This might sound weird, but as a fat loss coach who teaches calorie counting, one of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear people say they are “doing a food log
or “tracking their food” or “using My Fitness Pal.” It annoys me when people log their food without aim or strategy. I feel that it gives calorie counting a bad wrap and I also feel that calorie counting isn’t for everyone.
Unless you have a specific strategy or reason for tracking calories, like targeting a specific calorie or protein benchmark for fat loss, aimlessly tracking or tracking a random low calorie goal (non-unique to you) can actually have negative effects for some people. Today I’m going to give you some insight as to why calorie counting can be awesome and why it can be detrimental — depending on the person, their mindset and their goals.
Before we dive into more on calorie counting, here is a quick disclaimer:
I’ve said this a million times, but I’ll say it once more: it’s not about WHAT you eat, it’s about HOW MUCH you eat.
Their are tons of “diets” out their preaching “eat this, not that.” The Whole 30, “clean eating,” / cutting out certain macros groups or foods etc, are diets that do in fact help some people lose weight, but ONLY IF following them (eating the specific foods they prescribe) causes them to eat fewer calories.
For example, if John Smith switches from chips (which he used to eat mindlessly because their lack of protein inhibits him from feeling full), to turkey slices for a snack, and takes out the large portion of corn bread for dinner and instead has steamed veggies to follow a “paleo” diet, he will lose weight. Not because turkey and veggies have magical fat loss properties, but because the switch led him to eat fewer calories in total for the day.
However, this is not always the case for everyone. Some people switch to “paleo” diets and gain fat. Why? because they start believing that so long as they eat “____” foods, they will lose weight, and they lose sight of the total quantity of food they are consuming. I was this girl in college. When it comes to fats especially, a little bit goes a long way.
At Crossroads of Fitness we coach fat loss by way of calorie counting, 9 times out of 10. While we don’t believe calorie counting is the ONLY way to lose fat, we do see merit in helping our clients find what caloric budget works for them. What we mean by “works” is: the amount of calories the client should consume to achieve their goal, whether it’s fat loss, mass gain or weight maintenance.
But what if you don’t have a specific goal? Should you track calories?
The short answer is NO, in my opinion. I’m going to tell you why, by using my boyfriend Jeff as an example.
Jeff had never counted calories in his life until about 7 weeks ago. Exploring his short journey will help you decide whether calorie counting is right for you.
Jeff works in finance from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. In order to work around what can be a very sedentary lifestyle behind a desk, Jeff works out twice a day, most days. He likes to do some type of cardio in the morning for movement (sometimes it’s simply walking 35-40 minutes to work) and lift in the evenings. He’s been doing this for about five years and has never looked better.
When it comes to his daily nutrition, Jeff is what I’d call a very intuitive eater. He always reaches for protein, he stops eating when he’s full and he allows himself to enjoy treats every now and then. About 80% of his diet is made up of whole foods (lean proteins, fruits and veggies).
About two months ago he asked me to help him start tracking his calories. If I made him breakfas,t he wanted to know exactly what went in the oatmeal. At lunch he’d send me photos so I could help him guesstimate if he’d ordered out. He’s been very meticulous in his calorie tracking but there’s one peculiar thing about Jeff’s calorie counting experience so far, that has motivated this entire piece:
At the end of the day, after Jeff eats dinner until he’s semi-full, he goes to his tracking app and records what he ate for the day. This is very opposite of how most people strategically track or plan their food for the day. While most people do it ahead of time (which I advocate) in order to hit their protein goals and not go over their calories, Jeff does it after the fact.
The fact that he tracks at the end of the day in and of itself is the crux of why Jeff he tracks: he is curious. He’s never going to not eat something he’s hungry for, due to not having enough calories. He is the most intuitive eater I’ve ever met. Because of this, I always giggle when he tracks.
“Babe, why are you tracking? What is the point?”
“I want to know my stats! I want to see how I did!” he replies.
And so you have it; Jeff tracks out of curiosity! But is it for everyone? Read on to find out!
Reasons you should track calories:
1.Because you have a specific goal
We know that Jeff does not have a physique or fat loss goal. But he’s not the norm. A lot of people are eating with a fat loss or mass gain goals in mind; they want to get the most out of their training and see results. Eating enough protein and carbs can truly make a difference– over time– if you are in the correct calorie range.
Setting calorie goals and protein benchmarks is a great way to lose fat or gain mass. It’s also a great way to maintain your bodyweight if you are super active. I find that many people don’t eat enough throughout the week, then are under-fed, which leads to a wild Friday or Saturday night of eating, which leads to a whole lot of guilt, potentially (most likely!) unwarranted.
For example, if you weigh 150 pounds and eat 1500 calories Monday through Thursday, you may have created a near 2,000 calorie deficit. And if you exercised?! And even bigger one! Therefore, if you go out Friday night and have 3 high calorie cocktails (~360-400 calories) and then have an 800 calorie dinner and in sum you consume 2800 calories (gasp!)! In one night you were roughly 800 calories over what you need to maintain your bodyweight, but still at a deficit for the week as a whole (no need to gasp!).
If you have a goal, the best way to attack it is to strategically aim, and counting calories can help!
2. To keep tabs on general health markers & gain insight
I asked Jeff to write up two reasons why he is tracking his calories for this article, given that (besides wanting to stay strong), he really has no specific goals physique-wise.
“My goal is to get a good representation of my current diet including all the foods I eat. After a couple months I’m going to (hopefully) export the data from the app and identify areas of nutrition I lack (above and beyond carbs/protein/fat; more vitamins, sodium content, mineral intake, etc)”
Jeff had cancer at a young age and it really forced him to look at his micronutrients and make sure he is getting a good daily dose of vitamins and minerals. Therefore the app helps him keep tabs on how he’s doing, after years of implementing goof eating habits.
