“The only way to lose weight is to track calories.” Another dogma you will see thrown around in the fitness realm. Tracking calories can certainly be effective, and educational. But it’s not for everyone. And it’s certainly not the only way.
How Weight Loss Happens
Weight loss is achieved by creating a calorie deficit. This means manipulating energy intake (what you eat) and energy output (what you expend), or a combination of the two. As long as you are in a calorie deficit, whether you can put a numerical value on it or not, you will lose weight. By counting calories, we can monitor our energy intake and adjust it accordingly to suit our goals.
An analogy I like to use to explain this uses your bank account. Imagine you want to save money. So, you need to take in more money than you spend. You can do this by setting a weekly budget (calorie target in this case). As long as you spend within your financial limits, you will save money. But that is not the only way you could save money. You could stop buying avocado on toast, millenials. If you cut this out, you would still save money. And you didn’t have to monitor your spending, you just changed your habits.
Some people will find it easier to stick to a budget and some people will do better making changes to their routine. It’s important to notice that both people achieved the desired result, albeit in different ways.
Similarly, some people will benefit from tracking calories and some people will benefit more from changing their habits. Some people will benefit from a combination of the two. Both people will lose weight in the end. There isn’t one way, and the “best” way is largely individual.
Counting Calories & Weight Loss
Tracking calories simply means recording your calorie intake. There are a number of means of tracking calories. You can use apps like MyFitnessPal or Cronometer. If you are Amish, you can also do this on paper, and write down the calorie content of every food and drink you consume daily.
Calorie counting allows us to manipulate our energy intake. For example, if you are a person who typically eats 2,500 calories daily. You decide you want to lose weight. You know from one of my sermons on energy balance that you need to use more energy than you take in. By eating 2,300 calories a day now, you will lose weight (assuming nothing else changes other than how much you eat). No exercise required. #Lifehack.
Potential Benefits of Tracking Calories
1. Increasing your awareness of calorie content of food.
Tracking calories can be a useful tool for many, in terms of creating awareness around nutrition. It can be educational, particularly for beginners to track their calories for a few weeks. This takes out the guesswork of trying to estimate what you’re eating.
As we are human, we are prone to error. Various studies have reported that we tend to underestimate the calorie content of meals. A 2013 study by Block et al. found that two thirds of people underestimated the calorie content of their food, sometimes by up to 500 calories. It is important to bear in mind that this study only studied overweight fast-food restaurant goers. One could hypothesise that the overweight are less aware of the energy intake of their food, which has led to an increase in size. However, Chandon and Wansink (2007) found that regardless of body size, we are all prone to underestimating the calorie content of our meals.
Does this mean that we are all stupid? Or are we just unaware of what we’re actually eating? Tracking calories, even without trying to create a deficit, can be an enlightening experience. It can be horrifying to find out what the serving size of foods actually look like, as anyone who has weighed out the serving size of granola can attest. Growing up, we are shown the Food Pyramid, and told to eat certain portions of food groups. But how much time do we spend figuring out what that portion actually looks like? For this reason, I think there is a huge advantage to tracking calories, even for a short time period if you have never before. This is obviously not a blanket recommendation, and the exceptions to the rule will be discussed later on.
2. Creating awareness of your habits.
The act of recording calories itself can create awareness of your eating patterns, and can be useful in identifying weaknesses in your current approach to eating. You may find that eating a low calorie breakfast (or skipping it entirely) can lead to you reaching for more calorie-dense foods later on in the afternoon. You may find that you reach for certain foods at certain times, e.g. a sugary snack in the afternoon.
Again, this is merely gathering data. Viewing this information objectively can be a challenge for some. Food has no moral value, and you are not a monster for eating a donut over broccoli. It can allow us to pinpoint habits you have developed that are less supportive of your goals.
It also raises the important question: would you change your habits if you knew how they affected you?
3. It’s easy to measure and standardise.
Once you get into the swing of it, tracking your calories can be done very easily and quickly, with little effort. This is particularly true if you use apps like MyFitnessPal. It is an easy way to guarantee your energy intake remains relatively constant. This is particularly useful when creating a calorie deficit. For example, if you know that if you eat 2000 calories you will maintain your current weight, you can create a calorie deficit by reducing the amount you take in.
