Why You Don’t Have to Count Calories, But Probably Should
Here's the Truth: counting calories is NOT necessary to lose weight. However, if your goal is to lose fat quickly, consistently, and while enjoying foods you love, then tracking your calories is the best way to guarantee success.
There is a lot of hostility towards calorie counting. In fact, you've probably heard that you don't need to count calories to lose weight.
And it's true - You can absolutely lose weight without counting calories or tracking a single morsel of food that you put in your body.
However, you may have also heard something along the lines of, "calories don't count" or "calories don't exist." That's where I have to abruptly charge the stage and speak my mind, Kanye style…
Anyone who barfs up the statement, "calories don't count and/or exist" are 100% wrong, and likely has no idea what they're talking about.
Calories DO count, and they DO exist.
End of Story.
But I wouldn't be doing myself much justice If I discredit one dogmatic statement with another. Plus, that wouldn't be giving you much help or benefit, which is always my number one goal with my articles.
So to ensure you'll walk away with a ton of actionable advice for losing fat on your terms, here's what you should expect to take away after reading the rest of this article:
- Why You Don’t Necessarily Have to Count Calories
- How You Can Lose Weight Without Counting Calories
- Why You SHOULD Probably Count Calories
- How To Get Started Counting Calories
Why You Don’t Necessarily Have to Count Calories
As I mentioned earlier, you may have heard from an "expert" that calories don't matter, and it's what you're eating or not eating that is causing your weight loss woes.
They often say things like "Eat as much of [insert food] as you want and lose weight!" or "Eating [insert food] will turn your body into a fat burning machine!"
It sounds sexy, and sex sells.
Who wouldn't spend ~$30 on a diet book that promises effort-free weight loss from eating more food?
But the reality is that there is no such thing as a magical fat loss food, and If eating more food means you're consuming more calories, you won't lose weight. You'll only get fatter.
Because, at the end of the day, if you're losing weight, then you are–in some way–eating fewer calories than your body needs.
I've written about the science of calories and why they matter in a past article, but here's a quick 15-second primer just in case you need a refresher:
The foods we eat contain energy for our bodies, and we measure this energy using calories. Take in more energy (calories) than your body needs, and you'll gain fat. Take in less, and you'll lose fat.
The bottom line is this: whether you count calories or not, the only way you will lose weight is by regularly consuming less energy (calories) than your body burns.
Your body is counting calories, even if you aren't.
How You Can Lose Weight Without Counting Calories
Calories Matter and we have to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight. We got that covered.
In fact, a calorie deficit is often the "secret" behind popular weight loss diets. The reason they call for eating certain types of foods, cutting out others, eating only at certain times, etc. is nothing more than a way to naturally reduce your food intake and create a calorie deficit.
Think about it - If I said you could only eat 3 square meals a day of lean meat, veggies, fruit, and high-fiber grains, I am 100% certain you’d lose weight.
Why? Because it's next to impossible to overeat on low-calorie, high-fiber fruits and veggies, especially when you're restricted to only eating them three times a day.
But just because calories will determine whether you gain or lose weight doesn't necessarily mean you have to count them. There are strategies that you can follow that can help you eat fewer calories and lose weight without counting a single calorie.
But before I share those with you, it's important to note that none of the strategies are inherently special for losing fat. They simply help you maintain a mild daily calorie deficit, which will bring about gradual weight loss.
I'll also add that these strategies are best served for a particular audience. If you identify with any of the bullet points below, then you can probably be successful losing weight without counting calories:
- You only have 10-15 pounds to lose
- You can identify and serve proper portion sizes
- You aren't easy tempted by food cravings
- You can stop eating when you’re 80% full
- You’re okay with slower progress
Note: If you don't identify with any of those points above, then you're someone who should consider count calories (which we will go over here in a second).
However, these strategies can still help anyone getting started. Plus, they work great for people who are wanting to maintain their weight and avoid gaining over time.