Jeff added, “It’s an educational experience for me. Although my diet has been relatively healthy to start, it’s fun to tweak it/ work on it to maximize health benefits and macros. I never heard the word MACRO before. It is fun bouncing ideas off Beasley [READ: GARRETT] and learning from her. ”
3. If you are up several hours of the day.
Jeff gets up early to do his morning activity. From 5 a.m. til 10 p.m. he is awake and alert, and this makes it easy to consume more calories than he needs, if he is not precise with his meal times, or tracking calories. Before he counted calories, in order to make sure he didn’t over-eat, he developed a fasting/meal routine wherein he doesnt eat breakfast until about 10 a.m.
Some days it’s earlier and other days it’s later; the moral of the story is that even though he is up at 5 a.m. or no later than 6 a.m. he doesn’t start eating upon waking.
On the other hand, I get up and eat immediately. My eating routine began when I used to teach 5 a.m. Barry’s classes, then lift at 6 a.m. and then teach a spin class at 7 a.m. I needed the calories early. After doing that for almost two years, it’s a hard habit to break. Therefore I track my calories even when I’m not competing or cutting weight etc, in order to make sure that I don’t over-eat later in the day, given that I am awake for many hours.
Reasons NOT to count calories:
If you have anxiety about tracking, you should not be tracking calories
When you track calories meticulously, it can be easy to lose sight of your natural hunger pangs and food source inclinations… for example, some people can develop a scarcity mindset:
“I barely have any calories left.”
“I maybe shouldn’t eat that, I’m fearful of going over my goal,”
“I have to eat more to hit my calories”
“I want a banana but need more protein, I don’t want to mess up”
This is not a healthy way to live.
I try very hard to coach all #daretoeat clients on a mindset of abundance, reminding them you can’t mess this up– and encouraging them to use hunger as their guide. Some days, macros will be off — and that is OK! We want to eat protein is it HELPS us stay full and recover from training. But if you crave a banana, have it, track it, and move on!
As mentioned, Jeff doesn’t track until the end of the day, because he’s not worried about the number, he knows he’s going to hit his on the head regardless, and if he somehow doesnt it will not phase him. However, the reason he doesnt need to track is point number two.
2. If you start to eat foods you dislike just to hit certain macronutrient benchmarks, or fall behind on fats or carbs
For about two months Jeff ate oatmeal with protein powder and peanut butter in it for breakfast. One day he decided to have greek yogurt breakfast, but forgot the granola and simply had blueberries on top. His body is so used to the same calories and macros that at 4 pm. I laughed when I got a text that he’d snacked on dark chocolate covered almonds! His body registered a lack of fats and calories and therefore in the afternoon the first thing he reached for was a high calorie, high fat snack.
Your body knows what it wants/ needs and being able to give it that within reason (not over doing it, or under-doing it) is a great skill to have. If you are a good intuitive eater, you need not track calories. Trust your natural rhythm.
The good news for Jeff is that he doesn’t have a specific goal, and since he’s tracking out of curiosity it has not meddled with his mindset or intuitive eating skill.
Jeff is in tune with his body because he has a very routine lifestyle, and this brings me to my third point:
3. If you have a routine lifestyle, you need not track calories.
We are all busy people, right? Many of us has to grocery shop on Sunday and get enough food to get us through the week. We have similar breakfasts, lunches and dinners at relatively the same time, if we can help it. If you are not dealing with any health issues, digestive issues or have any desire to gain or lose fat, then you probably do not need to track calories.
The body likes routine and it like being fed consistently. For instance, my body is used to getting a lot of calories in the morning, and so if I don’t get my normal big morning meal and snacks, I don’t feel satisfied. Jeff is the opposite: he needs a big dinner and dessert to feel full at the end of the day.
What’s interesting is that both of us have been eating at or around maintenance calories (read this article) during the week and having very high calorie weekends. Jeff has had some 3200-3800 calorie days and I’ve had some 2600-3000 calorie days, and it’s helping us maintain our weight. We realize that we could actually be eating more throughout the week. Instead we stick with our routine and expect to have a slightly larger appetite on the weekends. We enjoy cocktails, bigger breakfasts and higher calorie desserts or dinners one day a week. Many people may already do this natural, out of routine, and that is why they stay the same weight all year round.
I hope this gives you perspective on different strategies you can take with regards to tracking calories or not tracking calories. In case you missed it, here’s an article about how to stay on track without counting calories and here’s an article on what to do when you want to stop tracking calories post-fat loss phase.
It’s important to note that one thing Jeff likes about counting calories is losing the sense of guilt he used to sometime she about having dessert. You see, most of the time Jeff tracks his daily calorie intake after dinner, but before dessert. This way, since he loves cookies and candy, he can see if he has room to fit them in. Most days he does because he barely gets to 2300 calories, which is what maintain calories would be for him. Therefore he has just enough calories left to have a cookie (or two!) and call it a night.
It’s important to remind you that the reason he can afford to indulge on the weekends, (cheese-its, burgers, however many beers he feels like, cookies etc), is because when he eat at maintenance throughout the week (read this article), he actually creates a deficit, due to his activity level (two workouts a day for movement).
Therefore, his high calorie weekend extravaganzas are quite strategic in helping him keep the muscle on his body. In his words, he thinks that counting is a cool challenge and just keeping tabs on things pushes him.
“Makes life more challenging – forces you to make diet decisions. The actual tracking is a pain in the butt, especially if you fall behind, however, the benefits slightly outweigh the costs…. ”
If you need any help deciding what is right for you and your goals, do not hesitate to reach out! Email us! firstname.lastname@example.org