Does Calorie Counting Work?

Calories

Recently, I posted on Twitter and Facebook asking about calorie counting. Here’s what I wrote:

Do you count calories? Is it worth the effort?? I want to know what YOU think!

For one reason or another, calorie counting is something that people tend to feel very strongly about, and as expected, I got lots of different responses from both those who do count calories and those who don’t.

In the first camp are those who firmly believe that calories are the only thing that matters when it comes to losing or gaining weight. And in the second camp are those who think that calorie counting is a waste of time as long as you’re eating ‘clean’ or measuring portion sizes, for instance.

Some people just don’t know what to think.

I personally think there’s truth in both arguments, and by rejecting one outright you are making weight loss harder than it needs to be. I want to explain why and hopefully help you decide whether or not calorie counting is right for you.

But first, we need to start at the beginning:

What Is A Calorie?

calorie counting
A calorie is a unit that measures energy.

Scientifically speaking, a calorie is the amount of energy, or heat, that it takes to raise the temperature of 1kg of water by 1 degree centigrade. But in plain English, calories are a way of describing the amount of energy your body gets from eating and drinking.

This energy is used to keep your brain and organs functioning as they should be, and to provide fuel for physical activity.

Calories are essential to life, but as we all know, if you eat too many you’ll gain weight. The reason this happens can be explained by one of the four Laws of Thermodynamics (which is often mistakenly referred to as the First Law of Physics) that states:

In a closed system [such as the human body], energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.

Because energy from food and drink cannot disappear into thin air, if you consistently eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight, and if you eat less, you’ll lose weight.

This Law is simple and, as countless studies have shown, indisputable.

Is A Calorie Always A Calorie?

Given this inescapable truth, you might expect, then, that if a group of people all ate the exact same amount of calories above maintenance (the amount of calories it takes to maintain their current weight), and did the exact same amount of exercise under tightly controlled conditions, they would all lose the exact same amount of weight.

Well, as one now-famous study demonstrated, that isn’t what happens.

Researchers overfed sixteen young men and women by 1,000 calories a day for eight weeks. Based on the assumption that 3500 calories is equal to one pound of fat, the expectation was that everyone would gain 16 pounds (56,000-calorie eight-week excess divided by 3,500 calories per pound).

But only one person gained that much.

The average weight gain was just over 10 pounds, and one individual (likely that one person we all know who can eat whatever they want and get away with it) only gained three.

So is the Law of Thermodynamics wrong!?

Nope.

While it’s true that if you consume more calories than you burn you will gain weight, it’s very difficult to calculate exactly how many calories your body burns.

Your basal metabolic rate represents (BMR) the number of calories your body burns even if you were to stay in bed all day. This number varies massively from person to person, and is determined by a multitude of factors, including; age, height, current weight, body fat percentage, past dieting habits, activity levels, hormonal profile, and more. While BMR calculators do exist, it is impossible to account for all of these factors, which means – at best – they can provide only a very rough estimate.

Without an accurate idea of how many calories your body burns it becomes much more difficult to work out how many calories you should be consuming to lose or gain weight. But your BMR isn’t the only variable: there’s a number of factors related to the calories you consume that make calculating how many calories you should be consuming even more difficult.

Those factors, and their importance, are covered below.

Factors That Affect Weight Loss

calorie counting
To give credit where it’s due, I borrowed (read: blatantly stole) this idea from Andy Morgan (whose website is great, by the way).

The point of this visualization is to illustrate a clear order of priorities when it comes to your diet. The bottom tier (number 1) is the most important, and the top tier (number 5) is the least.

Going back to what I mentioned at the beginning of the article; people tend to think of calories, and the other items on this list, as isolated concepts that either work or they don’t – either they are the only thing that matters or they don’t work at all. But the point is the opposite: each of these factors fits into the bigger picture to create a diet that works, but aren’t as effective when used on their own.

Each component of your diet is explained in detail below, and is listed according to its importance:

1. Total Calories

Calories are the most important factor on this list and form the foundation of the pyramid because they determine whether or not it is possible to change your weight.

As we have already covered, if you eat more calories than you burn you will gain weight, and if you eat less you will lose weight.

But as we now know, there’s a host of other factors that need to be taken into consideration.

2. Type & Quality of Calories

Next on the list is the type and quality of the calories you consume.

Here, we’re talking about the ratio of macronutrients (protein/fat/carbs/alcohol) that you are ingesting (within your total calorie intake), and whether you are eating ‘clean’. These factors are extremely important, and are second only to your total calorie intake.

Each macronutrient elicits a different response in the body. For example, carbohydrates can lead to fat storage (but that doesn’t mean they should be avoided), whereas protein has a high thermic effect of food (TEF), meaning that calories have to be burned to digest it.

You can learn more about each macronutrient and their effects on the body here:

3. Vitamins, Minerals and Water

Returning to the idea of eating ‘clean’, the density of nutrients within your calories should be considered.

