If you’ve been on any sort of diet, or been given any sort of advice by most health and fitness professionals (including nutritionists, dieticians and personal trainers), you’ve probably been advised to calculate how much energy you expend on any given day, and how many calories you need to eat based on your energy expenditure to lose weight. This last part is called calorie counting and it’s been a common strategy for a long time.
But seriously, is counting calories worth all of your time and hassle? After all, it means weighing your food, using an online tool like www.myfitnesspal.com to calculate how many calories are in each food item, then collating all of that information to determine how much energy you consume in a day. And you have to do that over a number of days to get an indication of how many calories you eat on an average day.
That sounds like a pain in the backside, and take it from someone who has done it a few times before, it sucks! Weighing every item of food you eat, finding the right item in your online tool, and recording everything is laborious, time consuming and boring (unless you’re into that kind of thing).
Apart from the whole ‘it’s boring and time consuming thing’, are there other reasons why calorie counting is a waste of time?
I’m glad you asked! Even if we know how much energy is in a food item before we eat it, which is virtually impossible, how can you possibly know how much of that energy your body is going to absorb and use? Here are just a few factors to consider:
- As you digest food, you’ll use energy during the digestion process. Everyone is different.
- The health and efficiency of your gastro-intestinal tract (GIT) will affect how much of the energy from the food you eat is absorbed and used. Everyone is different.
- Some energy will be excreted. For example, you can only absorb and use so much protein at any given time, so any extra is excreted through your urine. Everyone is different.
What about the food itself? Research has shown that nutrition informational labels on food items can be inaccurate by as much as 25% either way. That’s a huge variance from what the label says and what might actually be in the food. Here are a few reasons why:
- The nutritional calculations of most foods aren’t performed in a lab with a bomb calorimeter. Food companies know it’s not cost effective because not every ingredient they use from day to day will be exactly the same. Instead they use a best estimate using accepted standards.
- Nutrient databases used can be outdated or inaccurate. After all, www.myfitnesspal.com and other online tools rely on the public entering food label information into their system accurately!
- More energy from resistant starches and fibers (shown as carbohydrates on the label) is extracted by a bomb calorimeter than a human, so the information on a food label is a ‘best guess’.
- Not every food manufacturer and company measures the energy profile of food the same way. Some are more accurate than others.
- Let’s say you want the calorie and nutrient profile of a ‘medium sized orange’. An online tool doesn’t take into account when it was picked (winter, summer, hot, cold, yesterday, three weeks ago, etc.), where it was picked (soil quality, latitude/longitude, sunny/cloudy, etc.), or how it has travelled from origin to store. These will all affect its calorie and nutrient profile.
- Animals all experience different dietary and living conditions. Even cows who only eat grass don’t eat exactly the same grass. No chicken, beef, lamb, pork, egg or milk product is going to be exactly the same as the next.
- There is a big difference between a raw food and a cooked food. The amount of processing and cooking that has gone on before you buy the food will change its nutrient profile. The length of time, style (bake, boil, steam, etc.) and quality of your cooking skills will also play a part.
Bottom line, it’s impossible to know exactly how many calories are in the food you eat, how much of that energy you absorb, use and excrete, and how much energy you use to live and move. The margin of error in each of these areas makes calorie counting seem like a waste of time, right?
Is there a positive reason for counting calories?
I believe there is, it’s just not for determining how much food you should be eating if you’re trying to follow a caloric deficit diet to lose weight.
While online tools won’t give you an exact reading, they can give you an idea of the calorie density of various foods, and their nutrient breakdown. So when deciding what to eat, they are a great resource to compare various foods that you may be thinking of eating.
For example, two rashes of bacon (200g) has approximately (remember, we can’t know for sure) 600 Calories (10g fat, 14g protein). For me, that’s around about a quarter of my daily energy requirements! Conversely, 200g of chicken thigh fillets has approximately 240 Calories (10g fat, 56g protein).
