My first experience counting calories was in 2013 when I had burnt off what muscle I had, and lost almost all the fat from my body.
I stood just under 6 feet tall and barely above 60 kg (132lbs)………..for guy who’s now obviously the same height but weighs 86kg (189lbs), that’s EMACIATED. I’m honestly gutted I never took any pictures!
I then went through all the classic ‘fitness journey steps’ – finding out my BMR, learning what deficits are (and surpluses) but more importantly, what a sensible ‘deficit’ and ‘surplus’ constitutes.
‘What gets measured, gets managed’…….
……Is an age old quote of mine and I’ve often used it to defend tracking workouts and nutritional intake. Because in the eyes of some, calorie counting is labelled the devil, and workout tracking is labelled ‘majoring in the minors’.
While the necessity of workout tracking isn’t even up for debate, I do concede that calorie counting isn’t a forever thing and doesn’t apply to everyone.
There are many people with psychological and emotional attachments to food that simply wilt when they track calories. It overwhelms them and causes more stress and worry.
So you really have to be careful when and where you use it but I do believe everyone with fitness goals and aspirations can benefit from calorie counting, at some points along the journey.
Let’s take a look at some basic & objective pros & cons of calorie counting before we delve further into this topic:
- You establish a built-in database of the rough values of foods and this teaches you to eat sensible quantities over time, along with knowing how much food you actually need, relative to what you do.
- You create a REAL WORLD maintenance calorie number. The internet can tell you anything but until you run it through your own lab (your body over the course of a few weeks or even months), it doesn’t mean sh*t.
- By having this data, you can then adjust it to do what you want with your physique and physical performance; you can increase calories to break plateaus in strength and/or mass gain, and you can decrease calories should you wish to lean out somewhat and ‘clean up’ your food intake.
- It can create/worsen a micro-managing mindset that causes unnecessary stress and guilt due to feeling a failure for going over some arbitrary figure.
- It’s time consuming. Weighing and logging everything you eat can add minutes to your daily ‘chore time’ – which can be tough in already busy world.
- It can leave you hungry and out of tune with your body’s natural hunger patterns (assuming you’re eating too few calories for your actual needs), and in an extreme case this could lead to eating disorders when taken too far.
With the info outlined above, the case can be made that calorie counting is ideal for people with an above average knowledge of calories, energy output, BMR & macronutrient ratios.
And yep, I know; how the hell do we define that?!
It’s tricky. I guess an even simpler way of defining it is to ensure the calorie figures are sensible. And by ‘sensible’ we mean not too low or too high, as mentioned above.
As much as it would be easy to attack the ‘generic’ online calculators, most of them aren’t too far out when you run your info through them, I’ve found over and over again. The problems arise when you over-estimate your activity level or are terrified of eating anywhere near the calorie amount you’re supposed to.
Women in particular are more at risk of this. I’ve worked with many women who barely eat 1000 calories a day as they truly believe if they do, they’ll get fat and saggy and be full of cellulite.
Some of these women are crazy active too and have a good background with physical exercise. So tell me: HOW THE HELL CAN THEY ONLY NEED 1000 calories per day to survive?!
Especially when their BMR (Basal-Metabolic-Rate aka energy needed just to exist) is above 1000 calories per day………..
‘Cyclical calorie counting’ – the best of both worlds
This is my new favourite term and approach to eating: You spend periods of the year tracking calories and periods of the year, well, not tracking. It’s pretty simple really.
What’s really nice about this is it trains your appetite in tune with your body’s needs. And after a short period (say 1-2 months) of doing so, you’ll find you no longer need to as you now know, intuitively, what your ideal calorie intake is, in terms of REAL WORLD food quantity.
Furthermore, just as your body gets a little bored of having to log stuff, you stop doing it and let your appetite dictate. And you can enjoy freeing up the mental headspace somewhat.
After a while you may find you get a little lax or loose with your eating again, and when that happens you just start logging what you eat, so you can actually see it in front of you.
More often than not you don’t need more than that. Just seeing what’s really going on is enough to reign yourself in and ‘tighten up’.
Some of you admirable souls with better appetite control than me, may even find you only need one stint of tracking calories and your appetite will be set for life, you lucky bastards! From then on all you need to do is just slightly increase or decrease your portion sizes.
But those of us who can easily eat 2-3000 calories in one sitting will definitely benefit from tracking every so often, so as to tame the beast within! Although it will only need a short burst before you’re back on the straight and narrow.
How calorie counting helped me recently (EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE)
I’d started calorie tracking recently just to see what I was eating as I instinctively felt/knew I had gotten a little loose with my ‘diet’. As is so common, I realised I was eating more than I thought, so I down-regulated my daily total to an old intake I know is around maintenance or slightly below – 2800-2900.
Within a few days my skin was tighter and I felt notably less bloated, and my weight was down a kilo or so! Clearly I’d been eating heaps more than 28/2900!
Although having dropped the number down to 28/2900 I found my workouts the days after sucked. I was weak and couldn’t perform for whatever reason. This will sound so obvious but it took me a while to realise it was the calorie deficit that caused it. I racked my brains trawling over my sleep, what I’d done in my last session, the quality of my warmup and just about everything else.
Then it dawned on me: I must have a new and higher maintenance calorie number than the last time I tracked calories for a considerable time period (early 2019) – and 27/2800 calories was a sensible deficit back then!
I threw my session in the bin and came back the next day and purposely ate 3200 calories that day, despite not even finishing a session………
The next day I performed as good as ever. I was powerful, strong, coordinated and could last the distance. And every session since has been notably better.
Although I weighed myself after the first 3 weeks of tracking my eating, keeping in mind for the first two weeks I’d eaten 3000 calories per day and the third week was 32/3250 per day, and I had lost weight!
I’d lost 2-2.5kgs! And Fridays were always ‘splurge days’; days where you eat more than normal. Sometimes on these days I’d eat 3500-4000 calories. The numbers don’t lie. This now means I’ll have to experiment with 3500 calories per day and see if that maintains my weight.
And this is the key part of all of this: It’s always subject to change and if you make changes, they must be small and given a fair trial aka enough time to work/take effect.
Just like the outset of this post, what gets measured gets managed and if you’re looking to recover and get stronger, eating badly will hinder your goal(s) massively. If you under-eat you’ll stay weak and unrecovered. Your cortisol will sky rocket and your hormones will plummet.
If you’re trying to get lean for summer (IF summer will ever get here!) and eating too much, you’ll stay softer than you’d like. You might only need a 200 calorie drop to see great results without any of the classic side effects of dieting.
In my case I discovered I have a new calorie maintenance and it stands to reason; I’m heavier, stronger and have more muscle than the last time I was tracking.
If you’re on the journey long enough, working hard enough, smart enough and diligently enough, you’ll see your requirements change quite significantly too. By checking in every now and then and re-establishing the numbers, you take back the power to your own hands.
Despite it being all new age and 2021, calorie counting STILL has a place in the athletes or fitness enthusiasts life!
Thanks for reading. What’s your take on this? Do you track calories? Do you track something else? Or have you tracked in the past and not found it useful?
Would love to know your thoughts!
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.