Caveat: This is energy balance in its simplest sense. It doesn’t take into consideration the individual macronutrient needs of the individual, nor the need to make better food choices.
Why Counting Calories May Not Be For You
Calorie counting is simple and straightforward to carry out. It can empower some, and help them make better food choices. For some people, it can have the opposite effect, and worsen their relationship with food and themselves. You are not wrong for counting calories, nor are you Mother Teresa for counting them. Only you know what works for you.
1. It can create disordered eating patterns.
It’s not all educational and beneficial for everyone. For some people, tracking calories can lead to disordered eating patterns, and worsen your relationship with food.
Literature suggests that for some, calorie counting apps can be linked to eating disorders (Levinson et al, 2017). Furthermore, in Simpson & Mazzeo’s 2017 study of college students with disordered eating patterns, 73% of respondents stated using calorie tracking apps contributed to their disorder.
For some, the tracking of calories can become all-consuming. Anecdotally, I can back this up; I felt stressed when out for a meal when I couldn’t track the calories from it accurately. I would get angry if I went over my calorie target for the day, and feel proud of myself if I stayed under it.
You can’t track calories your whole life. Well, yes smartass, technically you can. But what kind of life is it? To be out for dinner and trying to track everything instead of being present in the moment and enjoying it?
Therefore, if you have a history of disordered eating, or know that you would become consumed by the need to “control” everything, I find it hard to recommend you count calories.
2. Missing the forest for the trees.
When you only focus on calories, you run the risk of missing the bigger picture. Reducing food to its energy content alone isn’t educational or empowering. Food functions as so much more than an energy source. Different macronutrients are needed by our bodies in varying amounts to carry out various functions.
That’s what really annoys me when people say “it’s calories in calories out bro”. On a fundamental level yes. But food is more than a measurement of energy, and not all calories are created equal, nor do they affect us equally. The human body is much more complicated than that.
Counting calories can be beneficial for many as a means to control their energy intake, and create awareness around food choices. People starting off, especially complete beginners, can benefit from counting calories, as it can be convenient and easy to understand. However, it’s not the only way. People with histories of disordered eating patterns can become fixated on this number, much like how people can become obsessed with the scale weight. As long as a calorie deficit can be created, weight loss can be achieved.
Rant: But X person on Instagram said I don’t have to count calories.
This is one of my biggest pet peeves. Fitness professionals who have years of tracking macros and monitoring their caloric intake proclaiming to everyone they “don’t need to track calories” to lose weight. Certainly, they know from years of experience roughly the calories they need to create a calorie deficit, and have an accurate idea of what foods they can eat in what quantities to get there.
If you have no experience with portioning food, or monitoring your energy intake, you will struggle to match these people. Not because you are stupid or broken, you just don’t have the education or knowledge yet. And that’s okay. It’s like a chef telling you that you don’t need the recipe to make a cheesecake. They know how to make it, because they’ve made hundreds. If you’ve never made it before, you’ll need a point of reference before you know it off by heart.
It is just another way for these people to assert how much more they “know” about training and nutrition. You don’t have to track calories if you can create a calorie deficit, but it certainly helps.
1. Block, J.P., Condon, S.K., Kleinman, K., Mullen, J., Linakis, S., Rifas-Shiman, S., Gillman, M.W. (2013) ‘Consumers’ estimation of calorie content at fast food
restaurants: cross sectional observational study’, British Medical Journal. Available at: https://bmj.com/content/bmj/346/bmj.f2907.full.pdf
2. Chandon, P., Wanksink, B. (2007) ‘The Biasing Health Halos of Fast-Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimates and Higher Side-Dish Consumption Intentions’, Journal of Consumer Research. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/jcr/article-abstract/34/3/301/1798852.
3. Levinson, C.A., Fewell, L., Brosof, L.C. (2017) ‘My Fitness Pal calorie tracker usage in the eating disorders’, Eating Behaviours. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1471015317301484.
4. Simpson, C.C., Mazzeo, S.E. (2017) ‘Calorie counting and fitness tracking technology: Associations with eating disorder symptomatology’, Eating Behaviours. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1471015316303646.
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