Many popular diets today emphasize that no calorie counting is required for success. This pronouncement suggests that the act of calorie counting is a negative quality when trying to improve one’s health. After overindulging a bit over the holiday season, I decided to challenge this assumption by experimenting with some calorie counting myself. Here are my conclusions.
Despite the general bad reputation calorie counting has received, the sobering fact remains – calorie restriction works for weight loss. Eating less may not even mean reducing meals to puny portions – it may just be a matter of avoiding overeating and over-snacking.
I jumped into my calorie counting experiment with the free online program My Fitness Pal. The software makes it easy to log meals and keep track of calories and macronutrient grams.
Having access to the hard data surrounding daily meal choices is a definite benefit to calorie tracking. I usually just guess how much I eat each day and the reality check has proved to be a valuable learning experience.
While my baseline calorie limit calculated by My Fitness Pal was shockingly low – just 1200 calories per day – I “earn” additional calories by logging workouts. Just walking around during the day adds over 300 calories to my limit and a leisurely hour-long jog on the treadmill adds a whopping 700+ calories per day.
The stark comparison of 1200 v. 1900 calories needed per day – which is easily the difference of an entire meal – was extremely helpful. I generally take the view that since I’m active, I can afford to eat more overall. The problem is I eat more everyday, even though I don’t work out everyday. Clearly, adjusting my intake to better match my activity level on a day-to-day basis will make is easier to meet my body composition goals.
Another perk of tracking is knowing I am going to be “rewarded” with extra calories for working out. I find myself far more motivated to get my activity in for the day. Many fitness regulars take the mindset of earning their calories – “I run because I love food” – but seeing the hard numbers makes a real difference in the mental game of exercise motivation and meal planning.
In that same vein is my newly discovered interest in avoiding mindless or excessive snacking. Knowing that I need to log everything makes the usual handful or two of almonds much less desirable and easier to skip altogether.
In all, I was able to lose 10 pounds in 10 days, but at least 6 pounds were general puffiness from sub-par holiday food choices.
Since I am early in my calorie counting adventure, the extra steps required are still fun and novel. So far, I actually enjoy weighing, measuring and reading labels. But this is the first place that calorie counting begins to get a bad rap. After some time, I know this will get tiresome. Sometimes you just want to have a snack without numbers involved.
Another area where calorie counters might get into trouble is by falling into perfectionism. A journey to improve your health should be about just that – improving your health. A healthy weight is just a marker of health. It is certainly possible to be a “healthy weight” without being healthy at all. Starting to obsess about meeting specific numbers – calories, carbohydrate grams or numbers on a scale – can cause health-destroying stress, and misdirect your efforts to net-health loss.
Calorie counting can take a bad turn, but is can also get downright messy. Some people may have the happy discovery that keeping within their calorie goal quickly causes measurable weight loss. A logical conclusion is that more calorie restriction causes more weight loss. While this may be essentially true, some individuals may start to push the envelope too far. Too few calories not only makes it hard to keep up energy levels, it can begin to depress thyroid function as the body desperately tries to hang on to energy resources. A range of effects – from hair loss, to infertility, to weight gain – can result.
Beyond physical consequences, there can be psychological problems. When individuals start to tie their self-worth or a sense of morality into meeting calorie goals, the process is no longer beneficial. This can happen with any kind of eating change, from low carb to low fat and paleo to vegan. Beating yourself up over a missed target is a sign that the changes may have been implemented as a form of self-punishment. Diet and lifestyle changes should always be made from a place of self-love and a desire to give yourself the best in life.
Finally, calorie tracking should not be a first line of defense against weight gain. It is not a beginner move. The very first step in any weight loss attempt should be a shift in food quality. Focusing on quantity before quality can get would-be dieters into some serious trouble. Limiting calories, but filling those calories with junk can easily turn into a nutrient deficiency and poor health. Dumping processed foods, eliminating sweetened drinks like sodas and reducing vegetable oils, sugars and alcohol are all steps that should precede any attempts at calorie counting. Many individuals will find these changes are enough to meet their goals.
Overall, for individuals already eating a nutritious diet, calorie counting can be the final step in achieving weight and body composition goals. Using both nutrition and fitness tracking software that sync together is essential for making the process easy, low stress and accurate. Using this kind of data to help make daily dietary decisions is a hugely instructional practice. Keeping close tabs on calories for a temporary period of time may be enough to gain a new sense and respect for your body’s needs, giving you the freedom to stop tracking and start eating just what you need.