Calories – To Count or Not to Count

Articles

Calories – To Count or Not to Count

February 23, 2012

Is it possible to look the way you want without relying on a food scale? For the large majority of us, yes, it is absolutely possible. Unless you’re trying to get freaky-shredded, I don’t think calorie counting is by any means necessary. Some, however, may find this a useful tool to accurately move along.

What initially started out as an article to explain the reasons behind why I personally choose to count calories turned into a piece that presents both sides of the argument. The following lists are not exhaustive, but I believe I’ve hit the main points for and against calorie counting. Keep in mind that I speak from personal experience. If I would have known what I know now, I would not have been counting calories years ago.

The Case Against Counting Calories

Numbers paralyze you.

Back in 2008, I wasted many hours hemming and hawing over exactly how many grams of each macronutrient to consume. I’d decide on one ratio only to come back the next day having decided that I wasn’t eating enough fats, and I’d completely overhaul my numbers. 120g or 140g protein? Was a 40/30/30 split the best? Maybe it should be 40/40/20? I’d visit numerous fitness forums to get an idea of what everyone else was doing, thinking that I would just copy them.

Add to that, I was keeping track of my bodyweight, my body measurements, and the weights I was pushing and pulling in the gym. Oh yeah, and those math classes I was taking… there were a lot of numbers to juggle. I overwhelmed myself to the point of paralysis by analysis. I would have been better off not worrying about every morsel that made its way into my mouth.

Numbers stress you out and make you panic.

When I first learned about “clean eating” (very thankful I made it out of that one alive!) I was a slave to my food. I remember one night, I had just made my last meal: sweetened eggwhite pancake with a smidge (seriously, it was 10g) of almond butter on the side. As I held my fork up to dig in, my brother walked by and stopped when he saw my food. “What’s that? Looks good,” he said, intrigued, as he reached out his hand. I instinctively smacked him and growled, “Get away – you’re messing up my macros!” I was so concerned that his taking a bite of my carefully prepared meal would pull me 30 calories away from my day’s totals that I wouldn’t even so much as let him try a nibble. Yes, it was ridiculous of me to behave in that manner, but of course I didn’t see it then. I became a food hog. I stopped sharing my food and snapped at anyone who so much as looked at my meals.

And when I went out to eat, I’d break out in a sweat. Okay, now I don’t know all of the exact ingredients that went into this soup. I’d scrutinize the plate of steamed broccoli I had just ordered, convinced that I could spot specks of oil. I’d turn down foods my friends had made, no matter how special the occasion. My macros, my macros! I wasn’t able to enjoy the time with my loved ones as I’d lost sight of what was really important in my life. Eating out resulted in my becoming grumpy, quiet, and all-too-entirely consumed with the fact that I couldn’t control every last bit of my diet that day.

You’re a hardgainer – just eat, damnit!

How many calories should you be eating if you’re 6’0” and weigh a whopping 140lbs when soaking wet? The answer: a lot. A lot more than you’re eating now. Put away the silly food scale, quit the calorie counter program you have opened up, and chug some juice. Drink whole milk. Eat breakfast. Chow down around the clock. Hungry? Good, then eat. Not hungry? Too bad – keep eating. This is a classic case in which debating over your macronutrient breakdown is a waste of your energy. Guess what? During the time you spent thinking about this, you could have downed a glass of milk. Melk. Malk. Mulk?

You are very in tune with your body’s needs.

What’s become of the US population nowadays? Millions of individuals have stopped listening to their bodies and have taken to double-fisting greasy burgers. Mindless eating has become such a universal habit that we now expect to have a snack to chow down on when we sit in front of the TV. If the first thing you do when you return home from a long day at work is raid the kitchen cabinets and inhale those Oreos straight out of the bag, we have a problem. Does your body really need all that sugar? Probably not.

The ability to pay close attention to your body’s signals and honor those indications is no longer the norm. Remember when people used to eat only when they were actually hungry and stop when they were sufficiently satiated? Yeah, I don’t either.

But if this is you – if you are able to successfully practice mindful eating and stay healthy – then I applaud you. You are the minority.

You’re just not interested.

I’m not here to push you to do anything that you simply have zero interest in. Many of you will feel this way, and I can completely understand why. Counting calories takes a bit of work, and many of you simply want to be healthy. There are a multitude of reasons not to count calories. If you’re not interested, that’s totally cool.

The Case For Counting Calories

I will otherwise undereat.

It’s the type-A personality in me. I will freak out about how much I’m eating and cut, cut, cut away at my food. If I’m constantly eyeballing my portions, I’ve found that I will tend to overestimate how much food is actually on my plate. “Just to be safe,” I’ll tell myself.

