Calorie counting: Is it really necessary for weight loss?

Homemade Pad Thai - about 350 calories.

Homemade Pad Thai – about 350 calories.

Want to know something kind of disturbing?

I can correctly guess the amount of calories in home-prepared meals and food items (like a banana, egg, chicken breast, slice of bread, cup of ice cream, etc.) with an accuracy rate of about 90%. (I made up that stat. But it’s probably close to that).

I find my calorie-counting abilities disturbing for two reasons: One, because I’m not a dietitian and I don’t really need to know what’s in everything, and two, because for some reason I’ve retained that kind of information yet can barely recall anything I learned in Math 11.

I started looking up how many calories were in food items when I was about 15 years old — that time when young girls start having body image issues and are desperate to do anything to fit in and be loved. I pored over fitness and health magazines, researched what I should eat online, and amassed a calorie-counting library in my head (this was before the days of MyFitnessPal), tallying meals up before I ate them to make sure I didn’t gain weight.

Then I got older and wiser, realized it didn’t matter to anyone who loved me that I didn’t have abs, and ate what I wanted — even though in the back of my mind I knew I probably shouldn’t be eating that 500-calorie slice of pizza after a night at the bar.

When I got into running (and eventually fitness and health in general) in my mid-20s, I paid more attention to what I was eating again and lost the 10 pounds I gained during my university years without much effort. Knowing in general what the calorie count and macronutrient ratios (fats, protein and carbs) were in foods was helpful for me.

Could I have lost the weight without tallying up the calorie count of my meals? Probably, because I had a general idea of what I should be eating and was raised on healthy food. I could have just ate smaller portions, and filled up on veggies at meals instead of grains and meat. I could have cooked at home more. I could have packed carrots and hummus as a snack instead of a slice of store-bought banana loaf…

But thanks to Shape and Cosmo Magazine circa 2005, I knew that to lose a pound of body fat a week I would need to cut 500 calories out of my total calories per day (because one pound of fat has 3,500 calories, so 3,500 / 7 days = 500). Based on my age (23), height (5 f. 6 in.) and weight (135 lbs.) at the time, I calculated that my basal metabolic rate (the energy you burn by just existing each day) was about 1,350-1,450. After factoring in general activity (walking, cleaning, eating, working, etc.) using the Harris-Benedict equation, I calculated that I would need to eat about 1,985 to maintain my current weight. To lose weight, I would need to eat 1,485 calories per day, or eat about 1,735 calories per day and do moderate exercise for about 30-45 minutes per day to burn another 250 calories (250 less calories eaten and 250 more calories burnt = 500 calories less).

But what if I didn’t know all of that?

I think whether or not you need to count calories or monitor macronutrient ratios for weight loss depends on several factors.

In my opinion, you could start counting calories and paying attention to the macronutrients and miconutrients in your food for a short period of time if:

  • you have no clue about what you should be eating to fuel your body,
  • you don’t know how much you should be eating and your hunger cues are out-of-whack,
  • you don’t want/can’t afford help from a registered dietitian or nutritionist,
  • you primarily eat a lot of processed food and rarely cook at home,
  • you don’t know what ingredients are in your food, and
  • you have body fat or lean mass to lose or gain.

You should NOT start counting calories if:

  • you have a history of an eating disorder (binge eating, emotional eating, anorexia, bulimia, etc.),
  • you have a good understanding of nutrition and are in tune with your body/hunger signals,
  • you already eat a balanced diet consisting of lots of vegetables and fruit, moderate amounts of grains, lentils and beans, and some lean meats, healthy fats and treats,
  • you want to maintain your current body composition, or
  • you tend to get anxious or obsessive-compulsive over health numbers and stats.

If you feel like you fit into the NOT category and have weight to lose, I suggest seeking help from a registered dietitian or nutritionist so they can do all the calculations and monitoring for you. (Although I offer meal plans, they are simply guidelines and suggestions and should not be taken as a replacement for what an RD would prescribe.)

If you feel like you fit into the SHOULD category, there are a few handy online tools you can use and resources available to help you understand what your body needs to function and how much you need to eat to lose weight.

  • A Primer on Calories – Good overview about the basics of caloric intake.
  • BMR Calculator – Figure out how much energy your body needs each day to perform cellular-level functions, like growing hair, thinking and breathing.
  • Harris Benedict Equation – Once you calculate your BMR, determine your total daily energy expenditure using this online tool and figure out how much you should be eating to lose or gain weight.
  • MyFitnessPal – Log your meals and track your daily calorie balance using this handy app on your smartphone.
  • Plan well, shop smart and cook healthy – Learn to read nutrition labels and be aware of ingredients to avoid in prepackaged foods.
  • Ask Leigh: Common Sense Advice For Exceptional Bodies And Lives – Listen to this podcast by fitness and nutrition expert Leigh Peele — she really knows her stuff. Her podcast focuses on body recomposition and what happens to your mind and body when you diet.

A few caveats

I know it may be tempting, but don’t buy into any of those quick-fix diet schemes, juice cleanses, restrictive fad diets, fasts, pills, etc. For healthy, long-term and sustainable weight loss, you MUST do it slowly. Your body doesn’t like sudden change, and any weight you lose rapidly on one of the fad diets mentioned above will come back. If you have weight to lose, aim to cut 250-500 calories per day for a half-a-pound to one-pound-per-week weight loss. Do not eat less than 1,200 calories per day for women, and 1,500 per day for men.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while weight loss is based on a negative calorie balance, it’s still individualistic. Underlying health problems or other variables — such as your fitness level and lean body mass ratio — can effect the rate in which you lose weight. You may need to tweak your daily calorie requirements based on your own nutritional needs until you find a number that works.

Do you count calories? Why or why not?

– B


Resource: Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, Third Edition. National Strength and Conditioning Association.