Whether or not we should count calories when trying to gain or lose weight is an age-old debate. It is no secret that for us to achieve specific weight goals, we have to be aware of the balance between calories in and calories out. Therefore, counting them must be the answer, right? For those who have fine-tuned all other aspects of their training, or have a lifestyle in which calorie-counting fits, then maybe. But for most, counting calories adds an unnecessary burden to daily activities, our mental health and sometimes even our loved ones. If you need a hand weighing up the options, or just want to know more about what calorie counting can do for you, then you're in the right place.
The goal of counting calories is to calculate the total amount consumed in one day compared to the energy we burn off. When talking about 'burning' energy, there are four main factors that come into play:
Exercise - walking the dog, going for a swim, training and playing sports
NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermoregulation) - the energy we burn by merely standing or running errands
TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) - the energy our body involuntarily uses to digest our food
BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) - the minimum amount of energy our body requires to carry out metabolic functions within our body (i.e. the energy we need just to stay alive)
We can take these four factors into account and use equations (like the Scofield equation) to calculate how many calories we need each day to yield a change in body weight. We can weigh food and translate it into its caloric value partly thanks to Max Rubner, a renowned physiologist from Berlin who discovered just how calorie-dense each macronutrient is. In the 1870s he found that:
- Protein = 4 calories/gram (17kJ)
- Carbohydrate = 4 calories/gram (17kJ)
- Fat = 9 calories/gram (37kJ)
Fast forward 150 years and here we are equipped with the ability to know the exact composition of the foods we eat just by weighing or even looking at them. Tracking calories is a trusted method (if done correctly) and with apps such as Easy Diet Diary and MyFitnessPal, it's now easier than ever to track our food.
This sounds like a recipe for success, right? For some, absolutely. But for others, things can turn south very quickly, so it is essential to know the benefits and risks that come with tracking your food so you can make an informed decision.
Things to ask yourself before calorie counting:
While considering calorie counting, it's a great idea to visit a GP, coach or Accredited Practising Dietitian to discuss your reasons for wanting to do so. You need to ask yourself why you want to calorie count and consider other factors that influence your goals. Five questions to ask yourself are:
- Do I want to count calories so I can conform to a specific body ideal?
- This might suggest some underlying mental health concerns regarding body image, which should be addressed first (1,2).
- How have my training sessions been?
- Think about the duration, intensity and enjoyment of your training lately. Perhaps you can switch up the type of training and pick up the intensity? This will mean you don't have to be as restrictive with your diet, and the calories you were about to eliminate will fuel you for a more productive session.
- The focus is now on training adaptations, which will help you will lose fat, gain muscle and increase your metabolism.
- Can I decrease my alcohol intake?
- The body sees alcohol as a toxin so prioritises its metabolism before anything else. This means that, for example, carbohydrates are not efficiently being stored as glycogen, which will fuel your next session.
- Alcohol also has the second-highest calorie density (7 calories/gram or 28kJ/gram) with no other nutrients. Swapping alcohol for water, juice, milk or kombucha are great alternatives and contain much less energy and more nutrients.
- Can I make smarter food choices?
- This can be at any time of day. Perhaps at night, you could swap a bowl of ice cream for a high-protein yoghurt instead. Or, instead of buying potato chips, you could buy air-popped corn.
- Who and what am I surrounded by?
- It's tough for some to stay away from the office lolly jar. Make a decision to change your surroundings by keeping a couple of pieces of fruit on your desk to give you a healthier choice.
- When you're at home, make your environment aligned with your goals by increasing fruit and veg in the pantry and decreasing the likes of biscuits and lollies.
- Go for a walk with a friend or family member instead of sitting in with a coffee.
If you're the type of individual who feels you can successfully work on some of the above questions and strive for better answers, then it is a good idea to stay away from calorie counting for now. For others, getting down to the nitty-gritty of what you’re consuming is essential, especially if all other aspects of training, nutrition and recovery are on point. This can be particularly true for elite athletes. For instance, athletes making weight in combat sports have more than likely exhausted all tools at their exposal; therefore counting calories is an additional option to assist in achieving a certain weight goal.
For non-elite athletes, however, there are other ways to achieve a weight goal that are less time consuming and less obsessive. It is important to note that there are many other factors and criteria that contribute to successful body and performance goals. Go back to the above questions and focus on more general aspects of your diet and training whilst ensuring you look after your mental health.
There are several benefits to calorie counting if the individual has good reason to.