Based on these estimated figures, eating chicken thigh fillets for breakfast instead of bacon is a much better idea if weight loss is my goal. Not to mention the extra protein will help to maintain as much muscle mass as possible during my weight loss efforts.
While online tools aren’t great for calculating energy consumption and usage accurately, they are an excellent tool for increasing your knowledge and awareness about what is in the food you eat, and helps you make informed choices about what foods you should and shouldn’t eat.
Is there a better way to manage your diet than calorie counting?
As a Precision Nutrition certified Level One Coach, we believe in a much simpler and easier way to measure food portions. No need for carrying measuring cups and spoons, scales or other measuring devices with you wherever you go (and who does that anyway, right?). And no need for Smartphone apps or websites to track and calculate everything you eat.
Sounds easier already!
All you need is something that you carry around with you every day no matter where you go…your hand.
To calculate portion sizes, here’s what you need to do:
- Protein: 1 palm = 1 portion
- Vegetables: 1 fist = 1 portion
- Carbohydrates: 1 cupped hand = 1 portion
- Fats: 1 thumb = 1 portion
That’s it. That’s much easier than trying to calculate everything using measuring devices and online technology! Here’s a little more information to make meal prep a easier for you.
- Sources: meat, fish, eggs, poultry and dairy
- Portions: men – 2, women 1 (with every meal)
Vegetables (non-starchy carbs)
- Sources: Carrots, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, peppers, cucumber, etc.
- Portions: men – 2, women 1 (with every meal)
Carbohydrates (starchy and fruits)
- Sources: Banana, apple, orange, berries, potato, oats, rice, pumpkin quinoa, wholegrain breads and pasta
- Portions: men – 2, women – 1 (with meals before and after your workouts)
- Sources: Oils, butter, nuts, coconut products
- Portions: men – 1, women 1 (with most meals)
If you were to prepare 3-4 meals per day (based on how much you usually eat) using this formula, you’ll get roughly the same amount of calories from your diet as you would if you’d used the measuring utensils, scales and online tools.
Of course, this is just a starting point. By no means am I suggesting that men should eat twice as much as women. Not all men will be able to eat that much food, and some women may need to eat more. There are many factors that will require you to increase or decrease the amount of food you eat on any given day. These include your…
- Daily energy expenditure (are you sedentary or do you move most of the day)
- Body type (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph)
- Body composition
…just to name a few.
As with any experiment (and let’s face it, that’s what weight loss is), you need to develop a theory, test that theory, then make outcome-based decisions along the way. What does this look like for you?
- Develop a theory – For example, if I eat this much of these foods, I will lose this much weight in this many weeks.
- Test the theory – Measure the factors you want to test (scale weight, body fat percentage, body girth measurements, etc.), eat the foods you need based on the hand measurement strategy above for two weeks, then measure the factors again.
- Outcome-based decision – Did you see positive progress from your measurements? If yes then carry on. If no, adjust the amount/type of food you’re eating, and/or increase/decrease the amount of exercise you do.
- Test the theory again, and repeat until you get it right.
You can’t know how your body is going to react to the changes you want to make until you make them. Then, after collecting data (scale weight, body fat percentage, body girth measurements, etc.), you can make informed decisions about what you should do next.
For example, if you’re not losing as much weight as you’d like, you might want to remove a portion of carbohydrates or fats from 1-2 meals. You may also want to try and find foods that are less calorie dense (like our bacon and chicken thigh fillet example from above).
This is great information, do you have anything else I can have?
Of course! I have a Calorie Counting Debunked Infographic Pack that is packed full of information to help you lose weight and get the body you want. Just click the link (in blue) and follow the prompts. You can download it and keep it handy for whenever you need it. It might be worth sticking it to your refrigerator!
I also have an online program to help you look, feel and move better. It’s part nutrition and change psychology curriculum, part online technology, part real life coach. In other words, I personally help you to change your habits and behaviours to make better lifelong food choices. That way you can get the body you want and keep it for the rest of your life.
To find out more, just click HERE.