Strategies For Losing Weight Without Counting Calories
1. Include Protein At Every Meal (Especially Breakfast)
There are a couple of reasons why eating more protein can help you lose weight.
For one, protein is the most filling of the three macronutrients. In fact, one study showed that people who increased their protein intake to 30% of their daily calories ate, on average, 441 fewer calories each day.
Another study showed that participants who ate a high-protein breakfast instead of a high-carb breakfast of cereal reported feeling fuller for longer throughout the day.
The second reason to eat more protein while dieting is that it will help you maintain lean muscle and keep your metabolism burning efficiently.
Muscle burns a lot of calories, and the more you have, the more calories you'll burn. (and the faster your metabolism)
The last thing you want when dieting is to lose muscle. Less muscle will result in fewer calories burned and make dieting harder and harder as times goes on.
That's why I recommend that you aim for .64-1g of protein per pound of goal body weight, or 30-35% of your total calories while dieting. That range will ensure that you're getting enough protein on a daily basis to maintain or even build muscle while losing fat.
Do you know why protein is so essential while dieting?
2. Include Low-Calorie, Fiber-Rich Fruits and Veggies at Each Meal
High-fiber foods with a lot of water (think veggies and most whole fruits), help keep you fuller on fewer calories. The reason is that these types of foods fill your stomach, making it hard to overeat on them.
In other words, upping your fiber intake will increase how full you feel and naturally cause you to consume fewer calories over the course of the day.
Here are some of my favorite high-fiber fruits and veggies:
- Steamed Summer Veggies (zucchini/squash)
- Bananas (especially frozen)
- Green Peas
- Brussel Sprouts
My go-to vegetables for convenience and taste are the frozen veggies that you can steam in the microwave straight from the bag.
3. Reduce Your Carbohydrate Intake at Each Meal
Of all three macronutrients, carbohydrates, or "carbs," are the ones that get blamed the most for fat gain.
Carbs are primarily found in things like bread, pasta, sweets, soda, and sugar - You know, all the tasty stuff that makes you feel warm & cozy inside.
Many dieters associate carbs with being "fattening" and the cause of unwanted fat gain. But contrary to what you've heard, there is nothing inherently fattening about carbohydrates.
Remember, calories are what determine whether we gain or lose weight. So it's not the carbs that make people fat, but rather the AMOUNT of carbs (and calories) they're eating.
You see, most people struggling with weight tend to abuse the amount of carb-rich foods they're eating.
We've all have had nights where after a long and stressful day we just want to stay home and eat our feelings from a large bag of chocolate-covered pretzels, cheesy popcorn puffs, or a combination of both...
The problem is that foods high in carbs, and particularly those low in fiber, aren't very filling and easier to overeat.
(You're more likely find people overeating carb-heavy chips, cereal, bread, and sodas than chicken breast and veggies.)
Knowing this, it makes sense that reducing your carbohydrate intake will naturally lead to fewer calories eaten throughout the day, and particularly late at night when most of us are overeating.
The easiest way to cut your carbs is to eliminate sugars, sweets, regular sodas, and limit your intake to starchy foods and grains (bread, pasta, potato, etc.) to 1-2 servings per day.
(and if you're going to have a serving, make it no bigger than the size of your fist).
Rely on fiber-rich fruits and veggies (like the ones given above) for the bulk of your carbohydrates.
Note: dried fruit doesn't count towards your fruit intake. They have the fiber and water stripped from them, which essentially makes them the same as eating straight sugar.
Don't worry - at one point or another, we've all tried to convince ourselves that chocolate covered raisins were "healthy" since they had "fruit" in them...
4. Eliminate Snacking Between Meals
For many people trying to lose weight, the problem isn't what they are eating at their 3-4 main meals during the day, but rather the 3-4 snacks they're having in between.
What's worse is that the majority of these snacks are coming from sugary foods that barely fill them up... It's basically like eating empty calories.
