***This is an updated introduction to this piece article***
I originally wrote this article in response to what I perceived to be an anti-calorie counting stance from Precision Nutrition, one of the leading forces in the industry for coaching diet/lifestyle. The article was reviewed by John Berardi, the founder of Precision and an all around good guy, who responded with a clarification on Precision Nutrition’s stance on calorie counting. If you’d like to read their current take on the practice, you can find that here: https://www.precisionnutrition.com/calories-in-calories-out
And now, my original article . . .
In Defense of Calorie Counting
I was recently tagged on Instagram (follow @thesquattingtenor if you like pictures of food and Brooklyn Heights) by a friend who had seen a video posted by Precision Nutrition describing the inaccuracies of nutrition labels on foods (these labels can be up to 20% off in either direction). The content of the video was not news to me; not only is it pretty common knowledge in the fitness community that food labels aren’t exact, but Precision Nutrition has written before about this phenomenon.
This begs the question: if nutrition labels are allowed to be inaccurate, why even count at all? As I was preparing to write a much more technical piece on this subject, my friend (and one of the authors of the highly-recommended MASS) Greg Nuckols reached out to me with a piece he’d already prepared outlining flawed mathematical thinking in dismissing nutritional labels so quickly. If you want to see more of that, go read Greg’s piece.
If you can’t stand technical writing, here’s the a brief explanation of why the variance in nutritional labeling isn’t that big of a deal: assuming you’re eating the same things repeatedly (as most people do), you will at least be getting a somewhat consistent calorie intake from week to week, leading to precision of your counting (picture B in the the figure below). If you track your progress (and you should), you can then adjust your calorie target based on that progress. Even if the number of calories you’re consuming isn’t actually the number you think it is (low accuracy), your consistency (or precision), coupled with the adjustments you make, will be enough to help you reach your goals.
If you eat a varied diet, on the other hand, we can expect the labeling/digestive differences of foods to cancel each other out over time (the bulk of the math in Greg’s article is designed to demonstrate this point).
So, that’s not such a big issue, and it’s certainly not worth throwing the calorie-counting baby out with the nutritional labeling bath water. But what about other calorie counting criticisms? Calorie counting has been criticized (justifiably) as unnecessary, difficult, tedious, unsustainable, and possibly leading to an unhealthy relationship with food/antisocial behavior.
That sounds pretty shitty, and yet I often recommend people count their calories and macronutrients. Why would I do such a thing? Well, before I specifically address the criticisms of calorie counting, let me just mention some of the overall reasons to count calories:
- Calories are the only – seriously, the ONLY – determinant of long-term weight gain or loss, and the act of counting calories can help to reinforce that understanding among those hoping to lose weight (if you’d like a great, easy-to-understand write-up on how the calories in/out model works, Greg wrote an excellent set of pieces for the aforementioned MASS breaking that down – subscribe and check those out!)
- Assuming consistency (which is the number one driver of success with any dieting strategy) of counting and proper assessment of progress, counting calories gives objective data with which to manipulate a diet plan to ensure success over time
- Even if one cannot count religiously forever, the act of having precisely monitored calorie intake for even a short duration of time can help health-conscious individuals make smart choices in the future; the often shocking revelations (“a literal POUND of chicken breast contains fewer calories than a large cookie!?!?” or “ALMOND BUTTER HAS HOW MANY CALORIES!?!?”) tend to stick with us and inform our decisions going forward; this is particularly true if the dieting individual is coached to be observant of the portion sizes and meal frequencies that help them reach their calorie goals on a consistent basis
- Counting calories can, in some cases, help individuals who suffer from unhealthy food beliefs (an irrational fear of pasta, for example) to recognize that, even though food quality is important, there is no one food that will halt weight loss or cause weight gain in the context of proper energy (calorie) balance
Given these pros, you can see how some people might be in favor of counting calories. Are there other ways to lose weight? Totally! Could counting calories be the best approach for you? Absolutely! Could you even combine more than one approach to weight loss, allowing for greater flexibility and better long-term results (get ready to have your mind blown)? YES!
Counting Calories: How to Do It
So, you want to lose weight, and you’re thinking about counting calories. You want to do it right – good for you!
Step 1: Realize that your diet is not forever.
Weight loss and weight maintenance are not the same thing. You will almost certainly experience discomfort – both physically and emotionally – when losing weight. You want to minimize this discomfort, of course, but knowing that it will be there and that it’s not permanent makes a big difference in the process.
Step 2: Download the My Fitness Pal app onto your smartphone.
There are a whole bunch of tracking apps, but MFP is free, has a huge database, and it incredibly easy to use. I have no financial affiliation with the app; it’s just excellent. Every single thing (seriously, even that one M&M that hardly matters, especially since you walked a lot today) that goes into your mouth goes into the app. Do not cheat yourself by half-assing this process; if you’re going to count calories, do it right and get the job done.
Step 3: Get a food scale and weigh everything (seriously, everything) you put into your mouth for at least a week.
