Should You Count Calories? The Truth About Counting Calories
Few topics generate more debate then whether counting calories is an effective strategy for long-term fat loss.
The anti-calorie counting camp says that obsessing on calories alone can cause people to ignore the nutritional composition of their diet, and continue to eat unhealthy even if they are eating fewer calories.
They’ll also point out that counting calories accurately and consistently can be a tedious and time-consuming activity, and may actually de-motivate people to eat healthier.
The pro-calorie counting side, advocates will point out that without having a good idea of how many calories you are consuming each day, it can be difficult to lose fat and avoid hitting fat loss plateaus later on.
And because most people underestimate how many calories they are actually eating, counting calories can help provide a reality check.
So what should you do? Count calories or not count calories?
The Truth About Counting Calories
Both groups make valid points.
If all you look at is the total number of calories you eat each day, you can find yourself falling into the trap of eating “empty calories.”
For example, let’s say your target is 1500 calories a day. Your look at your total calorie count at the end of the day and feel pretty good about yourself. You ate 1500 calories. The problem is the calories were made up of soda, pizza and potato chips.
You end up feeling hungry at the end of the day, you’re grouchy, your energy levels are low and you still look flabby and unfit.
Contrast this against another person who at the same amount of calories, but their diet that day was made up primarily of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein like chicken breast, complex carbohydrates like oatmeal and some healthy fats from nuts or avocados.
Same amount of calories, but in terms of volume, the person who ate the nutritionally-dense foods actually ate more and better, and still hit their calorie target.
The “Empty Calorie” Trap
Empty calorie foods tend to be higher in calories, but lower in nutrients and volume. So you have to eat less (and feel hungry) when your diet is based on them in order to hit your calorie goal.
This is one of the main reasons that so many people fail at fat loss.
They think that eating less will cause them to lose fat. So they continue to eat their favorite junk food, but just skip a meal or eat less frequently.
But nutritionally-dense foods are more filling, provide critical nutrients that can promote fat burning and general health and well-being, and typically allow you to eat more of them at the same calories levels.
Counting Calories the Smart Way
So clearly, just looking at calorie counts alone isn’t enough. You have to look at the types of food you are eating, as well.
So why count calories at all?
The best reason to keep track of your daily calories is to get a better handle on what you are actually eating. Research has shown that many people underestimate their daily calorie consumption by as much as 25%.
For a 1500 calorie diet, this can mean an extra 375 calories a day. Over the course of a week, this adds up to 2625 calories which is almost a pound of fat (1 lb of fat contains 3000 calories.) And the more processed and fast food people eat, the easier it is to consume more calories than your body needs.
The Hard Facts About Counting Calories
Keeping track of your food and calories each day can help you get a true picture of what you are eating, how much of it, and whether it’s nutritionally balanced.
Notice I said keeping track of your food and calories, not merely counting your calories.
There is a big difference. Unless you track the nutrient profile of the foods you eat in addition to the calories, you can easily fall into the calorie counting trap I discussed earlier.
Remember, this is about what you eat, not just how many calories you eat.
But Isn’t Counting You Calories and Food Hard?
In the past, keeping a detailed food journal with nutrient and calorie information was difficult thing to do.
To be really accurate, you need to weigh your foods, keep a calorie-counting book handy and be pretty skilled with a calculator.
However, keeping track of your daily food intake has actually become fairly easy over the past couple of years thanks to the Internet.
There are dozens of free websites online that do most of the hard work for you, including SparkPeople, FitDay, DietTV, Calorie King and The Daily Plate.
These sites look up the food from USDA nutrition or user created food databases, let you enter the quantity and pretty much do the rest for you with a click of a button.
Most sites also provide you with tools to calculate not just your target calories based on your goals, but also your target macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats), as well as track sodium, dietary cholesterol, fiber and vitamin and mineral intake.
This can give you a very accurate view of what you are eating, the nutritional profile of your meals and — yes — how many calories you are consuming.
All of these sites also offer exercise logs, which not only track your progress in the gym, but also help you keep track of calorie expenditure via exercise and daily activity.
Measuring Portions: Making Sure Your Information is Accurate
One critical piece to successfully tracking your daily food and calorie consumption is accurately measuring portions. You can eyeball it, but like calories, most people underestimate their portions.
Supersized meals and giant portions at restaurants have skewed peoples perceptions of what a “serving” is. So it’s not unusual for these misconceptions to find their way into a person’s own kitchen, as well.
The most accurate way to determine portions is to weigh it.
