Calorie counting is an activity many kids turn to when they are uncomfortable with their weight. It seems like a simple way to change their body without requiring much lifestyle change. Also, many kids are now aware of the risks of dieting, and calorie counting seems like a safe alternative.
However, this is not the case, and there are many issues with this practice. Keep reading to learn why.
What is Calorie Counting
Food provides energy in the form of calories. The amount of energy depends on a foods’ carbohydrate, fat, protein, or alcohol content. When calorie counting, a person decides on an arbitrary number of calories to reach in a day. They then track and calculate the food they eat to ensure they eat that number and not more. Some people will also track how many calories they expend with activity, hoping to balance out the two numbers.
Calories In Calories Out (CICO)
Calories in calories out (CICO) attempts to balance out the number of calories eaten to calories used, to create a calorie deficit for weight loss.
There are two main problems with this:
- It’s not realistic nor practical to know how many calories each individual body needs. The amount varies by age, genetics, health conditions, medications, sleep, and so many other considerations. So we’re already at a disadvantage for not basing caloric intake on our individual needs.
- This is not how bodies works. The body needs calories to function! Breathing, standing, thinking, etc. uses many calories. Once you add in movement and development, those caloric needs are super increased! Creating a deficit puts all those functions at risk; there’s not enough energy to do all those things.
Ragen Chastain wrote a much more comprehensive piece on this, you should definitely read.
Calories on Food Labels
Most packaged foods have their calories listed on the labels. Chain restaurants also provide this information on their menus or websites. These are the numbers people use when calorie counting. However, these numbers are based on often arbitrary serving sizes, and may not be a realistic amount that someone eats in a sitting. Also, those serving sizes don’t take into consideration personal hunger levels, and the need to eat more.
“Empty calories” is a common phrase when calorie counting. It usually refers to food that isn’t filling so the calories don’t last and so are “a waste of eating”. However, all calories provide energy. Depending on the food content (amount of fiber, protein, or fat), food takes longer or shorter to digest. So some food has more “staying power”, but calories aren’t “wasted” or “empty”. Each calorie does the same thing regardless of food source.
Why Calorie Counting is NOT Recommended for Kids
Calorie counting is a risky behavior in kids and teens, and not recommended for healthy development.
Calorie Counting is Restriction
When calorie counting for weight loss, restriction is inevitable. It’s usually the goal. However, as with anytime food is restricted, there are negative effects. The main issue is that overall intake is limited, affecting growth and development. Key nutrients may be missing from intake as the focus is on calories and not food. And there are negative repercussions on mood, mind, and body.
Calorie Counting Creates Obsession
Calorie counting can easily turn obsessive. Adolescents quickly memorize foods’ caloric amounts, and make their food choices based on that. They use apps to track their intake, often comparing day to day, and making their activities depend on amounts eaten.
I’ve worked with many adolescents who want to move away from calorie counting, but it becomes very difficult very fast. Calorie numbers are so prevalent, and the numbers stick so easily. It’s very easy to get obsessive about tracking these numbers. Which leaves little brain space for much else.
Calorie Counting is Based on Random Number Assignment
Most times when calorie counting, adolescents choose a random calorie goal number. It may be a number they’ve heard people recommend or a number that “feels right”. But it’s usually not based on scientific reasons or individual need. It’s usually way too low to support their body’s growth and development.
Calorie Counting Leads to Disordered Eating/ Eating Disorders
When adolescents turn to outside signals to decide what to eat, they lose trust with their body.
This can turn disordered very quickly, as choices and amounts are dictated not by what the body wants or needs, but by number of calories.
This can trigger an eating disorder; this number is not based on the body’s needs and undereating is one of the predictors and first steps in an eating disorder.
What Can Kids do Instead?
if calorie counting isn’t good for kids, what can an adolescent do instead to improve their eating habits?
Recognize the Importance of Calories
Calories are necessary for living! There’s no benefit of living on the lowest amount possible. In fact, that negatively affects the body. When you don’t eat enough for all your body’s needs, food becomes your brain’s main focus. You’re constantly thinking about food in the hopes that you’ll eat enough to fully nourish yourself. Instead of living, your body and brain tries to do everything it can to get you to eat.
See Food as More Than its Calories
Food’s importance and role in the body goes way beyond it’s calorie content. There are the nutrients that food provides; including protein, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals. There are also the social, emotional, and cultural benefits that food provides. And those are all so much more important than the number of calories contained.
Focus on Variety
Eating a variety of food is more important than caloric content. When eating a variety, adolescents are more likely to meet their nutritional needs while maintaining a good relationship with food. Read about how you can support your adolescent eating more variety.
Kids may turn to calorie counting as a way to control their weight. Using food labels or tracking apps, adolescents count the calories they eat and try to create a deficit.
This restrictive practice can turn obsessive and harmful for the body- physically and emotionally.
Adolescents should be taught that calories are important and necessary for living, not something to be avoided. Encourage adolescents to eat a variety of foods in response to their body’s needs. This will ensure they’re eating appropriately for their body’s growth and development.