Everyone has something to say about how to lose weight. And yes I realize by writing this I, too, have something to say. Except what I have to say is legit.
Why? Because I am not going to tell you that one way is wrong and one way is right. I truly believe that what works for some, will not work for others. I also believe that you are here because you are a super-smart, curious person that just wants to know all the (need-to-know) facts so you can do what is right for you to be healthy. And then get back to your life-cuz it is way more exciting than counting calories.
Why is calorie counting so popular?
Well, for starters, people love diets. They love the idea of a diet- a seemingly perfect solution to losing weight that explains why they have never been successful before: “This ‘Crappy Diet Method’ didn’t work for me but this new ‘Highly Marketed Cult Diet’ is cutting edge and is the answer to finally losing weight!” Ok, so it’s no secret that I hate diets. Behavior change might not sound sexy, but it is more successful for long term weight loss than any diet out there..but I digress.
Most popular diets are based on counting calories, calorie restriction, macronutrient manipulation (the ratio of proteins, carbs and fats) or some other similar variation. It’s popular, because it’s easy. Counting calories is far simpler than understanding the complex effects food has on our bodies (and waistlines).
It’s even more popular because it is loosely (I use that term loosely LOL) based on the science surrounding the law of physics and energy balance in the body. Calories do count, but they are far from the whole picture. Food produces hormonal effects in the body and some say “store as fat” while others say “build muscle”, which means it is also important to consider what type of calories we consume, not just how many.
Despite all that, counting calories is still a popular method to losing weight because (drumroll please) it works for people. Not all people, but no eating approach works for everyone, so why just pick on counting calories. Here’s the jist of how it works:
The law of physics states that energy is neither created nor destroyed. If you want to lose weight, you must consume less energy than you expend (a calorie deficit). To maintain weight, calories consumed and calories expended should be equal over time. If weight gain is your goal, calories consumed should exceed calories expended (a calorie surplus).
Sounds simple, right? But you aren’t a walking math formula and knowing what to eat doesn’t just require algebraic equations and metric conversions (I loathe those). Thankfully, counting calories isn’t that complicated, but it does require a bit of math to get started:
Here’s how to count calories:
Step 1: Figure out how many calories your body needs. The first step to manipulating your calories to manage your weight, is to estimate your daily caloric needs. You need to calculate your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) which is essentially how many calories your body burns just existing-doesn’t take into account your activity level or exercise. I said I would keep it simple, so check out an online calculator like this one and skip the boring equations. Once you know your BMR, you apply an activity factor to determine your daily energy expenditure, using the formula here:
If you are sedentary (little or no exercise) : BMR x 1.2
If you are lightly active (light exercise 1-3 days/week) : BMR x 1.375
If you are moderately active (moderate exercise 3-5 days/week) :BMR x 1.55
If you are very active (hard exercise 6-7 days a week) : BMR x 1.725
If you are extra active (very hard exercise & physical job, 2 a days) : BMR x 1.9
For example, if my BMR was 1500 and I work out 3-5 days a week my daily calorie intake should be 2325 calories (1500 x 1.55)
Step 2: Figure out how many calories you should eat based on your goal. Now you know how many calories you should consume if you want to maintain your weight (Side note: Remember, this is an equation, and as with all creations of super sciencey people, there is a margin of error and you should adjust accordingly). To adjust your calorie consumption based on your goal, it really is pretty simple: if you want to lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit, if you want to gain weight (you guessed it) you need a calorie surplus. Since most people want to lose weight, lets look at how to create a calorie deficit:
1. Eat less calories
2. Burn more calories (workout more)
3. Combination of both of the above
To lose weight safely and sustainably, you should aim for an average weight loss rate of 1 lb per week (may be between 0.5-2lbs depending on how much you have to lose) so a 500 calorie total deficit per day is a good starting point (3500 calories in a pound/7 days a week = 1 lb lost a week).
Step 3: Pick macronutrient ratios. This is where it gets a bit complicated and confusing for most people. Everyone has a different opinion on just how many proteins, carbs and fats you should eat to lose weight- and for good reason. Not every ‘body’ is the same and our unique hormonal profiles, body types, and carb sensitivity levels mean different strokes for different folks.
The only way to figure out what works best for you is through trial and error, but let me give you a good starting point: 40% carbs 30% protein and 30% fat.
From there you can tweak any macronutrient up or down if you know how your body responds, but here are some things to consider:
- If you consume lower carbs, you should increase your fat intake. If you are carb tolerant, higher carbs will not deter weight loss goals, but if you are carb sensitive, having higher fat intake and lower carb intake is better.
- For basic protein synthesis, you should consume a minimum of 1.4-2.0 g/kg bodyweight of protein per day. For intense exercisers or for body composition goals, you should consume higher levels of protein, about 1g per pound of bodyweight.
- The average range for each macronutrient is: 25-55% Carb/30-35% Protein/15-40% Fat.
Once you determine your macronutrient ratio, simply multiply each one by your total calories to determine how many calories of each macronutrient you should consume every day:
Example: 1000 calories with 40/30/30 split is 400 cals from carbs, 300 cals from protein and 300 cals from fat.