Well, everything that isn’t an entire, pre-weighed and properly labeled container (e.g. if you eat an entire pint of Halo Top ice cream, or 1 lb of 96% lean ground beef, you can just enter that into your food journal).
Why weigh everything? Because, like they mention in the PN article (in a nicer way than this), you suck at estimating your portion sizes. At least, you suck at it if you haven’t weighed your food for an extended period. Picture a pound of chicken breast. Can you do that? If you haven’t weighed chicken and observed that different quantities look like, you really don’t know how much you’re eating. This gets worse with more calorie dense foods; if you eat 12oz chicken breast instead of 14oz, that’s no big deal; if you consistently eat an extra ounce or two of nut butter, you could be sabotaging your diet.
This weighing thing can be tedious, but it’s not forever (though you’d be wise to check in with a scale from time to time going forward). When you weigh foods, try to get a feel for what proper quantities look like. Make a (not very fun) game of it; see if you can put 8 oz of lean meat on your plate and then check to see if you were accurate. Then, observe what that meat looks like when cooked; this will help you when you’re barbecuing with friends (or eating at a restaurant, or eating at a friend’s place, or any number of other social activities that you’ll want to attend without your food scale) without screwing up your diet, or worse: screwing up your life worrying about your diet.
Step 4: Consistently Weigh Yourself
How consistently? Every morning, or at least close (you don’t need to pack your scale if you’re going away for the weekend). Do it after you use the bathroom, and before you’ve had anything to eat or drink. Why do this? You do this because one day’s weight means almost nothing; trends in weight, however, matter a lot. By taking your weight at the same time every day, you can see trends (compare weekly averages, or even two-week averages to cut down on the weight fluctuation noise. If you’re a woman, keep in mind that your weight will fluctuate with your menstrual cycle, so you’ll want to take this into account when tracking progress.
Do not become emotionally attached to the number on the scale. Do you want it to trend down? Absolutely! If it goes up one day, though, that means nothing (this is why you weigh yourself every day, as opposed to once a week). Also, if it’s not trending down, use that data to . . .
Step 5: Make Adjustments
If your weight isn’t trending down, don’t get upset; use that data to figure out what needs adjusted. Have you been weighing everything? Have you been honest with your tracking? Have you given your diet enough time to see if it’s working (wait at least a couple of weeks before making any adjustments)? If so, maybe it’s time to drop your calories a little bit. Try dropping by 200 a day and see if that does the trick.
A Few Extra Bits on Implementation:
That covers the basics, but I’d like to go into some more specific strategies you can use to get the most out of counting calories. Most of the criticisms of calorie counting (to refresh: unnecessary, difficult, tedious, unsustainable, and possibly leading to an unhealthy relationship with food/antisocial behavior) have been addressed in the 5 steps above, or will be addressed in these extra bits. My readers are generally pretty smart, so I’m not drawing arrows or circling things in red, but if you are still left concerned about any of those criticisms, feel free to leave a comment below!
- Eat slowly, and don’t eat if you’re not hungry – I know this sounds so simple, but you might be shocked by how hard not eating when you’re not hungry can be. We so often eat out of habit, or because we’re bored, or because we’re sad, or because of a million reasons other than that we’re hungry. I encourage all my clients to stop eating when they’re not hungry. If you’re counting calories and you have “calories left” at the end of the day, don’t just eat some random thing to hit your target; enjoy the expedited weight loss!
- Value your weekly caloric intake over your daily intake – You’re playing the long game. Say you’re in less diet-friendly situations certain days (Saturday), and that leads to you going over your calorie target that day. This is not the end of the world! In fact, if you’ve been practicing not eating when you’re not hungry and stayed a couple hundred calories under your target throughout the week, you might even still be under your weekly goal – way to go, stud!
- Control what you can, and don’t sweat the rest – This is true of all things in life, but the most valid criticism of calorie counting in my mind has to do with its users’ unfortunate tendencies towards all-or-nothing thinking. Here’s what that might look like: “I’m away for the weekend, and I’m not taking my food scale, and so I can’t accurately count my calories; I guess I just have to drink excessively and eat crap the whole time. Maybe it will ‘refeed’ my body and I’ll diet more effectively when I get back home!” . . . NO! Bad. Don’t do this. Are you in an environment where you’re not able to count your calories? Cool. Just because they’re not going into your app doesn’t mean that they’re not going into your body. Do your best to not turn that weekend into a full-on binge; eat slowly; chew your food; stop when you’re not hungry; don’t start eating if you’re not hungry; enjoy a drink (or even a few, if it’s that kind of weekend), but don’t drink to the point that you make poor food choices and feel terrible the next day. Some people might find that logging guesstimates into a tracking tool like MFP helps them stay honest with themselves. Others (myself included) prefer to keep a little notepad of the things they eat when they’re in a precarious food environment, as this provides some accountability (it feels funny to write 3 sourdough nibblers and 2 slices of turkey in your notepad) without adding extra number-related stress. Some people prefer to eat mostly “clean” foods while they’re away. Whatever you do, don’t use “I can’t count perfectly” as an excuse to wreck your diet.
