are eating--look at it, chew it, feel it, and eat at regular intervals, you may find your energy is steadier, cravings are diminished, and you find yourself thinking less about hunger."

5. You'll get really down with your body.
When you think about food as a means to an end (weight loss) instead of fuel for your body, you'll lose track of how your body feels about food. "Instead of relying on your bodily cues, you just rely on the number requirements," says Nichols. And the requirements make eating a lot harder than it should be. For Nichols's clients, the idea that listening to their bodies--feeding themselves when they feel hungry, stopping when they feel full--seems scary. "People are sometimes surprised," she says, "and don't believe that you can sit down to a brownie and have a couple bites and then say 'you know, I've had enough.' "

By Kasandra Brabaw, Prevention.com

This article '5 Things That Happen When You Stop Counting Calories' originally ran on Prevention.com.

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