A Case for Counting Calories

Some people claim calorie counting is obsessive, behavior consistent with an eating disorder, difficult, and inconvenient. This post is meant to challenge that opinion.

This is because I firmly believe that counting calories is a direct route to achieving your ideal body composition and performance goals.

Consider this: if someone were looking to improve their budget because their spending has gone awry and they have accumulated massive debt, would you advise them not to track their expenses? Would you say, “just try and make better spending choices,” despite a clear need for a decisive plan of action to completely overhaul the way they spend? If you would, please don’t ever give me any financial advice!

One of the best ways to make progress with virtually any endeavor is to keep a record of it in some way. This gives you something solid and insightful that you can base your decision-making off of. Why is it that we know this with most things, but there is so much resistance when applying it to calorie counting?

My Personal Experience

When I finally gave in and started tracking calories, three very surprising things were revealed to me that I would not have known otherwise:

Left: +200lbs, Right: 150lbs. Counting calories and macronutrients allowed me to lose fat and build a base of muscle.
Left: +200lbs, Right: 150lbs. Counting calories and macronutrients allowed me to lose fat and build a base of muscle.
  • More times than I would have cared to admit, my daily intake was 1000+ calories higher than intended (especially around “that time of the month”).
  • Other days, I barely had an appetite and wasn’t eating enough to fuel my body for workouts or recovery from those workouts.
  • I was not eating enough protein to meet my goals.

Despite giving it my all in the gym, there was barely any change. It wasn’t long before I started coming to the conclusion that it just wasn’t in me to have a fit body. My funds wouldn’t allow a personal trainer or nutritionist, and I just felt stuck.

Deciding to track how I ate, day to day, forced me to see the true issue was that I was painfully unaware as to how much I was eating most of the time.

Once I stopped relying on my flawed guesses and began directly tracking my intake instead, I became truly accountable for how much and what type of energy I was putting into my body.

Suddenly, the fat was coming off. There was real progress happening. And I was still able to fit in “junk” foods occasionally, or even go out to eat and know that it was not setting me back.

Intuitive Eating Vs. Counting Calories

There are many who claim our bodies are intuitive about weight management and the answer to improved health and fitness is to listen to these signals “naturally”. But, what if we don’t possess that intuition in the same capacity anymore?

It is quite possible to be conditioned to becoming obese and / or diabetic as far back as in childhood, such as by being instructed to eat all of the food off our plates regardless of how hungry we were or weren’t. On top of that, many of us have grown up in families where fast food and other heavily processed foods were a large part of the diet.

And all of us have been bombarded with relentless marketing for said foods, which can also impact our choices. Combined with a general decline in activity, and a myriad of other external pressures that incline us to overeat or make poor choices, many of us tend to be inadequate at relying on intuition to manage our weight.

Someone who is overweight (or underweight) and constantly failing to meet their body composition goals is demonstrating that they could really use an improved sense of direction and plan of action. Likely, they are not even really sure as to how much of what they should eat and might never have been.

Counting calories shows you where you have been coming up short. I would even argue that counting can help you reacquire the intuition that has been lost to you.

Counting Calories Keeps You Honest

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No matter what type of diet you are eating, counting the calories of those foods accurately keeps you honest about why are you are, or are not, getting results.

Research has shown that while many people underreport their calories, the more overweight / obese we are, the more likely we are to be doing so. And if we have convinced ourselves that our lack of progress is genetic or due to some medical issue, we are likely to unconsciously lie to ourselves even after we have been taught how to estimate the calories in food. Self-sabotage is a very real issue.

We are especially unaware of how much energy we are consuming when we head out to eat. Dietary experts fare no better as even they struggle with estimating how many calories are in foods from popular restaurants, often grossly miscalculating the makeup and energy content.

How can we be sure that we are eating in accordance to our goals by just guessing when experts in nutrition run into problems doing the same?

Can Counting Calories Lead to an Eating Disorder?

Anything done to the extreme is undesirable. Calorie counting is not meant to be super strict or done to excess. It is ok to be a bit under or over; these are only estimates, after all. The point of calorie counting is having a tool to help us meet our goals more efficiently. It is not the solution, but a huge billboard pointing toward it.

People have shown to be more successful time and time again when they allow flexibility in their lives rather than trying to be perfect. Perfectionism leads to dysfunction because it is an unrealistic expectation of any person. If you expect to be flawless, then you could indeed be setting yourself up to fail and / or develop an unhealthy fixation on calorie counting (or other things, for that matter).

I cannot stress enough that it is intended to help you. If it begins to make you feel bad, or you find yourself stressed and obsessing over it, then it’s time to step back. In that case, maybe it really isn’t the best way for you.

But, that being said, I truly believe most people would greatly benefit from spending some amount of time tracking their intake.

It’s Not a Life-Sentence

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It is not as if you have to count calories forever! Over time, you will get better and better at estimating the calories in your food. Often times, people will end up eating a lot of the same foods so it becomes much easier to track what they are consuming mentally.

There are some people who track for a few days every two weeks and seem to do just fine that way. If you monitor trends in your weight and other measurements, you will notice when things are off, and can always refer back to counting calories to ensure you are still within your targets.

Once you reach your goal, it’s so much easier to maintain than it is to work to that goal. It’s likely you will not need to rely on counting  except to check that you are still on track every once in a while (since it is natural to begin to eat more once you are used to a diet).

Counting is Easier Than Ever

With apps / sites like Myfitnesspal, Lose It! and FatSecret, it’s super easy to get acquainted with counting. It takes me literally less than 30 seconds to add a meal to my diary on Myfitnesspal. Is there a learning curve? Sure, and there are some tips and tricks you will want to be aware of to get the most out of the software you are using. In fact, I am working on both a video and post to show you how easy it is to use Myfitnesspal to track food. Stay tuned for that!

Conclusion

If you’ve tried to lose fat or build muscle, have not had much in the way of results,  are tried of spinning your wheels and ready to get to the progress already, do yourself a favor and start tracking your calories. Doing so teaches you how much of what you should be eating, and gives you a much better indicator as to if you are eating in a way that is supportive of your goals or not. If you learn to do this properly, you take over more control of your body and health.

Interested in an alternatives to counting calories? Chelsea Karabin from the YouTube channel Chelsealifts has some good advice here (video).

References

  1. Chandon, P., Wansink, B., (2012). Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions. Nutr Rev, 70(10), 571-593.
  2. Schoeller, D.A., (1990). How accurate is self-reported dietary energy intake? Nutr Rev, 48(10), 373-9.
  3. Prentice, A.M., Black, A.E., Coward, W.A., Davies, et. al, (1986). High levels of energy expenditure in obese women. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed), 292(6526), 983-7.
  4. Lichtman, S.W., Pisarska, K., Prestone, M., et. al, (1992). Discrepancy between Self-Reported and Actual Caloric Intake and Exercise in Obese Subjects. N Engl J Med, 327: 1893-1898.
  5. Block, J.P., Condon, S.K., Kleinman, K., et. al, (2013). Consumers’ estimation of calorie content at fast food restaurants: cross sectional observational study. BMJ, 346:f2907.
  6. Perkins, Kate Louise, “NUTRITION KNOWLEDGE OF CONSUMERS AND HEALTH PROFESSIONAL AND THE USE OF MENU CALORIE LABELING” (2012). Thesis and Dissertations–Dietetics and Human Nutrition. Paper 7.

 

Posted by Lady J

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