To determine how many grams of each macronutrient that is, divide by the number of calories per gram (4 for carbs and protein, 9 for fat), like this:
400/4= 100 grams of carbs | 300/4= 75g of protein | 300/9= 33g of fat
Step 4: Track your calories. Done with math yet? Wait…there’s more. Now that you know how much to eat, you need to actually eat it and write it down. Write everything down. Yes, even that candy you stole from your co-workers desk. And the bite of mac and cheese you made for your kid…all of it. There are tools to track it online or using an app (like MyFitnessPal), or you can keep it old school and use a journal. All that matters is you write it all down and try and hit your calorie/macronutrient goal every day.
Step 5: Track your progress and make changes. Not only should you be writing your food down but you should keep track of your progress (pictures, weight, and measurements work well) so you can adjust your strategy based on your success. Remember, caloric needs estimations are not 100% accurate, so if you notice more rapid or more lagging results, you can increase/decrease your consumption until you find the right balance for you and your goals.
Two sides to every calorie (err story)
Not sure if calorie counting is for you? Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks:
-Opens your eyes to eating habits and choices. Most clients I encounter start off by saying they eat ‘pretty healthy’, but after writing down what they ate the day before, a different picture is painted. People tend to underestimate just how much they eat (for some reason mindless snacking or sneaking ‘bites’ aren’t that memorable..go figure). Tracking your calories is a good way to uncover some eating habits or bad choices that are sabotaging your success, that you didn’t even realize you were making.
-What gets measured, gets managed. I think an old boss mentioned this in a lecture- or maybe I made it up- but nonetheless, tracking anything (including calories) focuses your intentions and leads to more control in that area of your life. Ever notice that things get better almost effortlessly when you start to pay attention to or start scrutinizing your behavior- money issues, relationships and how much you eat will improve just by actively monitoring yourself.
-Provides accountability and structure (if you like that sort of thing). I know people who love counting calories, not because they even need to in the long term (because after a few weeks you pretty much memorize what all your common meals add up to), but because it gives them a source of accountability. Grabbing that mini Snickers is a lot less appealing if you think about having to write it down and look up the calorie content. Just saying.
-It’s the most commonly available information on energy consumption. Nutrition labels, menus, and restaurant websites make it fairly easy to track just how many calories are in your food. For better or worse, it is the only accessible information that can be used as a tracking tool for monitoring our energy consumption. Now again, not every label or menu is necessarily 100% accurate but it is a good enough estimation to pay attention to, if you chose.
-Your caloric needs estimate is most likely wrong. Like I mentioned before, the formula doesn’t know you, or your body, or your health history or genetic makeup, etc. That means you shouldn’t live and die by the number it spits out, and instead consider it a guideline (a guideline with up to 30% margin of error…yikes).
-Calorie counts on foods are also usually wrong. It’s one thing to have an inaccurate calorie equation, but now you have to worry about lying nutrition labels? Yup, sorry, but its true. Calorie content of a food (nutrition label or not) is just an estimation and has its own margin of error. Plus, 1 in 5 restaurants have incorrect calorie counts-usually around 100 calorie underestimation. Unintentionally consuming more calories than you mean to could add up over time and affect weight loss goals.
-Underestimating portion sizes. Do you know the difference between 1/2 cup and 1 cup of pasta? Or 3 oz and 5 oz of meat? Unless you are meticulously measuring each and every portion of food in your meals, there’s a good chance you will unintentionally eat more calories than you aimed for. Studies show that 80% of people underestimate their food intake because of distorted portion sizes. This can be troublesome when weight loss success relies on maintaining a calorie deficit.
-A calorie is not a calorie. This is a big one…and I could write a whole post on this (maybe I will), but for now remember this: Calories are just the measurement of energy released from a specific food and don’t take into account the macronutrient makeup, hormonal effect, sugar content, fiber content or any other factor that plays a role in how your body responds to its consumption. 1000 calories of donuts is not the same as 1000 calories of fruits, vegetables and lean protein, and while caloric content is part of the story, it certainly isn’t the whole story when it comes to achieving fat loss.
-It’s stressful and tedious OMG. Even the most enthusiastic and interested individuals will lose steam after a few weeks. Counting and tracking every single calorie you consume can be stressful and take the joy out of eating. This is a big drawback to this method because the success of any eating plan relies mainly on it being sustainable (long enough to see results and easy enough to stick to). There are many studies that show that limiting caloric intake doesn’t lead to lasting weight loss. I would guess that it’s partly due to people not wanting to keep up with it, in addition to all the risks mentioned above of your efforts not being totally reliable.
Ok, I’ll give you my opinion on the subject.
Since a few of you are probably interested in my take on calorie counting, Ill say this: I started out tracking every calorie and monitoring my macronutrient ratios and found it beneficial to learn about what foods I commonly ate and how it all added up..for a few weeks. Eventually, I started to eyeball portion sizes and found it easy to memorize how many calories are in a chicken breast or sweet potato by the 15th time I wrote it down. Fast forward a bit, and I now recommend this practice for my clients ONLY for the first few days of a new program so both of us can learn about their current eating patterns- but then recommend it for the long term if it is something they find useful and enjoy.
I believe in fostering a healthy relationship with food, without stress and obsession, and practicing a more mindful approach to eating. Our bodies’ natural hunger cues are insanely good at maintaining a balance that is right for us if we learn to listen.