The pros and cons of calorie counting

Calorie counting probably isn’t the most contentious issue in the fitness biz, but it’s certainly up there.

On the one side, you have the If It Fits Your Macros crowd, who insist that not only do you need to make sure your calories fall within a narrow range (I’ve been told I need to come within 5% of my calorie targets every day), but you also need to carefully count grams of protein, fat and carbohydrates if you want to not look like shit.

On the other hand, you have people who say that calorie counting is unnecessary or even that it doesn’t work.  This is actually two very different groups of people: those who view calorie counting as too difficult or inaccurate, and those who think calories don’t matter very much. 

So who’s right?  I am. 

Seriously though, calorie counting has its benefits and drawbacks, and you need to understand them in order to know if and when you should be counting calories.  I’m going to walk you through them, and then I’ll give you my take on calorie counting. 

Pro: Weight change is ultimately about calorie balance

Well, it is.  The laws of physics are perfectly clear here: to get bigger you have to consume more calories than you expend, and to get smaller you have to expend more calories than you consume. 

To be specific, gaining a pound of fat requires eating just over 3500 calories in excess of what you burn.  Losing a pound of fat requires expending about 3500 calories more than you eat.

With muscle, the numbers are a bit more arymetric.  It requires a surplus of about 1600-2000 calories for most people to gain a pound of muscle.  However, most of that is spend in the process of building the muscle, and isn’t actually used to provide material for the muscle.  A pound of muscle only contains about 600 calories, so if you’re on a starvation diet and not eating enough protein to feed your muscles, you can very quickly lose muscle mass as your body breaks down your muscle tissue to provide much-needed amino acids.

To a certain extent, it is possible to gain muscle in a deficit or lose fat in a surplus.  However, gaining muscle in a deficit requires you to be losing fat, and losing fat in a surplus requires you to be gaining muscle.  And both generally require you to be getting a lot of exercise and doing just about everything else right, like sleeping eight hours a night. 

Notwithstanding transient factors like water weight or intestinal contents, you will always gain weight if you eat sustained caloric surplus, and lose weight if you eat a sustained caloric deficit.  There is simply no getting around the centrality of calorie balance.

Con: It is a lot of work

Counting calories isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Well, it’s easy as long as you eat packaged foods with calorie labels, and always know exactly what portion of the package your consuming.  So it’s easy if you eat a whole can of chili, or exactly four crackers.

What if you eat roughly one-third of a package of macaroni?  Well then you need to weigh your food on a food scale. 

How about a beef and vegetable stir fry over rice?  You’ll have to weigh all of the individual ingredients on the food scale separately before you start mixing them. 

When you’re eating out, you’ll need to go somewhere that has calorie counts for everything on the menu, or at least the dishes you’ll be eating.  Ironically, this favors fast food over a lot of healthier places, although many restaurants do have nutritional information upon request.  Laws vary by state and country- in the U.S., all chains with 20 or more locations have to have nutritional information available.  If it’s not posted, you can always google it. 

And all this calorie counting is mentally taxing.  It wears on you.  Human beings are cognitive misers- we naturally try to minimise the number of conscious, high-effort decisions we make, so calorie counting won’t come naturally or easily to most people.

Pro: You learn to estimate calories

If you spend enough time at the gym lifting weights, you get pretty good at estimating how heavy objects are.  I can lift up a suitcase and tell if it’s forty pounds vs fifty.  That’s useful when flying, by the way.

Something similar happens with calorie counting.  As you gain experience counting calories, you get better at eyeballing them.  Sometimes I like to play a game where I guess how many calories something has, then I look it up. 

When I first did this years ago, I was often off by more than 50%.  Today, I’m usually within 20% for any given item, and often within 10%.  I usually overestimate, but sometimes underestimate- average everything out, and I can estimate my daily calorie expenditure with a margin of error of about 10-15%, or around 300 calories.

For comparison, one study found that on average, people’s estimates are only within 20% of the actual calorie content 35% of the time.

Perfect?  No, but better than being off by a thousand calories, as I would have been five years ago.  And as long as you’re lifting weights a few times a week, being within three hundred calories of maintenance either way will mostly have you losing fat and gaining muscle, rather than the reverse.

Con: It’s often hard to count accurately, even if you do everything right

Restaurant calorie counts aren’t always that accurate.  Consumer Reports found that calorie counts for some dishes are off by more than 20%, and many more are off by more than 10%.  Here again, fast food restaurants did better than sit-down restaurants, and bigger chains do better than smaller chains.

And when you’re eating at home?  Going to have to measure those portion sizes.  Not all apples are the same size, so how many calories were in the one you just ate? 

I said before that you’d have to weigh ingredients separately to really count calories, but how does that work when you’re cooking multiple servings, and then serving yourself from a big container of food? 

Now combine the inherent difficulty of measuring calories with your built-in bias towards thinking you’re eating better than you really are, and…trouble.  Most people underestimate how much they eat by an average of 700 calories a day

Obese people do worse, usually underestimating intake and overestimating exercise by a whopping forty to fifty percent each!  However, this appears to be because bigger meals are harder to estimate, not because obese people are inherently worse at it.  So if you start eating smaller meals, you’ll immediately start estimating calories more accurately- but you’ll still likely be off by five hundred or more calories a day, at least to begin with.