So to naturally reduce your calorie intake, eliminate snacking and stick to 3-4 meals a day (that follow the first three strategies).
If you're starving and must have something to eat between meals, opt for a piece of fruit. Not only will it be lower in calories (~120 calories tops), but fruit also helps blunt hunger more so than other carb sources.
Like I said, if you're someone who only has 10-20 pounds to lose and has no problem restricting high-calorie, sugary foods, then those strategies will unquestionably help you consume fewer calories and lose weight without counting.
However, things get trickery if you are 30-50+ pounds overweight and, like most of us, don't do so well controlling portions and food cravings.
And while the strategies I shared may help you lose weight initially, you'll inevitably reach a point where your weight and progress plateau. When that happens, the only way to continue making progress is to create harsher restrictions.
Which brings me to why you should probably count calories, especially if your goal is consistent and calculated fat loss results.
Why You Should Probably Count Calories
Most people who are serious about losing weight don't have a measly 10-15 pounds to lose–they need to lose 30, 50, or more pounds to reach a healthy body weight.
Not only that, people who find themselves 30+ pounds overweight have more than likely tried and failed various diets in the past.
And while there are many reasons as to why they might have failed, I can guarantee that one of the biggest reason was from being too restrictive.
You see, for most of us, restricting sweets and other food cravings will only work for so long as it often causes us to desire those foods even more.
You only have so much willpower in reserve. After a few weeks of using it every day resisting the urge to eat "naughty" foods, your levels are drained dry.
The next thing you know you're forking down 3 and a half slices of Peanut Butter Cheesecake at dinner...(Oh, and of course you have to stop by the store on the way home to pick up a pint of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey)
The Bottom Line is this: overly restrictive diets simply don't work in the long run, especially for those who have a lot of weight to lose and struggle to control their cravings.
Now, you may be asking, "Okay Carter, I understand that too much restriction isn't good, but how does counting calories make dieting any less restrictive?"
That's a good question, too, because every diet has to have some form of restriction or they wouldn't work in the first place!
Weight loss is simply a numbers game. WHAT you eat doesn't determine whether you lose weight or not, rather, it's HOW MUCH you're eating.
Despite what you may have been told, weight loss doesn't require you only eat certain kinds of food, avoid other types, combine foods in different ways, or any other silliness - It only requires that you regularly feed your body less energy than it burns.
That's why calorie counting is so special.
It doesn't involve 100% elimination of certain foods, or that you adhere to a one-size-fits-all strict eating schedule. Instead, you can have any food you desire, just as long as you don't go over your calorie goal for the day.
Think of calorie counting like a budget for your food. You get a prescribed calorie budget at the beginning of the day, and as long as you don't go over your budget, what exactly you spend those calories on is up to you.
Is the ice cream in the freeze calling your name? No problem, you can have it! Just be sure that it fits within your calorie goals for the day.
The key is having moderation.
You probably can't have the whole pint of ice cream, but you could easily fit in 200-300 calories, which is often enough to curb your craving.
The bottom line: If you want to reduce the psychological stress of dieting, increase your adherence, and continue enjoying the foods you love while losing weight, then you should consider counting your calories.
How To Get Started Counting Calories For Effortless Fat Loss
The one issue with counting calories is that it has a steep learning curve in the beginning. But, like most things in life, once you get past that learning curve, counting calories becomes simple and even enjoyable.
While the tips I am about to provide are great for getting started, you'll probably need more information to get the best results possible.
So after you finish reading, I highly recommend you download my FREE Fitness Plan. It goes into more detail on tracking calories and losing fat.
Either click the link above or the big button at the end of this article to download the plan.
(Personally, I prefer the big button 😀 )
1. Start Exercising (At Least 3 Times A Week)
Whether you are counting calories or not, exercise is essential for both your health and weight loss success.
