Should you count calories?

I ate roughly 5000-6000 calories per day cycling across Australia and still lost 9kg in 4 weeks.

Much of it was what can only be scientifically labelled as ‘utter crap’!

I can’t count how many chewy snakes, ice creams and energy drinks I polished off on daily basis.

Please note this really wasn’t out of choice but what happens when you’re in the middle of the Nullarbor desert and cycling 90 miles day.

The chances are that REALLY pisses you off as you desperately try anything and everything to just lose a few pounds!

The point is that, whilst it was a relatively extreme circumstance, you can lose a lot of fat (and muscle) without counting calories.

But there’s a lot more to it for most normal people.

The old advice is that, based on the law of thermodynamics, you just need to burn more calories than you consume and you will lose weight.

Whilst this has a lot of truth, it’s very misleading and in many cases won’t get you that  lean, athletic look.

My cycle experience is the perfect example.

I did indeed, ‘out burn’ my calorie intake and lost fat.

But I also lost muscle and had some digestive issues from all the sugar.

Obviously it wasn’t the point of the trip but aesthetically I lost lots of weight but looked a lot less athletic than I do now having put 12kg muscle back on.

So should we count calories (and macronutrients) or not?

As usual with all things fitness, the answers is “It depends” and you need to carefully consider the pro’s, con’s and your personal situation.

Here are some key considerations in no particular order.

Many of the points could be ‘argued’ against because your Aunt Betty’s friend at Weight Watchers or Big Bill who lives in the gym did something different but these are realities for 99% of people.

As per usual, proceed with the intention to find what tweaks are needed for you.

GET CLARITY ON WHAT YOU NEED

For girls (and guys), looking better doesn’t always mean losing fat. If you are pretty skinny already and want to look like some of the fitness models you see, you will look better by putting on some muscle.

The go-to thought process for girls is that they need to get leaner and leaner and leaner to loo better.

This may of course be true, but if you keep counting calories and dropping them, beyond around 1200 calories per day, you brain starts to get nervous and will slow down your metabolic rate so you don’t waste away.

Fat loss slows, you are determined to get leaner so you cut MORE calories.

The process continues until you’re skinny and have no shape and feel tired and weak all the time.

Counting calories can help if you are making sure you don’t go UNDER 1200 calories for very long.

For guys wanting to put on weight, counting calories can help because it’s surprisingly hard to gain ‘good’ weight (lean muscle tissue). 

Amongst other things, you’re going to need to eat 40-50 calories of mainly good food to grow.

So if you’re 80kg right now, and 10% body fat you have lean bodyweight of 72kg so you will need somewhere between 2800-3600 calories every single day.

Many guys don’t get near this.

FALSE ACCURACY

Calorie counting basically grew from someone in a science lab texting the energy released when certain foods were burned.

People were then tested in highly controlled settings to find out what amount of energy is required by different amounts of muscle on a human (to put it simply!)

The theory then follows that if we ‘burn’ more energy through our base metabolic rate and activities combined than we consume, the body must delve into fat stores for energy et voila….you lose fat.

However, mainly due to stress and poor nutrition practises, many people in the Western world have poor digestive systems.

The digestive enzymes in the mouth aren’t functioning properly / being produced in large enough amounts.

HCL (stomach acid) is not being produced in large enough amounts so that stage of digestion isn’t working properly.

Dehydration and stress are causing the intestines to malfunction.

As a result, food is not being broken down properly and so the energy and nutrients stored in it, aren’t available for absorption and use by the body.

It should be obvious then that the chances of the 2319.5 calories you measured out perfectly actually being used, are minimal.

You could quite easily be losing out on 80-90% of the ‘promised’ calories.

So those magic numbers become false accuracy and the pain in the butt routine of weighing and counting doesn’t even work as it should.

Even if you did absorb 100%, I’m guessing your days are rarely carbon-copies.

You have to use your brain more (requires glucose or ketones – that’s another story)

You do more physical activity.

You do cardio instead of weights.

You do cardio and weights combined.

All of these screw up the perfect number of calories you were shooting for.

Each type of workout has different energy demands for say 60 minutes.

Each one has different energy requirements AFTER the session in order to recover.

Can you see how finding a perfect number of calories simply by using some chart from a science lab is sounding more and more crazy!

UNREPORTED FOOD

One argument for counting calories is to increase awareness around food.

