The pros and cons, how to do it and how to figure out how many calories you need.
In this article I am discussing calorie counting, however, when are talking calorie counting, what I really mean is tracking and logging your food intake. I believe your macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) are very important too. I will discuss counting those at a later point. For now, let’s just start with tracking, logging and counting calories. What you learn here will carry over to counting macros. But before we get started I have just one important statement to make: calorie counting is not the end all be all. There are other things we can do that do will have an impact. Also, less is not always more. DO NOT keep taking away calories if you are not seeing results. There are other things that may need to be adjusted first)
Am I for or against calorie counting? Well, I don’t have a clear cut answer for you. There are times when counting calories is beneficial, and then there are times when it is not. Nice huh? Calorie counting does have its purpose, but it can easily be misused. It can also be very inaccurate.
So when can it useful?
When you do not know how much you are consuming. Some people do not have a reliable internal fullness meter. They can eat and eat and don’t know when to stop until they start to feel physically uncomfortable, and by then is too late. You need to stop eating right before you feel completely fully. Some have a hard time with this, maybe that is due to ignoring your body’s natural hunger and fullness signs, maybe you were taught to “clean your plate” as a child, or maybe you have a hormone issue like leptin resistance. Calorie counting can help by giving you a clear amount that you should be eating. Calorie counting, however, is not the only way to deal with these issues. It is just one. Other ways would be learning healthy habits, learning serving sizes and for those with leptin resistance balancing blood sugar and lowering triglycerides.
When you have no idea what a serving size is.
It can be hard to eat proper amounts when you don’t know what a serving size it. You know the back of the cereal box says a serving size is 30 grams, but what does 30 grams look like? (Spoiler, probably a whole lot smaller then you thought, and definitely not the size of an average cereal bowl!) I find it very helpful, not just for my clients but also for myself, to occasionally count calories as a way to check my portions. My recommendations vary by client, but generally an occasionally 2-4 week count can be very helpful. Some, however, will benefit from a longer stint of tracking. When you start tacking your intake you may realize you are eating more (or less) then you thought you were.
Those Last 5 Pounds
Calorie counting can help with those “stubborn last 5 lbs.”. When it comes to that stubborn fat or last few pounds, calorie counting can help (note, I said Help and not fix. Calorie counting is just one piece of the puzzle). Those last few pounds can be tricky, and it helps to have an idea of what you are eating, so we know where to make adjustments. Maybe it is the calorie amount, maybe its macros or maybe is nutrient timing. If you’ve been tracking it can give a nice picture to see where we can adjust next. (Remember less calories is not always the answer. There are other things to look at to like macros, exercise, stress, sleep quality and even micronutrients. Calories are just ONE piece of the puzzle)
Very Particular Goals
If you have a very intense physique or athletic goal. I’m talking someone who has to get to a certain body weight by set time, or someone who main focus is athletic performance. If you have a very intense end goal, we need a good clear picture of your intake. In these situations, the macronutrients (and micros for those whose goals require a very low calorie diet) are also important.
Under and Over Eating
Food tracking can also help with chronic under and over eaters. A lot of under and over eaters do not even realize they are doing it. By paying attention to the exact amounts they are (or are not) eating it can help them realize they need to eat more or less. This also come back to knowing your serving sizes. When many fist start logging their foods, they are surprised my what they actually are eating.
So what is wrong with calorie counting then?
It is not sustainable. I hate to say you can’t count calories forever (because you could) but do you WANT to be counting calories forever? Along with counting, I advocate learning healthy habits. (In my coaching, I teach those healthy eating habits so you don’t have to count calories forever.) With healthy eating habits you are not stuck constantly measuring and logging your food. You also have a healthy eating system that is a little more portable then lugging a food scale around with you.
Calorie counting and food logging can be used as a crutch.
Sometimes, counting calories and logging our food can turn into a crutch. The problem with this, is it tends to not contribute to long term success. If you are JUST logging your food and not learning healthy habits at the same time, you are not likely to maintain your desired weight long term. You may be able to achieve it, but the tricky part will be then maintaining it. Instead of letting calorie counting (or macro counting) turn into a crutch for you, use it to learn from. Learn your serving sizes, learn the breakdown in your favorite meals, and learn healthy eating habits that will teach you how to stop eating at 80% full.
It can be inaccurate.