Ideally, you would do mostly resistance training (aka lifting weights) to build muscle and burn more fat. You could also include a day or two of cardio if you'd like.
(my fitness plan goes into exact protocols for fat loss exercise)
2. Be Sure You Are Eating the Right Amount of Calories.
To determine your calorie goal for losing fat, all you need to do is multiplying your GOAL body weight by an "activity multiplier" of 11-13.
The activity multipliers (11-13) represent your activity level OUTSIDE of the gym:
11 - Mostly Sedentary (desk job or on your butt most of the day)
12 - Somewhat Active (teacher or on feet walking around during the day)
13 - Very Active (construction worker or on feet walking and lifting heavy equipment during the day.)
For example, if you want to weigh 150 pounds and are somewhat active throughout the day, you'd take 150x11 for a calorie goal of 1650.
Now, don't assume that this number is perfect. It's only meant to get you in the ballpark for how many calories you need to lose fat.
You should aim to lose roughly 0.5-1% of your total bodyweight each week.
If you don't lose 0.5-1% of your total body weight after 7-10 days, drop your calories by 100-200. If you lose more than 0.5-1% of your bodyweight, add back 100-200 calories.
(It can be tempting to continue eating very few calories if you're losing more than 1% body weight per week, but it will eventually slow down, and you'll risk losing muscle from eating too few calories.)
3. Use A Food Tracking App
While you could take the old fashion route of pen and paper to journal your food intake, modern technology has made it easier than ever to keep track of your food and calorie intake.
I prefer MyFitnessPal for tracking calories, but there are many others available for download.
Not sure how to use MyFitnessPal to track your calories?
4. Track EVERYTHING You're Puttin' Down the Hatch!
I want to quickly share a story about Rachel.
(Rachel is one of my online coaching clients...who lives on the freaking beach in Australia... so jealous)
When Rachel and I started working together, she had been stuck at the same body weight for years. It didn't matter what diet she followed. Her weight wouldn't budge.
She had tried calorie counting before without much success. However, she decided to give it another go when she started working with me.
After a few days of tracking her food intake, she still hadn't lost any weight, so I asked her to take me through her daily schedule to try and figure out what the issue was.
The first thing she told me was that her day started off with a coffee from Starbucks before work….
I stopped her right there and asked, "WAIT...what kind of coffee?"
It turns out that her "coffee" was a 16 oz caramel latte that had ~250 calories in it, and she was having two of those a day!
500 calories - and she didn’t even realize it.
If you decide to count calories, then one of the non negotiable rules is that you need to be tracking everything you're putting in your mouth.
That small handful of M&M's or couple bites of peanut butter still count.
It's also important to examine everything you're consuming. My clients are often taken aback by how many calories are in some of the sauces and dressings they had been using generously.
5. Eat Food That You Enjoy, And Stick To Them
Like I said earlier, counting calories allows you to eat a wide variety of foods and still lose fat. However, there are a few benefits from eating similar foods that you enjoy
For one, it will increase your accuracy. After tracking the same food for a couple of days/weeks, you'll have a pretty good idea of what a correct portion size is.
Secondly, you'll only be eating foods that you like, which will increase your adherence and overall enjoyment from dieting.
In terms of exact food choices, this is what I typically advise:
Make 75-80% of your foods come from nutritious, whole food sources like fruits, veggies, lean meats, and whole grains. These foods are going to help you stay fuller, give you more energy, and ensure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals for optimal health.
Then, 20-25% can come from less diet-friendly foods such as chocolate, ice cream, sugar, and alcohol.
The diet that you choose to lose weight on is ultimately up to you.
However, It's important to understand that no matter what diet you choose, whether it be low-carb, Atkins, Paleo, Zone, Weight Watchers, etc., the ONLY REASON you are losing weight is because you are eating in a calorie deficit.
Want to learn more about counting calories and exercising for fat loss? click the button below to download my free fitness plan!