However, you’d be surprised how many people deliberately and accidentally just forget certain things they ate “because they didn’t mean to” or “it’s just a treat”.

As a coach, I’ve had situations where someone tells me they ate this and that on a Friday night, but because of the small size of Guernsey, I know they were out on Friday night having a three course meal and a few drinks.

This isn’t necessarily an issue, but it illustrates how going through the hassle of counting calories but then half arse-ing it, may be worse than just not bothering to in the first place.

INSULIN 

When you eat say 500 calories worth of sugar you will get a larger insulin kick than when you eat 500 calories of protein or fat.

The higher your insulin levels (to clear the sugar in the blood and shuttle it into cells) are, the more your body is in storage mode as opposed to ‘fat burning’ mode.

So simply counting total calories is like missing out on the hidden truth of fat loss.

Not only will the same number of calories from mainly carbs (as opposed to fats and protein) give you a bigger insulin kick, but you are also likely to experience lower blood sugar afterwards, increasing cravings for more sugar.

This will obviously make trying to lose body fat much harder mentally!

All in all then, counting calories and monitoring macronutrients (carbs/protein/fat) are not the same thing and may have very different results.

HOW CLUED UP ARE YOU?

When tested many people grossly over-estimate how many calories they burn in a given exercise session and massively under-estimate the calories in the foods they just ate.

Counting calories for a week or two can be very useful to gain an insight into what is in certain foods.

However, your personality type and views of fitness could change that concept because I don’t like someone coming into fitness thinking that to be successful and enjoy working out, they have to be measuring this and counting that and really draconian about everything!

That could well put someone off when it wasn’t necessary in the first place.

Of course the opposite can be true and some people like numbers, strict routines and black and white boxes in life.

At the other end of the fitness spectrum,, if you have got down to about 12% as a male and 18% as a female, counting calories can be necessary to really hone your body and results.

However, as mentioned earlier, for this to be effective you need to have regular activity routine and a VERY good grasp on how many calories you burn each day performing certain activities.

GET RESULTS A SIMPLER WAY

I’ve rarely found someone who doesn’t lose lots of body fat doing the following each day:

  • Get 2g of protein for every 1kg of lean body weight
  • Add vegetables to each meal
  • Add 1-3 tbs of fats to each meal
  • Replace these fats with a half a fist of carbs after exercise
  • Drink 1.5-2 litres of water

This will increase and level out energy levels, keep you hydrated and turn your body from a sugar craving monster into a fat burning machine.

By setting the protein (and choosing chicken, fish, turkey etc), the rest tends to follow fairly easily!

VARIETY

Let’s face it – we’re all busy, all the time.

Calorie counting can take up time we already don’t have.

If you make the effort, the next issue can be variety.

You come up with 3-4 meals that fit your calories and macro’s and off you go.

After a couple of weeks, those meals start to get pretty tedious and it’s likely you’ll start ‘editing the plan’ without making sure it all still adds up.

The funny thing is, most people tend to eat the same stuff most days anyway due to habit but when it’s part of a fitness routine, you’d think they’re spending a few weeks in a concentration camp.

I suggest you create 2-3 varied days that hit your requirements using different types of protein, vegetables, fats, herbs and spices then cycle them so you don’t get bored.

BODY TYPE FACTORS

I mentioned earlier that counting calories and managing macro’s are related but can deliver very different results.

For instance you could eat 2000 calories per day made up of 80% fat, 15% protein and 5% carbs (similar to a ketogenic diet) or you could eat 20% fat, 30% protein, 50% carbs.

The former works very well for someone who is naturally apple/pear shaped while the latter works well for someone like me with a high metabolism who is exercising lots.

Whilst I may lose more fat following ketogenic diet, my training would suffer so in the long-run it would likely be less effective for ME.

The details come down to body type, but even then, you have to willing to try things for a few weeks then adjust depending on the results.

SUMMARY

Calorie counting is yet another useful tool that MAY help you get better results depending on…

…your diet history and relationship with food
…the quality of food you are consuming
…your lifestyle and schedule
…your body type
…how well your digestive system function
…the stage you’re at in your ‘fitness development’

Jump on the Turbo Transformation Tribe and you’ll get a new program each month based on 30 minute workouts and THREE nutrition plan options to suit a variety of lifestyles so you can find what works for YOU!