Counting calories is one of those divisive issues in the fitness world. Some people swear by it, others think that it is unhelpful, time consuming obsessive behaviour. In reality, it is a tool like any other.
Counting calories becomes most useful when you hit a plateau, or if you aren’t seeing the results that you want. For example, if you are only losing half a pound of fat per week, but were expecting to lose two pounds, then checking your real, not guessed, calorie intake is a good place to start.
I would recommend that everyone tries counting their calories for at least a day or two every so often, just to keep yourself in touch with what is going into your body. It is extremely interesting and can be quite addictive.
Don’t guess, record everything
Most people grossly underestimate their calorie intake and overestimate their calorie burn from exercise. For example, a recent study of people eating at fast food chains found that:
The mean calorie count for adults’ meals was 836 calories; teens purchased 756 calories and children ordered 733 calories. “At least two-thirds of all participants underestimated the calorie content of their meals, with about a quarter underestimating the calorie content by at least 500 calories,”
And that’s just for meals. Most people don’t even think about the cups of coffee, the odd bit of chocolate, the olive oil they cook their sausages in etc. The result is that most people have no idea how many calories they are eating.
Don’t lie to your self when counting calories
We also have a tendency to over estimate the amount of healthy food we eat and underestimate the amount of unhealthy or high calorie food. For example, this study concluded:
Adults underestimated their consumption of servings of grains, as well as servings of fats, oils, and sweets. They overestimated their consumption of fruit, milk products, and meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts servings. The only exception was for vegetable servings by males.
These studies find that people typically underestimate their true calorie intake by 30 percent, with a range of 10 to 45 percent depending on such factors as age, sex, body composition, and socioeconomic status.
Overweight people and women tend to be worse at under-reporting their calorie intake (even to themselves). The psychological reasons behind this are ripe for a whole future article.
The first time I ran a Calorie counting app for a day, I found that I was taking in nearly 3200 Calories; and that was my ‘fat loss’ diet! As far as I was concerned, I was eating very healthily, but you can still easily over-eat on healthy food.
The trick to making it work properly is to record absolutely everything that you drink or eat. It’s no good forgetting the salad leaves (8 Calories), or the milk in your tea (11 Calories) or that banana you ate in the car (105 Calories); these things all add up.
And remember, sniggering aside, if it goes in your mouth, it goes in the diary.
How do I count calories?
Using a free app/website like MyFitnessPal allows you to track everything, and relatively easily after the first day or so. It takes a bit of getting used to, and finding your regular food on there can be a little challenging. There is a bar code scanner that uses your phone’s camera and works extremely well, with a massive database of food behind it, which is fantastic.
It even has a nice little pie chart that shows you the percentage of calories gained from protein, carbs and fat in your diet. These ratios, known as your macro nutrients, can also be a useful guide [to be discussed in a future article].
Recording your food intake will help you lose fat.
In 2008, the Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research ran a study of 1,685 overweight or obese U.S. adults aged 25 and older. They were asked to keep a complete journal of everything that they ate and drank while following a healthy eating diet. Those who kept food records six days a week, recording everything, lost about twice as much weight as those who kept food records one day a week or less. The average weight loss was 13 pounds over six months for the entire group.
So how does this work? Firstly, most of us aren’t really aware of where our Calories are coming from. We think we know, but we are often wrong. Once you see the details, it allows you to make better choices. Seeing your portion sizes written down makes you wonder about whether you really enjoyed those last few mouthfuls or whether you were just eating them to clear the plate.
On top of that, it forces you to accept the reality of what you are eating. If you have to write it down, it becomes real. One of the primary reasons people get fatter is the internal rationalisation of “it’s just a biscuit” or “I have had a long day so I deserve a glass of wine”. We can always find reasons to justify eating unhealthy things. That’s fine, as long as we aren’t pretending that it doesn’t count.
What do I do with the numbers?
Just having the numbers helps, but you can put them to work. Try keeping a calorie count for a week to give you a good indication of your average calorie intake. At the same time, you should be measuring your weight, and ideally your body fat percentage too, on a regular basis (once per week is fine).
If you find that you aren’t getting the results that you were expecting, you can now adjust your calorie intake accordingly. For example, if you were hoping to lose fat but have stayed the same weight, then you could try dropping your calorie intake by 10% (usually 2-300 calories). I wouldn’t recommend any more than that. Having an all year beach body is about developing your body slowly and steadily into a permanently awesome physique, not going on yo-yo diets. Alternatively, if you are feeling motivated, you could add in enough cardio to burn those 2-300 calories per day (this is the healthier option as long as you aren’t over doing it!).
Don’t forget that your body will quickly adapt to its new intake, especially if you are losing fat. Over time your body becomes more efficient and needs less calories to function and do exercise. This is why you may find that you need to re-evaluate your calorie intake every few weeks to keep on track.