Incidentally, I’m one of the few who overestimates caloric intake more often than not.  Unsurprisingly, I was underweight as a kid.

Pro: You learn to eat mindfully

Beyond getting good at calorie estimation, counting calories build the habit of being more aware of what you’re putting into your mouth.

You eat more slowly.  You start considering what, specifically is in your food.  You stop and really think about how much you’re eating.

I can’t quantify this or point to any studies, but I think it has a lot of value.  Beyond just learning to count or estimate calories, the mindfulness habit also leads you to put more thought into the quality of the foods you’re eating.  When you count calories, you will probably start to switch to healthier snack foods, or even stop snacking altogether- that’s a good thing.  

As a bonus, it also makes eating more pleasurable, as you learn to eat more slowly and really focus on savoring the flavor of your meals.  So you eat less, but get more enjoyment out of it.

Con: It can overshadow other considerations

As useful as calorie counting is, an excessive focus on it can lead you to ignore other factors.  Maybe macronutrient content, although people who count calories usually do count macros too.

But a lot of other things also matter.  Fiber is important.  Vitamins and minerals are extremely important. 

Glycemic index matters a lot- if you don’t believe that, try eating three hundred calories of brown rice one day, then three hundred calories of candy the next day!

The balance of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fat matters at least somewhat.  So does getting your omega-3s.  Eating organic?

Grass-fed beef is different from grain-fed beef.  Organic food is different from non-organic food. 

This is part of why we’re seeing such a backlash against If It Fits Your Macros diets; not only do they ignore or sideline these food quality considerations, but many people use it as an excuse to live off of ice cream, pizza, and protein shakes.  Because it’s fine as long as it fits my macros, right?

Calorie balance is the single most important factor in losing fat, and at the very least it’s in the top three for overall health.  But make sure you don’t get “calorie tunnel vision” and ignore all of those other important factors I mentioned.

Push: Most people have adaptive metabolisms

It’s true that your metabolism speeds up when you eat more, and slows down when you eat less.  What’s less well-known is that just how much your metabolism adapts varies a lot between individuals.

Some people’s metabolisms barely adapt at all.  These people can lose weight with a deficit of just a couple hundred calories a days, and bulk with a surplus of barely a hundred calories a day.

Other people have highly adaptive metabolisms.  If they eat less, their core body temperature goes down and they get really lethargic as their bodies adjust to conserve energy.  If they eat a surplus, they’re bouncing off the walls.  I’m in this second group- I maintain at 2700 calories, cut at 2000, and bulk at around 3200.

Most calorie-counting advice fails to take this into account, and assumes that your metabolism doesn’t adapt.  If your metabolism does adapt more than a tiny bit, their calorie formulas won’t work for you; you’ll need a bigger surplus or deficit than what they prescribe.

None of this means calories don’t matter, of course, just that calorie formulas can’t be one size fits all.  Ultimately, calorie counting is still useful if you have a highly adaptive metabolism- and in any case, counting calories is the only way to find out just how adaptive your metabolism really is.  This does mean that you’ll have to go beyond formulas and make manual adjustments to your calorie targets though.  For a comprehensive guide to overcoming metabolic slowdown, read  How to lose 10+ pounds of fat a month- even if you have a slow metabolism.

My take: Calorie counting should be an exercise, not a way of life

Weight change is ultimately about calories; there’s simply no way around the laws of physics.  Even so, I don’t think most people should keep counting calories for their whole lives.  It’s too confining, too mentally taxing, and ultimately, not that accurate anyway.

I do think that everyone should count calories for at least a month if they’ve never done so before.  This one-month calorie counting exercise will teach you to be more mindful of what you eat more aware of how much you’re eating.  After a few weeks of calorie counting, you’ll be substantially better at eyeballing calories and making better decisions about meal content and portion sizing.

I also think that after this one-month calorie counting exercise, everyone should count calories for a week or so at least once a year, and any time they change up their diet.  Re-doing the exercise provides a valuable course-correct that prevents gradual fat gain and lets you brush up on your calorie awareness.

Ultimately, since calorie counts are always an approximation, what everyone has to do is start with a diet plan, and make adjustments from there.  If you’re not losing weight as planned, you need to eat less, regardless of how many calories you may or may not be eating right now.  If you’re not gaining as planned, you need to eat more.  Either way, you need to know how to change your habits, and do so in a way that will be sustainable for life.

Thats why calorie counting doesn’t have a central place in my long-term diet strategy.  Instead, I practice what I call structured strictness.  What this means is I have very strict rules about what I eat with some meals, clear guidelines with most meals, and loose guidelines with a few others.

There’s also some degree of individual psychological variation here, with some people doing better with strict rules, and others doing better on my guidelines-based approach.  There are three dieting styles- rules-based, numbers-based, and intuitive.  I wrote about the first two in this article.

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