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3 Reasons to NOT Count Calories (and the 3 things you should do instead)

No matter where I look, I feel like I'm being constantly bombarded with people talking about calories. And as a former gymnast, I know how this is true for you too. Between Instagram and TikTok influencers, your parents and coaches, even your teammates, diet talk can feel NON-STOP.

And, of course, everyone's got their own opinion on what and how much you should be eating.

I see, almost daily, post after post about "What I eat in a day, 1200 calorie edition." (p.s. 1200 calories barely meets the energy needs of a toddler...)

And in school, your teacher says that the standard daily intake for Americans is based on a 2000 calorie diet. (What does that even mean?)

And then, you see people saying that a gymnast needs 3000 calories a day.

There's so much information out there about the number of calories you should be eating. And so many people telling you conflicting things. But what you really want to know is what's right for ME.

And, truth be told, I get asked by gymnasts at least once a day "How many calories do I need to eat? I'm "X"ft "X"inches tall, weigh "XXX" pounds, and am training "XX" hours a week."

I know as a high level gymnast, you want to be fueling your body to be your best in the gym. You want to have awesome energy during practice, build strength and endurance, and stay healthy. And, somewhere along the way, you've been told that in order to do that, you need to stay small, maintain your weight (or possibly lose a few pounds...) and the best way to do that is to focus on calories.

So first and foremost, I cannot accurately and ethically just tell you a number of calories to eat over a simple direct message. There's so much more that goes into this than a simple online calorie counter would make you think (which is why most of the time those online calorie counters are inaccurate and are significantly underestimating your needs as a high-level gymnast).

Secondly, what would you really do with that information if you had it? Would your training change? Would you look better in your leo? Would it solve all your problems? Or, would you start to base your food choices off of the number instead of how you're actually feeling?

In my professional experience, having a set number of calories that you aim to eat every day (or following any fad diet really) is actually causing you more harm than good.

And please remember, bodies are designed to change. You don't expect to be the same height at 12 years old as you would be at 16. Why do you expect to look the same (or weigh the same) at 12, at 16, or at 22? You are meant to grow, get stronger, and become the best version of yourself. Trying to stop this will not lead to you reaching your potential both in and out of the gym.

3 Reasons to NOT Count Calories:

1. Your needs are not the same every day: Contrary to popular belief, you are not a robot - you are a living, moving, growing human being, and this means that you use or require different amounts of energy on different days. Think about it, some days you feel hungrier than other days. Some days your energy is great and some days you need an extra pick-me-up. Some days you train for 4 hours, and some days are for rest and recovery. By counting calories, you are not accounting for any of these day-to-day variations and are leaving yourself vulnerable to a cycle of under eating and bingeing (or feeling out of control).

2. You lose touch with your body: Does a calorie counter (or any other computer or device) really know your body better than you do? When you count calories, you start to eat based on a number instead of your hunger level, preference, and satisfaction. By focusing on food solely for how many calories it has, you are shutting out your mindful and intuitive connections to your body, which is key when it comes to truly meeting your body's needs.

3. You become obsessed with the numbers: Focusing on calories takes up a lot of valuable brain space - space that is better spent focusing on school, training, family, friends, and all the other things you love. And getting caught up on calories often turns disordered very quickly (It's interesting to note that 1:3 people who count calories develop disordered eating.) So instead of truly fueling your body with enough food and a variety of foods from all the food groups, you spend your valuable time counting and tracking and choosing foods because they "fit" (and eliminating foods that don't...). And you will never be the best version of yourself with any sort of restrictions.

Counting calories will not change your performance like you hope (and honestly, you'll probably end up worse off). Instead of counting calories, here is what I recommend you do instead:

3 Things You Should Focus On Instead of Counting Calories:

1. Listen to what your body is telling you: Focus on your energy levels (during the day and during training), your sleep, your feelings of hunger and fullness throughout the day, your mood, and your health. If all of these things are good - meaning your energy levels are high, you're keeping up in the gym, you sleep through the night and wake up feeling refreshed, you're not constantly thinking about food or distracted by feelings of hunger, you rarely get sick and have stayed relatively injury free - then how you are currently fueling your body is probably ok (and no need to stress). If, on the other hand, all of these are not great - you feel sluggish during the day, you feel like you can't build strength or endurance and you're falling behind in the gym, you have difficulty sleeping, you have a hard time controlling your mood or emotions, you're often distracted by you're hunger and thoughts about food, you get sick often and have a long list of injuries - then its time to reassess how you're currently fueling your body because something's not working.

2. Eat regular meals and snacks: Your body runs most efficiently when it gets an appropriate amount of food, can safely use that food to run, grow, and recover, and trusts that it is going get more food when this runs out. By eating every ~3 hours, you can easily meet 100% of your nutrition needs, stay energized throughout the day, and not overwhelm your body.

3. Include carbs, protein, and healthy fats: A balanced meal or snack includes a variety of foods, all that play different roles in fueling your body. Include appropriate portions of carbs (including starches for energy + fruits and veggies for vitamins, minerals, and fiber for fullness) protein (to fuel your muscles and repair your body from training), and healthy fats (to keep you full and power your brain.

So, if you want to get away from the world of calories and start fueling your body to be at your best, then you need a dietitian on your TEAM! It's not too late to get your nutrition sorted out and see major improvements before States, Regionals or Nationals! Apply now and see if you'd be a good fit for my program.


Kerry Bair, RD, LDN, MPH

The Gymnast RD

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