Counting Calories and Weight Loss: Good or Bad?
Do I HAVE to count Calories?
Ah yes, Calories...
Although the term "Calorie" simply refers to a unit that measures energy, our society has transformed it into a way of identifying the "fatness" of foods.
Even worse is that most people just associate Calories with getting fatter...
more calories = more fat
"Oh wow that cookie is so fattening, look how many calories it has!"
We've been led to believe that calorie counting and management is the only way to lose weight and be healthy.
While there is some truth to this, it's pretty evident that just counting calories is not the answer for most people.
If it were, there wouldn't be so many folks struggling to lose weight and get healthy.
Most fitness gurus fall into two camps when it comes to calories.
Group 1 - CALORIEZ ARE EVERYTHING!!!1!
Group 2 - calories are mystical units created by big weight loss companies to steal your money! They don't mean anything!
Like most things in life, the true answer lies somewhere in between the two extremes.
My opinion calorie counting is mixed.
While I think it can be valuable and has its place in a weight loss regimen, I also see where it can get obsessive and take over people's life.
When Counting Calories is Good
When it comes to losing weight, there is no arguing against the laws of thermodynamics.
Losing weight comes down to calories in vs. calories out.
You have to burn MORE calories than you're consuming to lose weight and get rid of excess body fat.
If you neglect this law and simply "eat healthier", one of two things will happen:
- You'll naturally lose some excess weight eating healthier foods because stuff like fruits and vegetables are naturally lower in calories than cookies and ice cream.
- You'll eat healthier foods but still eat too many calories to lose weight.
If you've been dealing with excess fat for most of your life, then you'll probably relate more to the second scenario above.
People who have dealt with weight issues for a long time tend to have more going on them simply eating too much.There are likely psychological and mental blockers that are leading to unhealthy eating habits.
I know this was the case for me as well as many of the folks I have helped through coaching.
If you're someone who struggles with food addiction, overeating, or mindless eating and can't seem to get the ball rolling with losing weight, then you'll likely benefit from counting calories.
Counting calories ensure you aren't eating too much so that weight loss will ensue (that is if you accurately and honestly track your food intake).
This is why I recommend counting calories in my weight loss program Envision Yourself Thin. Counting calories along with weighing out food will help to teach appropriate portion sizes along with the amount of energy those portion sizes provide the body.
Here is a quick way to figure out how many calories you should eat a day to lose weight:
Take your GOAL bodyweight and multiply it by 10 or 11.
So if you're a guy wanting to weight 180 pounds, you should eat around 1800-2000 calories a day to lose 1-2 lbs a week.
Now obviously this is surface level advice and each person's caloric needs will differ, but you'll get in the ballpark using that equation.
(for a more detailed calorie calculator, click here)
If you are just starting out on your weight loss journey or have stalled in your progress, counting and tracking your calories will likely boost your progress.
Tracking calories will give you a more accurate idea of how much food you are eating during the day which will inevitably determine how much weight you can lose.
Now, I don't think that every person needs to be tracking their calories forever.
In fact, some people can become obsessed with tracking, and it eventually takes over their lives (I'll talk about this more shortly).
However, I've found that some people, me included, actually enjoy loosely tracking their food intake and calories.
While I am no longer a slave to tracking and weighing out every bit of food like I use to be, I still enjoy keeping a general log of my daily food and caloric intake.
There are some days I don't track and some days I do; it just depends on my mood and what I have going on.
I am still a "fat kid" at heart, and if I'm not careful, I can easily overeat. By tracking, I eliminate those chances and can keep myself accountable while also allowing for the occasional splurge.
When Counting Calories is Bad
Counting Calories can become a bad thing when it starts to take over your life.
This is the case for many folks who are trying to achieve single digit body fat numbers or get as lean as possible.
While some people who get insanely ripped are just genetic freaks, the majority get there by meticulously tracking and weighing out food.
"DUDE... the chipotle girl gave me two scoops of rice, and I only accounted for one in my calories... I am gonna get FAT!"
Most people aren't trying to get the most chiseled six pack on Earth so that situation above doesn't apply to them.
The problem that tracking calorie presents for people struggling with being obese and overweight is when calories become more important than actual food choices.
For example, there is a popular diet technique called I.I.F.Y.M. (If It Fits Your Macros) which basically promotes the idea that you can eat whatever foods you want as long as you don't go over your "macros."
(macros are just macronutrients which ultimately make up the calories and food you eat.)
While this can work for people just looking to lose a little bit of fat or who are trying to get in "fitness" shape, I rarely see the same success for individuals who struggle with being very overweight or obese.
As I mentioned before, people who have spent most of their live struggling with an excessive amount of weight normally have more going on than simply eating too much.
They are likely dealing with psychological food addictions or negative emotions that are leading to unhealthy habits like overeating.
For these people, eating unhealthy foods and just making sure it fits their calorie requirements for the day is only going to exacerbate their psychological obstacles.
This is why I believe it's equal, if not more important to eat whole foods while tracking calories.
There is no arguing against the idea of eating more whole foods. Eating them will make you feel fuller as well as make you feel better.
To get the best of both worlds, use the 80/20 approach towards your diet.
Eat real, whole foods 80 percent of the time and then allow for small indulgences the other 20.
This way you can still get all of the amazing benefits of eating whole foods while also satisfying your sweet tooth.
My Final Word on Calories
Here is my advice...
(note that this advice is directed at folks who have struggled with weight issues for a long time and have consistently been 30-40+ pounds overweight)
If you are just getting into losing weight and have little to no knowledge about nutrition or portion sizes, it will benefit you to track calories for a while.
But here is the important part...
Don't think that calories are all that matter. Make sure you are ALSO starting to eat healthier whole foods along with tracking calories
Eating whole foods is imperative for getting your body back to a healthy set point as well as training your mind to enjoy real food again.
(click here to the article I wrote on the importance of whole foods).
I didn't go much into detail about actually counting calories, but I plan to dive deeper into the topic in future posts (so stay tuned...)
If you're interested in learning about my approach, be sure to check out my program Envision Yourself Thin, or send me an email!