- If you do fuck up, just get back into your groove – “Why do we fall, sir? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” If Batman can make mistakes, so can you! Let’s say you drank too much over the weekend and then crushed some Papa John’s pizza (we’ve all been there). Was that a great thing to do? Probably not. Is it the end of the world (or your diet)? No! Just go back to what you were doing, recognize that the weight spike you have the next day is the result of some extra sodium and carbohydrate intake (here’s a great breakdown of what happens to the body after a day of overeating) and get back to what you were doing. One day is no big deal. Don’t give up, and don’t compensate by starving yourself, either; just do what you were doing before. If you find that after your day (or days) of overeating you’re not hungry (this is likely), you can take advantage of that lack of hunger and have a few lighter days of eating. Just don’t go nuts and starve yourself as punishment.
- Eat like a grownup – I know that IIFYM (if it fits your macros) advocates will tell you that you can eat a diet of Poptarts and protein powder and still get totally shredded (and they’re not wrong), but that might not be the best thing for your long-term health, and it will almost certainly be more difficult than eating whole foods (want to eat more vegetables? Check out this article!).
- Set yourself up for success – If you get hungry in the evenings, then save most of your calories for the evening. The same strategy works if you like social dinners that are harder to track: eat a breakfast and lunch that is mostly lean protein and veggies so you have some extra calories available and you’re not starving come dinner time. Don’t get caught up in nutrient timing; given that weekly calories matter more than daily calories, you can rest assured that nutrient timing on an hourly basis is a small and largely irrelevant detail to all but the most extreme dieters.
One Issue I’d like to address directly: Can calorie counting lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and/or antisocial behavior?
This is a subject I hold near and dear to my heart, and that I felt deserved being directly addressed. When trying to get into shape, there will invariably be a change in the way you interact with friends and family. I mean to write about this much more at length in the future, as I believe it’s the #1 reason diets fail.
Here’s my take: calorie counting puts cold, hard evidence in your face about your eating habits. If you’re supposed to eat 2,700 calories in a day, and you’ve already eaten those calories, logging your food forces you to make a conscious choice when someone offers you a drink (or some ice cream, or a slice of pie, or even a “healthy” treat) as you watch Netflix that evening: do you go over your calorie allotment for the day, or do you stick to your diet? The same choice has to be made if a friend wants to grab drinks that evening, and you know that the 3 beers your friend will want to have with you will be very difficult to fit into your calorie allotment.
There is no magic answer to this dilemma. We rarely get something for nothing in life; there’s almost always a trade-off. Do you want to lose weight? You’ll have to change your habits. Calorie counting works in part because it forces you to be objective about your choices.
That said, there is a way to navigate this situation with some grace: talk to those close to you! Tell them your goals. Tell them you value them and need their support. Tell them that the change you’re making for yourself isn’t an indictment of the activities they enjoy with you, but rather something you need to do for whatever reason you need to do it (pro tip: figure out why you’re doing what you doing for better odds of reaching your goals).
Now that your loved ones know where you’re coming from, find ways you can enjoy quality time with them that don’t wreck your diet: if you KNOW your girlfriend likes having sweet snack with you in the evening, find a healthier alternative (Halo Top ice cream is an easy one, or you can cook some apples and serve them over Greek yogurt, or any number of things – get creative) and save some calories for that occasion; your beer-drinking buddy (probably) values your company more than the beer, so maybe go for dinner at a steakhouse (to get an 8oz sirloin with broccoli and a baked potato) instead of drinks. And everyone once in a while, make room in your diet (and your life) to do those things you once enjoy with your friends; just be aware of the trade-off you’re making and own your decision. Also, remember: your diet is not forever! It’s much easier to sneak some “naughty” activities into a eucaloric (neither surplus or deficit) diet than into a calorie deficit (what you need to lose weight).
I could go on, but that topic really does deserve its own article. I’ll get to it. For now, that’ll have to do.
Calorie counting works. Is it for everyone? No, but what is, really? A good coach works with the client in front of them (yes, that pronoun selection is a conscious choice), and while some might be better off with other strategies (some I find to be quite effective: reducing alcohol consumption, increasing vegetable consumption, increasing lean protein consumption, eating slowly, reducing calorie-laden liquid intake), many will benefit greatly from calorie counting.
Also, this isn’t a binary decision; many of my calorie-counting clients work their way through a habit-based curriculum to make healthier eating choices long-term. It is no coincidence that these clients get some remarkable results.
And one last thing . . . I write these articles because I believe the best way to attract new clients is to help people with my knowledge and expertise. The only way I can do that is if people see and read my articles. If this article helped you, or you know someone who might benefit from reading it, please consider sharing it on Facebook. Thank you!
If you’d like some help figuring out the best course of action for your diet and exercise plan, consider applying to train with me.
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