Did you know what is on the label might not actually be what you are consuming? The FDA allows for a 20% range of error on food labels. 20%! So, that 200 calorie snack you just had could actually be 160-240 calories. There was a study done where the researches went out and tested 10 low calorie frozen meals and 29 restaurants low calorie entrees to see what they really contained. They found the frozen meals off by 10% and restaurants UNDER estimated their calories they listed on menu or website by 18%. For example, Denny’s had their dry toast listed as 97 calories but after being tested it was really 283 calories! Calorie counting can give an idea and be used as an estimate, but it shouldn’t be thought of as written in stone.
How to count and track calories.
You are going to need an accurate way to measure your food. You can use standard measuring spoons and cups or a food scale. Note of caution, it is very easy to mismeasure using a measuring spoons/cups. Take a tablespoon of peanut butter for example:
A tablespoon of peanut butter has 105 calories and 8 grams of fat. I used my standard tablespoon and scooped out a delicious heaping tablespoon of peanut butter. When I measured this same hunk of peanut butter with the food scale, it came out to 29 grams. Which is closer to 2 tablespoons. So while I might have though I was consuming 105 calories (and 8 grams of fat) I was really getting 190 calories and 14 grams of fat!
After measuring your food, you need to record it and analyze it. You can do it old school by hand or there are hundreds of apps and websites out there. MyFitnessPal, is one of the most popular. It has thousands of foods, and it even has a barcode scanner. The biggest downfall of MFP is it allows any person to input a food, there are a lot of erroneous entries in there (and hilarious ones too. Tears of my enemy anyone? Cat food?!) There are a lot of entries that people who just make up the nutritional info for food so it fits their personal needs (you’ll see this a lot with restaurant entries when people guestimate their entrees) Nutritiondata.self.com is the most accurate nutrition data bank. I personally use MyFitnessPal to log and track, but then I double check my entries against nutritiondata.self.com. (A little trick, look for entries in MFP that say they are based on nutritiondata. They tend to be the more accurate ones.)
So now that you know why you should and shouldn’t count calories and you know how to track and log, but how much calories do you need?
Well… that can vary. There are a handful of fancy equations out there, where you can input your height, weight, age into different equations and it spits out your BMR (or RMR). There is Harris-Benedict, Mifflin-St Jeor, Schofield equations. These will tell you just your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) or RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate), which is JUST the number of calories you would need at complete rest, like a coma. In order to calculate what you really need in a day you also have to take into account your TEA (the calories you burn exercising) TEF (the number of calories burned by eating food), and NEAT (the calories you burned in all activities other than planned exercise). Then, once you have taken all that in to account you’ll get your TDEE, total daily energy expenditure, this is the most important number when trying to lose, gain or maintain your weight. If you wanted to maintain, you would attempt to consume your TDEE, to lose weight you’ll need to consume less than your TDEE and to gain consume more than your TDEE. Kind of complicated huh?
Good news there is an easier way. The easiest way, is to use a bodyweight multiplier. For weight loss multiple your body weight (in pounds) by 12, for gain 18 or maintenance 14, and those would be your caloric need. Very, important: these are just starting off points. There are many things the can influence this, including how active you are, how much you exercise, your lean body mass, your stress levels and sleep. As an example, I calculated out my TDEE using the above formulas, it came to 1708. If I was to use the body weight multiplier, and multiplied my body weight by 14 (116 X 14) I get 1740. So, dang pretty close. Of course there is huge variance for people, and this is only to be used as a starting point.
There are both pros and cons to counting calories, but in the short term, it can be very helpful in helping you learn how much you need to eat. However, calorie counting is not the only way. There are other things that need to be taken into account. It is imperative to learn healthy habits for long term sucess. Try and learn serving sizes as you go and don’t rely on it as a crutch. Using it as a crutch can lead to failure long term. In order to count and log, you need to be able to measure and log your food. And there are tons of fancy equations you can use to figure out how much you need to eat, but the easiest way to multiple your weight (in lbs) by 14 for maintenance, by 12 for loss and 18 for gains. Hit those numbers for 2 weeks, then adjust as needed.
If you would like more personalized help with this, just fill out the form HERE and we can get started working together. Also, feel free to contact me with any questions you might have. If you have been counting calories and feel stuck, I can help you with that. Also, if you despise counting calories, but want help reaching your goals I can help you with that also. I believe calorie counting is not the only way to reach your goals. It is just one tool out of many, and learning healthy habits is necessary for long term success.
Flack KD, S. W. (2016, Sep). Cross-Validation of Resting Metabolic Rate Prediction. J Acad Nutr Diet, 116(9), 1413-22.
Urban LE, D. G. (2010). The accuracy of Stated energy Contents of Reduced-energy. Commercially Prepared Foods. J Am Diet Assoc, 116-123.