And “just to be safe,” I’ll skip a meal, omit carbohydrates, and trim away the excess fat on my steak. Soon I’ll be eating nothing but protein and veggies, and coffee will become its own food group.

I will otherwise overeat.

The mind is a tricky thing; we as humans are irrational by nature. The body doesn’t like to be underfed and will go to great lengths to convince us that face-planting into that dessert is a great idea.

Food should never be used as a reward – and yet this is the foundation upon which many of us have been raised. And now, as adults, the thinking has become, “I’ve had a long, hard day and I’ve done a lot of good things, therefore I deserve that jelly donut. Okay, three jelly donuts. Oops, I guess I deserve six, actually.” Oops is right.

If I’m not counting calories, there will eventually come a day when I start to think that I haven’t been eating much, and I will then overcompensate.

Yes, it’s ironic.

Undereat, undereat, undereat, overeat, undereat, undereat, undereat, overeat.

Do we see a pattern here? Looks a little too eerily like starve, binge, starve, binge to me. And I’m not having that anymore.

I find security in numbers.

As a small female, the difference of a mere few hundred calories is enough to determine whether or not I actually make progress. Given my voracious appetite, it’s too easy for me to pound down half my day’s calories in one sitting. I’m kind of a bottomless pit in that way.

I will say this: I’m not afraid to eat. I’m really not. My main concern is optimizing my nutrition to ensure that I’m eating enough, but not to the point of accidental weight gain. Yes, I will almost always choose diet soda over regular – but that’s not because I’m trying to avoid those calories. Rather, I’d much prefer that those calories be filled by some other, preferably whole food. Think of it like this: say I have 1800 calories to deposit in my metaphorical bank. I will deposit mostly wholesome meats and veggies with a little bit of “fun” junk food. When I can, I will opt for the calorie-free option of anything, because that just means that I will have that many more calories left to deposit real food. I want the quality stuff to actually count.

It’s tricky for me to strike that balance between eating at a deficit to allow for steady progress yet not too large of a deficit that my body goes haywire without keeping track of my intake. If I’m not capitalizing on my nutrition and I’m still lifting weights, the workouts are mostly just a waste of time. Why would I put myself on a training program geared toward fat loss if I’m not actually following a fat loss diet plan?

So Which Are You?

I don’t know if there are many people who would see more benefit than not from counting calories over the long run. For me, what was once crippling and a source of stress has now become completely natural. I don’t freak out about my food anymore. In fact, food is hardly ever on my mind. This evolution from unhealthily preoccupied to non-obsessed and calm is what has allowed me to continue this practice.

This is a both a mindset issue as well as a practicality issue. Ask yourself: Are you able to eat the right amount of wholesome, healthy foods without pulling out the food scale and still feel calm? Are you in control of the food, or is the food controlling you? It’s much easier to take on the upper hand when you’re not constantly wondering how many grams of fat you just swallowed. Additionally, are you able to do this without disrupting your life? If you can seamlessly work calorie counting into your day-to-day life, then that’s great. If not, take some time to consider whether this is really that much of a priority to you. [Tweet ” Remember, you don’t need to count calories to make progress.”]

I don’t think that calorie counting is for everyone; in fact, I think that most people would be better off not doing so. I want to stress that just because somebody you know or look up to is practicing one thing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be doing the same. You need to find what approach works for you.

12 Comments
  1. Brian 7 years ago

    Once again, a well-written piece Sohee. Your messages are cogent and illuminating. To wit, no need to get caught up in the numbers game as the body ultimately “decides” what macronutrients and calories it needs to function and survive–of course the exception is for those competing in contests where the aim is to look shredded beyond compare, in which case counting calories and dialing in macronutrient percentages is essential. The important thing is to eat to compliment (read: fuel) your training. If you don’t eat enough calories to fuel your workouts, you’ll be spinning your wheels, possibly catabolizing your hard-earned muscle tissue. If you eat too much food, you’ll simply gain bodyfat. Yes you can look good, and more importantly, feel good without relying on a food scale!

  2. Brian 7 years ago

    Once again, a well-written piece Sohee. Your messages are cogent and illuminating. To wit, no need to get caught up in the numbers game as the body ultimately “decides” what macronutrients and calories it needs to function and survive–of course the exception is for those competing in contests where the aim is to look shredded beyond compare, in which case counting calories and dialing in macronutrient percentages is essential. The important thing is to eat to compliment (read: fuel) your training. If you don’t eat enough calories to fuel your workouts, you’ll be spinning your wheels, possibly catabolizing your hard-earned muscle tissue. If you eat too much food, you’ll simply gain bodyfat. Yes you can look good, and more importantly, feel good without relying on a food scale!

