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Counting Calories – The Good And The Bad

In the world of nutrition and dieting, we have two popular approaches that encompass the many diets, eating patterns, and strategies.

One is calorie counting, and the other is intuitive eating.

In the last couple of decades, calorie counting has gained a lot of popularity, particularly in the fitness and bodybuilding sphere. With that, the idea of intuitive eating and listening to our bodies has become somewhat of an outdated concept.

To be sure, both approaches to nutrition have many followers, and both sides present some solid arguments.

Today, we’ll go over the idea of counting calories, what the benefits are, what some of the potential drawbacks are, and, most importantly, what you can take away from it all and apply to your life.

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Training for a marathon? Don’t forget the right mix of nutrients.

But First, What Exactly Does it Mean to Count Calories?

To most people, tracking calories seems very foreign and challenging because, frankly, it’s something new.

But, as with many aspects of fitness, things aren’t nearly as complicated as they first seem. Counting calories comes down to nothing more than logging your food intake daily and calculating it. That’s it.

You can use many strategies to track your calories, and the most common (and arguably the easiest) way is with a smartphone app like MyFitnessPal.

You log the foods you’ve eaten and their respective quantities, and the app calculates the calories, macronutrients (proteins, carbs, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). It either takes the nutritional information from its database or from entries you’ve added manually.

Another option is to use a food log and calculate your caloric intake manually. This method takes a bit longer to master (mostly because it takes time to memorize the number of calories in the foods you most commonly eat), but it works just as effectively.

Keeping a food log
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Log your food at a time convenient to your schedule.

What Are The Benefits of Counting Calories?

With regards to manipulating your body weight (be it gain, maintain, or lose), the most critical factor is the total number of calories you consume. If you want to gain weight, you need to eat more calories than you burn within a day. If you’re going to lose weight, eat fewer calories than you burn. And if you want to maintain, eat somewhere in the middle.

As you can imagine, tracking your daily intake in relation to your maintenance level (your total daily energy expenditure; the number of calories you need to eat to maintain your current self) offers some great benefits. Here are some:

1. Counting calories provides accuracy.

One of the greatest benefits of counting calories is the accuracy it offers because it frees you from doubts and questions like, “Did I overeat today?”

Frankly, we tend to underestimate the amount of food we consume, yet many people wonder why they can’t lose any weight despite barely eating anything. And when most folks start writing down everything they eat and drink, they quickly find out where the problem was: too many calories.

So, if you want to be sure of your intake and not go over or under a given number, tracking your intake is the best way to do that.

2. It allows you to make proper adjustments when needed.

Take the typical approach to fat loss for a moment:

Following a specific diet without paying attention to the number of calories you’re eating. What would you do when you inevitably stop losing weight? After all, our metabolism adapts over time.

You either give up or dig deeper into the diet, right?

But consider an example of trying to lose fat by tracking your calories:

You’re eating 2500 calories per day, and weight is coming off steadily. Then, you hit a plateau. Weight doesn’t budge a pound for a couple of weeks.

In that case, you can drop your intake to 2400 calories per day and start seeing progress again. It’s much easier to adjust, and you don’t have to eat too few calories unnecessarily to get the job done.

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Rest assured when you are in the know.

3. It makes you more aware of your hunger and satiety.

You’ve probably come across the idea that we often misinterpret our hunger and satiety signals. First, it usually takes a bit of time to feel satiated from a meal. So if you eat too quickly, you can overeat before satiety kicks in. That’s one side of the coin.

On the other hand, hunger can often come from boredom or thirst. So if you’re not mindful of your caloric intake, you can find yourself eating much more often than you need for reasons like, “I have nothing better to do.”

But if you track your calorie intake, you develop a valuable skill: the understanding that you don’t need to eat all the time to feel satiated.

4. It provides structure which some people prefer.

Granted, tracking calories isn’t for everyone, and you should try it for yourself before deciding. But, logging your food intake provides dietary structure with many people prefer.

Rather than worry and wonder about your food intake every day, you’ve got actual data to back it up. 

So, if you’re the type of person who prefers accuracy and precision, you may find yourself right at home with calorie tracking.

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Do you still have caloric space for that caramel latte?

5. It allows you to optimize your body composition. 

If your fitness aspirations don’t go much past, “I just want to drop a bit of fat and pick up some muscle.” you can probably do without tracking calories.

But, if you aspire to be a competitive athlete and your sport requires the optimal body composition (level of muscular development in relation to body fat), then you should consider tracking calories. 

Take, for example, bodybuilding. The sport asks a lot of you because you need to step on the stage at a meager body fat percentage while also having decent muscular development. Every serious bodybuilder tracks their calories and macronutrients to get stage ready because that requires a lot of precision. You can’t merely diet and lift weights if you want to achieve such a body composition.

Muscular guy lifting weights in the gym
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You can’t merely diet and lift weights if you want to achieve a body composition like this.

But Wait, Must I Count Calories For The Rest of My Life?

Say that you’re considering calorie counting as a means of achieving better fitness results. Maybe you aspire to be competitive in a sport, perhaps not. One question that probably lingers in your mind right now is, “Must I count calories for the rest of my life?”