There are inexpensive electronic kitchen scales that make this easy. All nutritional labels accompanying food (and nearly all online calorie and food tracking websites) provide serving data by weight (grams.)
They will also often provide serving size by volume (tbs, cup, tsp, etc.) Volume is less accurate than weighing the food, but in a pinch it’s better than not measuring at all, or going by sight.
Buy an electronic scale and keep it on the kitchen counter with an empty glass bowl on it. This makes it easy to just throw your food in the bowl on the scale and measure it.
If it’s dry food like oats, cereal or vegetables, you can simply rinse the bowl after each use. If you are weighing meat, poultry, fish, diary or eggs you’ll obviously need to wash it properly between uses.
Also, keep a set of measuring cups handy as well as a two cup Pyrex measuring cup. These are very accurate when measuring liquids and don’t require the scale.
Most people are surprised at how wrong they were about servings once they start to actually measure their portions out.
It’s not unusual to discover that what you thought was a single serving of cereal or rice was actually two servings (which means it was double the calories of what you imagined.)
Once you start seeing what you are actually eating, it becomes simple to identify where your extra calories are coming from. But you have to do the measuring and tracking in the first place to discover this.
Is Calorie Counting The Only Way to Lose Fat?
Highly fit people generally have developed a pretty good sense of the energy and nutritional content of their food and have become skilled (mostly from habit) to accurately determine portions.
That said, most fit people have kept food logs at one point or another to help put these habits in place.
Certain diet plans, like Jenny Craig or NutriSystem basically do the calorie-counting for you. These diets typically rely on pre-packaged, pre-portioned meals with a set amount of calories and nutrients.
As long as you eat the meals they provide you, and in the daily quantity the prescribe, you’ll more or less hit your calorie targets without having to log every bite you take.
And then there’s Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers is basically a calorie counting diet that has been simplified by the addition of a “point system” to help you easily estimate calories.
Each day you have a certain amount of points to allocate and higher calorie foods cost you more points. There are other nuances to the program, but at it’s core, Weight Watchers is calorie counting.
They just simplify calorie counting and make it less tedious for people.
While many people have had success with Weight Watchers, the diet still requires proper portion estimates to work and it is possible for you to blow all of your points on junk food. Still, it may be a good place to start if the idea of recording all of your food makes your head spin.
Do I Need to Count Calories and Food Forever?
Some people find that long-term tracking of their food is the best way to ensure that they don’t slip back into their old habits.
However, this requires a fair amount of commitment and discipline, which many people simply don’t have. Online tools have made this easier, but it still takes time.
The most effective strategy I’ve found is to cycle food and calorie counting.
Try weighing and recording all of your meals for two weeks minimum to establish a baseline. This will usually be long enough to identify those weak links in your diet and will allow you to start getting a true idea of servings and portions.
Based on this information, make some adjustments to your servings and measure your fat-loss progress.
Give yourself an additional two weeks of calorie and food counting, which will enable you to develop some new habits around portion size.
Eventually, you’ll find that you can estimate servings pretty accurately by sight alone.
Once you feel like you have a pretty good handle on portion sizes and how much (and the types of food) you need to be eating to hit your diet and calorie targets, you can back off on the tracking for a while.
If you feel like you are hitting a wall later with your fat loss or fitness goals, or if your portions start to become larger again, go back to tracking your food for a week or two to “reset” your “serving” sense.
Personally, I tend to do meal and calorie “audits” about four times a year for one month. This seems to be enough to “reset” any misperceptions I might have developed around portion size while not actively tracking every gram of food I eat.
It also lets me spot certain nutritional gaps I might have developed, for example increased sodium intake or decreased dietary fiber.
When Does it Make Sense to Count Calories?
Keeping a diet log and tracking calories is also one the first tactics your should try when you hit a fat-loss plateau, since it can expose some of the weak areas in your diet where you may be overeating.
If you are just beginning to clean up your diet and trying to eat more healthy, keeping track of your food and calories can help you become a more “educated eater” and make better choices regarding which foods you choose and what a “serving” actually means.
Also, if you are a competitive athlete or serious body builder, diet logs can play a critical role in making sure you are providing yourself with the right levels of energy and nutrients, without gaining too much body fat in the process.
Finally, keeping track of your food, either by through a diet journal or by a more simplified method like Weight Watcher points will quickly show you that there are certain foods like vegetables that you can eat large volumes of without significantly impacting your total energy consumption for the day.
And since these low-calorie foods are often some of the best for you, it will encourage you to eat more of them.