  3. Daniel Kreger 7 years ago

    For practical reasons, I think the two ends of the extreme scale of fitness is where calorie counting has the most value. At the beginner end, for either overweight or underweight people, counting calories for a time helps them to learn the basic values of food. With careful attention to calorie levels for a given amount of food, people can develop a level of competence in planning out their menus. At the other end where people are competing in sports, bodybuilding, etc., counting calories can make or break the performance. Calorie counting for everyone else in the middle has benefit if it keeps them on track, but I like to try to teach clients the value of best food choices. If there is still lack of progress, then we dial it in by seeing exactly how much or little intake there is.

  4. Daniel Kreger 7 years ago

    For practical reasons, I think the two ends of the extreme scale of fitness is where calorie counting has the most value. At the beginner end, for either overweight or underweight people, counting calories for a time helps them to learn the basic values of food. With careful attention to calorie levels for a given amount of food, people can develop a level of competence in planning out their menus. At the other end where people are competing in sports, bodybuilding, etc., counting calories can make or break the performance. Calorie counting for everyone else in the middle has benefit if it keeps them on track, but I like to try to teach clients the value of best food choices. If there is still lack of progress, then we dial it in by seeing exactly how much or little intake there is.

  5. Tamika 7 years ago

    Every now and then I check my daily caloric intake to make sure it’s passable and near my daily requirements. Otherwise, I keep portions small and watch what’s going in my mouth. Counting calories all of the time would drive me insane.

  6. Tamika 7 years ago

    Every now and then I check my daily caloric intake to make sure it’s passable and near my daily requirements. Otherwise, I keep portions small and watch what’s going in my mouth. Counting calories all of the time would drive me insane.

  7. Dieter 7 years ago

    Yes, of course I track calories, it’s the easiest way to lose weight or gain muscle. Second nature to me now. Sure I can estimate the macros of my favorite meals, but when moving toward a goal it’s easier to have a metric with which to track. Would you go to the gym without a log book? I didn’t think so.

    I think what makes the difference is how you approach counting calories. If you get too caught up in the numbers, it’s going to be stressful. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that calorie counts are imprecise anyway. Your perfect diet could have poor data inputs, thereby rendering your spreadsheet useless. There’s just too much confounding data to make sense of it all. Ultimately, if your numbers are going in the right general direction, keep doing what you’re doing.

  8. Dieter 7 years ago

    Yes, of course I track calories, it’s the easiest way to lose weight or gain muscle. Second nature to me now. Sure I can estimate the macros of my favorite meals, but when moving toward a goal it’s easier to have a metric with which to track. Would you go to the gym without a log book? I didn’t think so.

    I think what makes the difference is how you approach counting calories. If you get too caught up in the numbers, it’s going to be stressful. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that calorie counts are imprecise anyway. Your perfect diet could have poor data inputs, thereby rendering your spreadsheet useless. There’s just too much confounding data to make sense of it all. Ultimately, if your numbers are going in the right general direction, keep doing what you’re doing.

  9. Steve 7 years ago

    I find I do much better by tracking Caloric intake and exercise, for a number of reasons.

    Primarily, it’s part of what I and others call “mindful eating”, a part of overall “mindful living”. To be trite, we focus on what we focus on. By tracking this stuff, I am able to keep in mind my objectives and meet them. Where I’ve gone off the rails before is when, over time, I lost focus and lost that “mindfulness”.

  10. Steve 7 years ago

    I find I do much better by tracking Caloric intake and exercise, for a number of reasons.

    Primarily, it’s part of what I and others call “mindful eating”, a part of overall “mindful living”. To be trite, we focus on what we focus on. By tracking this stuff, I am able to keep in mind my objectives and meet them. Where I’ve gone off the rails before is when, over time, I lost focus and lost that “mindfulness”.

    • Moura 6 years ago

      You’ve got a good point there!It’s so annoying hainvg to pay more for healthier food.The reason why healthier food is more expensive is because the healthier food tends to have less additives and processed shit in it- the cheaper foods are packed with these, meaning their shelf lives are far longer- meaning they get sold for much less than fresher, healthier food.I think if any government wanted to sort out unhealthy eating they should lower prices on healthy food and stop doing so many offers on food that’s bad for you.

  11. Jay 5 years ago

    I was a hardgainer a few years ago and found drinking a gallon of milk a day was the easiest way to get calories. I couldn’t eat that much regular food throughout a day, I would always get a full feeling. It allowed me to put on 15 lbs in a month. If anyone is looking for some info on GOMAD you can find it here, http://mystrengthguide.com/gomad-gallon-of-milk-a-day-how-to-gain-15-to-30lbs-in-30-days/

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