For starters, if you have recorded your intake correctly (noting specific amounts of the exact foods you have consumed including sauces, oils and seasonings), you get a great perspective on trends in your intake. The more days you record, the better this data will be because most of us eat a variety of foods each day. We might be able to spot general patterns like noticing a lack of vegetables or specific elements such as a micronutrient deficiency. Most tracking apps allow us to see the number of nutrients consumed over the course of a day, including energy. This is particularly helpful because, if we have set a daily caloric intake goal, we can make sure we achieve it through the accurate tracking of calories each day.
Viewing this data is also an excellent self-education tool as it allows us to get to know more about food. By learning about the nutrients and energy density found in the foods we eat, we can relate it back to our goals. This is a great reason to count calories as it can be a short-term exercise to form the long-term skill of knowing food composition, which directly impacts goals, primarily relating to weight. This is also a great skill to have as it allows you to look at food and identify some of its characteristics, helping you be more mindful of what you eat.
For those high-level athletes tracking calories to reach goals in line with making a particular weight or achieving a certain type of physique, then counting calories can be extremely beneficial. For these athletes, the line between performing in sessions and making weight or performing in competitions is thin. Too many calories and the athlete will be too heavy as water and fat are stored. Not enough calories and their performance in the gym is sacrificed, which will affect their ability to gain muscle and overall athleticism. Tracking calories provides a way of ensuring an athlete is sitting on the line between these two things most of the time, so when it comes to crunch time, they're at their best.
On the contrary, counting calories raises some serious concerns, which poses a threat to both athletes and non-athletes. For starters, although most apps available are incredibly convenient, the data they provide is often inaccurate. If too many discrepancies compound, it can lead to an incorrect and misleading total calculation, which may be detrimental to achieving your goals. Underreporting intake has consistently shown to be an increasing issue with those recording their food (3,4,5,6) and with a couple of honest mistakes in entering types of products or their amounts, miscalculations can blow out even more. These miscalculations can be avoided by double-checking your entries and comparing the label of your food products with what the app suggests. Whether or not this is a burden on your mental health and/or daily living is up to you and, ideally, you should consult with an Accredited Practising Dietitian to decide together.
Talking with a dietitian or taking time to reflect can help steer you away from the 'if it fits my macros' mentality that is so easy to fall into, and re-evaluate what it means to be healthy to you. While it can be great to count calories and ensure macronutrient ratios are optimal, this does not take into account the micronutrients that nourish our bodies. Have you thought about the number of processed foods you've consumed in the last week? What about the amount of fruit and vegetables? These are all, in part, unrelated to calorie intake and contribute much more to our overall health and, in most cases, our performance and weight goals.
Calorie counting also fails to identify the quality of the food you’re consuming and the fact it is something to be enjoyed. If you are somebody who likes to eat a meal and get on with the next thing on your agenda, then perhaps calorie counting might be a little too intense and time-consuming, taking away from your daily productivity.
Alternatives to counting calories
If counting calories sounds a little aggressive then don't sweat it - there are alternative strategies. Aiming for two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables a day will more than likely set you on a positive path to improvement regardless of the goal, as they're typically dense in fibre and micronutrients while sparse in fat and calories. However, in some cases, it might be necessary to strive for extra serves. For example, a CrossFit athlete requires extra servings of lean meat, dairy, grains, fruit and vegetables to account for the additional power output and inflammation that comes with their specific training regime. So, instead of counting the exact amounts of food consumed, you might just want to add additional servings to main meals or consume additional healthy snacks.
Making sure you are appropriately fuelling yourself is an absolute necessity. It is also essential to trust your instincts. How do you feel? If you're tired, bloated or lethargic, perhaps you are eating too much or eating too close to training. If you are finding that you have been burning out in your sessions or taking longer than usual to recover, perhaps try eating more carbohydrates and protein throughout the day. Everyone is different, and by taking your time in finding out what works for you, it can lead to long-term satisfaction and compliance in staying on track.
On the other hand, you can pick up your training. If the goal is to be in a caloric deficit for fat loss, then perhaps buying a smartwatch and setting calorie-burning goals may be more beneficial than restricting calories. This will allow you to focus on fuelling your exercise, building muscle and becoming a fitter, more functional athlete rather than depleting yourself of energy to the detriment of your performance.
There are countless aspects of training and nutrition that contribute to your health and fitness goals and counting calories is just one of them. While it is a great tool to self-educate and take your performance to the next level, it isn’t always necessary. Merely creating awareness, making better choices, listening to your body and being more general in your dietary changes can lead to great results without taking over other aspects of your life.