Calorie counting. Does anyone love it? I don’t think I have ever seen anyone say they do. I’ve seen people profess to loving burpees. I’ve seen people claim to love low-fat cottage cheese. I have even seen people
It isn’t the most fun activity in the world. In fact it is downright tedious, especially at first, until it becomes a habit, but that could be said of many things. brushing your teeth isn’t the greatest excitement ever, but you get it done twice a day, every day and it takes longer than entering your dinner into My Fitness Pal would.
So why do we need to do it? Do we even need to do it? There are countless articles both online and in our old friends the mainstream press that tell us that counting calories is so passé. You don’t need to count calories, you just need to count macros. You don’t need to count calories, you just need to eat clean, or you just need to eat ‘real food’. Here are a couple of genuine quotes:
When you eat properly, counting calories isn’t necessary because your body naturally adjusts.
“If you come into our clinic and say the word ‘calorie,’ we throw you out,” says Dr. Robert Lustig, director of the Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health (WATCH) Program at the University of California, San Francisco.
That second one was in Time magazine no less. In the same article as this priceless gem:
“People think overeating makes you fat, when really it’s the process of getting fat that makes you overeat,” says Dr. David Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
What the actual fuck now?
Okay, I’m going to take a moment or two to regain my composure while entertaining a fantasy of knocking Drs Ludwig and Lustig’s fat heads together. I’m guessing they get paid an awful lot of money to spout twaddle such as that.
The main premise, or premises of the anti-calorie counting brigade seem to be:
1.) Calorie counting vs macro counting – somehow, as long as you have your ratio of fats to carbs to protein in good order, then you can eat as much of them as you want. You might be on a high carb, low fat diet and you could pile in the carbs by the kilo as long as they stayed in ratio to the fats. Conversely you could be on a Low carb high fat diet and as long as you stuck to your formula you would lose weight however much you ate. Or, presumably if you were looking to gain, you would, regardless of how little you ate. So, irrespective of the amount of food you eat, as long as there is some ratio of macronutrients you can lose or gain at will. Yeah Science!
2.) As long as your food is real and not some NASA astronaut ice cream in a vacuum pouch crapola, and/or is ‘clean’ you can eat it in any amount and again, gain or lose by pure intent. Excellent. Bring me four fried chickens, but hold the coke!
As far as I am aware this is more or less the principle on which the Slimming World scam – I mean scheme, sorry – works. You can eat as much ‘free’ foods as you want, be they pasta rice or potato but you have to limit the amount of ‘syns’ (FFS how does anyone keep a straight face at these meetings?) you pair them with. That’s fine. Bring me the family size bucket of chips, but go light on the ketchup, please.
The simple truth of all this utter bollocks is that all of the above people and companies have an agenda which is very much to do with them making money by making the principle of weight management seem a lot more complicated than it is. There is a whole industry devoted to weight loss that is worth £2 billion a year in the UK and a staggering $66 billion in the US. Add to that the value of the bodybuilding weight gain industry and it is easy to see why they want to make it seem like this weight management thing is really tricky stuff that you won’t be able to get on your own unless you buy their product/book/course etc.
Because what it boils down to, what it has always boiled down to, what you have always know it boils down to, even when you listened to the spiel is:
Weight Management = Calories In: Calories Out
If you are trying to lose weight you need fewer calories in than calories out.
If you are trying to build muscle you need more calories in than calories out
If you are entirely happy with your weight, your physique and your health in general, then whoop whoop and I hate you, but if you are trying to maintain that you need to balance calories in with calories out.
See the common theme here? Calories in and calories out.
Do macros matter? Sure they do, but you can choose whichever macro strategy suits you and as long as you are consistent with it, you will achieve your results. High carb, low carb, there are lots of routes to reach the same end. Calorie deficit/surplus is a constant.
Does eating clean ‘real’ food matter? It matters for health and all sorts of reasons, but if you eat too much grass fed beef you will get just as fat as if you eat too many Big Macs. It doesn’t matter how organic your chicken breast is, if you only eat 40g of it a day you are not going to be packing on any muscle any time soon.
So if we know that calories in: calories out is what decides our weight loss, gain or maintenance, what do we need to know to achieve our deficit, surplus or balance? Well, without wishing to sound too glaringly obvious, we need to know how many calories are going in and how many calories are going out.