The answer is no (well, you can if you prefer).

The fact is, most folks can track calories and weigh their food for a few months and pick up a lot of valuable skills with regards to eating to satiety and knowing, roughly, how many calories they are eating.

In fact, you can see counting calories as training wheels for your nutrition. You can use it for a few months to improve your eating habits (eating to fullness, telling hunger from boredom, getting enough protein, etc.) and then drop it.

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What Are The Drawbacks of Counting Calories?

But, as with most things, there are also some drawbacks to consider:

1. It can be a hassle.

Tracking your food intake and always calculating can become a major pain. For example, if you haven’t prepared the meal you’re about to eat, it can be challenging to estimate. Social gatherings and eating out can become stressful, and that’s not good.

Plus, to track calories accurately, you should weigh the food you’re about to eat because most folks are terrible at eyeballing food quantities accurately.

That stress with eating can also translate to drawback #2:

2. Some folks become obsessed with their nutrition.

Tracking your calories is by no means bad. But if it gets to the point of obsession, you have to take a step back and ask yourself, “Do I really need to worry about every single calorie?”

Unless you’re preparing for something like a bodybuilding show, aiming for perfection and a 100 percent accuracy can do more harm than good.

An excellent way to counter that is by having a rough caloric range for each day, rather than a specific number.

3. Some folks lose sight of the quality of their nutrition in pursuit of raw numbers.

Yes, this is more common than you might think. Some folks become so focused on numbers (calories, protein, carbs, etc.) that they get to a point where the actual food they are eating doesn’t matter. 

This approach is commonly referred to as if it fits your macros. The premise is, so long as you can ‘fit’ a given food within your daily calories and/or macros, you shouldn’t worry about anything else.

This is good because it gives dietary freedom. But it can also be harmful if you get to a point where a significant percentage of the food you’re eating is of poor quality.

4. Food labels can be inaccurate.

According to most sources, food labels can over- or underestimate calories by up to 20 percent. This isn’t a big deal if you tend to eat the same foods every day. Look at it this way:

If you think you’re eating 2700 calories per day, but you are eating 2900 per day, what matters more is that you’re making progress for a specific goal. You have a stable base to work off.

But if you always switch your food choices, that can throw off your calculations.

Savory snack party food
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What’s really the caloric value of these savoury snacks?

Can Intuitive Eating Work?

Intuitive eating is the art of being in-tune with your body’s hunger and satiety signals. In simple terms, it means to eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full.

The problem is, it’s effortless to find delicious and calorie-dense foods these days. If you’re not careful, you can overeat by a lot. The ever-rising rates of obesity are a good indicator of that. 

With that said, I do believe that eating intuitively can work. But, it requires work and the right tactics. Here are four critical steps:

1. Eat more slowly.

As you eat a meal, it takes a bit of time for you to feel satiated. According to most research, that period is between 5 and 20 minutes after a meal. This is due to several factors, including: 

  • hormones (insulin and cholecystokinin, primarily);
  • how full your stomach gets (stretch receptors that send a signal to your brain);
  • levels of certain nutrients in your bloodstream (glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, etc.).

By eating slowly, you allow yourself to start feeling satiated before your meal is even over. That way, you can naturally eat fewer calories. 

If you eat more quickly, it will be much easier to consume way more than you need before you begin feeling full.

2. Drink water before and during a meal.

One factor for satiety is how full your stomach is. Thanks to stretch receptors in the gut, your brain receives a signal that you’re full and should stop eating.

A great way to take advantage of that is to drink a glass of water before your meal and have another glass during it. 

This has also been shown to work in the literature with studies showing that subjects who drank water before meals naturally consumed fewer calories before feeling satiated.

3. Learn to tell boredom from hunger.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock for most people is learning how to tell boredom from actual hunger.

An excellent way to tell is by asking yourself questions like:

“Am I truly hungry, or is there nothing better to do right now?”

“Have I eaten soon and should I be feeling hunger right now?”

It’s also good to wait for twenty minutes and see if the urge to eat passes. You can also drink some water and see how that affects you. And if you’re still feeling hungry, you can have a piece of fruit – it will probably fill you up for a good while.

4. Track calories for a while to learn about your satiety.

A great way to learn about your hunger and satiety is to track your food intake for a while and see how you feel on different numbers of calories. 

First, you’ll likely realize that you don’t need as much food to feel satisfied with your nutrition which is vital for long-term weight loss. Second, you’ll become much better at estimating your caloric intake just by looking at various meals and snacks. This is important for intuitive eating because it will help you stay aware of your intake without having to think about it all the time.

young hispanic athletic sportswoman indoors, gym
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An athletic body is made both in the gym and the kitchen.

And on that note:

If you’ve always had weight troubles, it might be better for you to start with calorie tracking, become more in-tune with your body, possibly lose some weight, and then slowly transition to intuitive eating.

Do you have a question with regards to counting calories? Or interested to learn more? Dive deeper into the topic over at the dedicated food & nutrition group, part of our community. We’re looking forward to welcoming you there.

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