Or do we really? Is it really necessary to be tracking it all so closely? Can’t we just eat more or less according to our goals which out counting every single calorie? It seems a bit excessive.
Well, that all really hinges on how well you are able to estimate your requirements and the calorie value of your food. If you are just trundling along day-by-day maintaining a steady weight, then it is less of an issue, but when losing weight or gaining, you are really not setting yourself up for success if you have no idea what the target is and are relying on guesswork to hit it. If you want an analogy, imagine shooting basketball hoops with a blindfold on. Or driving your car for 3 months with the fuel gauge blanked out and the numbers blanked out on the petrol pumps when you refuel.
Because the one thing I find, every time I do a period of calorie tracking, is how surprised I am at how far out my guesstimates are. I was a proper full-bore (and boring) foodie before I became a boring fittie, and have done a lot of studying about food and nutrition. I have also experimented with some rigorous diet strategies over the years: LCHF and Keto, as well as High Carb Low Fat (even Vegan HCLF at one point when I was into the ultra running thing) I’m pretty good about gauging my macros by eye, and choosing foods to fit. I do get my total calories quite wrong though, particularly when I am starting and increase or decrease. Usually I overestimate. When I have to enter all my meal data at the end of the day due to time constrictions when I am out on the road working, I often find that after I have had my supper I am still 600 calories or so short of my goal, and end up having to down a pint of yogurt and some eggs before bedtime. Over time, entering the data every day makes it a lot easier to estimate, certainly the common items become familiar and easier to judge. I know exactly how many calories are in my usual breakfast and post workout protein smoothies, or a plate of chicken, rice and broccoli.
So, now we have established the why, how about the how?
First off, going in reverse order: Calories Out. How many calories are you burning a day?
Simple, log in to an online TDEE Calculator, enter your details – height, weight, age, activity level etc, and it will calculate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) in calories.
Further, it will work out what your maximum potential weight is at a variety of bodyfat percentages, and give you a suggested macro breakdown for low carb, moderate and high carb diet options, and recalculate how many calories you need whether you are maintaining, cutting or bulking (losing or gaining).
So now, equipped with the knowledge of how many calories you need, and also how you are going to split those calories macrowise, how do you go about making sure you are getting the numbers you need?
That is where calorie tracking comes in. In the olden days, before smartphones and apps and all the wonders of the digital age, counting calories was a pretty tedious affair: looking up the calorie count of every individual foodstuff that passed your lips in books of tables, writing them all down in a notebook and adding them up on an abacus. There are still some people who insist on doing it this way, but it is a lot of commitment to be doing something so time consuming and unnecessarily laborious in this day and age. The majority of people track calories using online apps, of which there are many. The most popular, I would think, is My Fitness Pal, which is the example I am going to use here (I have actually just recently switched from using MFP to a new app called Evolve, which I will do a review of, but will use MFP as an example because of its ubiquity.)
So, if you are unfamiliar with how My Fitness Pal works, log on here: My Fitness Pal and register to set up an account.
You can enter your details again and have it work out what it considers suitable calorie and macros splits for you, or you can enter under the Settings menu the calorie and macros targets you have from the TDEE calculator or your own calculations, or advice from a trainer.
You can then enter items in your daily food diary. Under each meal heading, simply click on ‘Add Food’, and enter what you have had. There is a database of millions of items, which you can narrow down to brands: ‘Tesco fat free Greek Yogurt’ or ‘Large avocado’ etc. If y are cooking from scratch you can choose full meals such as spaghetti bolognaise from other people’s data, or create your own custom meals from the individual ingredients you use, and save for future reference.
As you add your meals in, the totals along the bottom bar tot up how much you have used and how much you have left of your daily allowance in terms of calories, carbs, proteins and fats. Simple as that. If your calories are on target, and your macros are pretty close, you will be on track for achieving your goals.
If you are not tracking calories, and are not getting the results you want in weight loss or fitness gains, then it should be your first port of call. Give it a try for two weeks and see what the outcome is. See what your deficit/surplus actually is. I suspect you will be surprised. Even if you are maintaining successfully, it is a worthwhile exercise to do just to inform yourself about where your calories are coming from and how the macros of your food actually break down.