When people talk about ‘clean’ food they are generally referring to wholesome, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and eggs. These foods are packed full of vitamins and minerals that are important for your body to function optimally. By way of contrast, highly-processed, man-made foods like pizza, processed meat, chips and fast food are stripped of their nutrients and are often referred to as ’empty calories’.

For more information you can read my guide to healthy eating on a budget.

With regard to water intake, drink when you’re thirsty and ensure you are hydrated when you workout. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 5 clear urinations a day (weird rule, I know).

4. Meal Timing & Frequency

I think the most commonly overstated aspect of your diet is meal timing and frequency. While it can make a difference, it’s not as important as the factors above.

In case you’re wondering, by ‘meal timing and frequency’, I mean things like:

Never eat carbs at night.

Eat 6 small meals a day.

Eat your biggest meal immediately after your workout.

One such nutritional strategy I’ve written about is carb cycling, which can be really useful. But carb cycling won’t help you reach your goals unless you have a handle on your total calories and the factors listed above.

5. Supplements

Last on the list are unfortunately the thing most people start with, supplements.

Supplements often seem like a quick fix, but in reality they are anything but. They are expensive, and while they can help you reach your goals, should only be introduced once you have mastered the four points above.

You can read about the few supplements I recommend here, and find out how you can get the same benefits naturally.

So What’s The Answer?

If the number of calories you are consuming isn’t telling you the whole story, and it’s impossible to make an accurate calculation of how many calories you are burning, is calorie counting a complete waste of time?

Far from it.

The point to take away from this is that viewing your body as a walking math formula is a mistake. No, calorie counting and keeping a food diary isn’t an exact science, but time and time again it has been shown to be the most efficient means to maximize weight loss. Here’s why:

  • It’s Eye-Opening: Many people have absolutely no idea how many calories they are actually consuming. Apps such as MyFitnessPal are great because they give people a realistic idea of how many calories they are consuming.
  • It Gives You A Baseline: You need to find out what works for you, and calorie counting makes it easy to do so. If you eat 2000 calories every day for a week and at the end of the week you are heavier than you were before, then you know that 2000 calories is more than you need to maintain your current weight. If you want to lose weight, simply eat 500 calories less each day until the scale tips the other way. Without a food diary you wouldn’t even have a ballpark figure of how many calories you should be consuming.
  • Accountability: Sure, it’s nice to have a rough idea of what your energy intake looks like, but the act of tracking food intake serves as a reminder of what you are trying to achieve. It’s through regular and deliberate efforts that new habits are formed, and any behavior that helps you to keep your goals and intentions at the forefront of your mind is a good one.

My only gripe with keeping a food diary is when it takes over your life. The point of it isn’t to tell you what you are or aren’t allowed to eat. It is simply a source of information to help inform your decisions, as well as a powerful habit-building tool.

If you’re struggling with your weight, health, or lifestyle, then consider tracking your calories for a month. MyFitnessPal is totally free, and once you’ve entered in your usual foods, making entries only takes a a few minutes each day. Calorie tracking and food diaries, regardless of their imperfections could be just the thing you need to jump-start your weight loss.

Give it a go and find out what works for you.

Do you count calories? Has it helped you reach your goals?

Let me know in the comments!

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  • Hi Will – great post. I count my calories and use the “Lose It” (https://www.loseit.com/) app for easy tracking/monitoring not only food but exercise regiments and body weight. It’s tought to measure everything with 100% accuracy – esp at dinner. But I am guessing I was probably in the 95% accurate range. It def. helped me in obtaining my 1st goal of CY14 as I dialed my weight down 10 pounds.
    Now I am using it to track my redialing UP of my body weight through attempt at adding muscle mass!

    • Hey Matthew – long time no speak!

      I haven’t tried the lose it app but it sounds great, very similar to MyFitnessPal. They’ll never be 100% accurate but it’s useful to have at least a vague of idea of how many calories you are consuming!

      Let me know how you get on with building mass!

  • skelly007

    MyFitnessPal used to work like a charm for me, i.e., counting calories and tracking exercise, but since I hit my 51st year, even that’s not working… I’m at a loss.

    • First off, try recalculating your calories based on your current weight and activity. Then, focus on points 2 and 3 in the pyramid. See if that makes a difference 🙂

  • Tina

    My Fitness Pal has been the best thing for me tracking exercise & calorie intake. I was diagnosed with Diabetes in March and put on meds. I refused for it to take over me. I have lost 22 pounds and down to only a 1mg pill. It made me responsible for everything I was eating. When you log a burger & fries it will make you think twice about eating it. Calorie counting is what works for me !

    • That’s amazing Tina! Such a great accomplishment.

      That’s what I love about calorie counting – the fact that it makes you responsible for what you put into your body.

  • GK85

    First of, great article Will. And i think i agree with everything on it.
    I
    use MFP myself and it helped me a lot. maybe also because i am a math
    geek and the numbers don’t lie. After almost a year i finally figured
    out my TDEE/BMR for my body. But also on certain weight. Cause it
    changes when you get lighter or heavier.
    I try a carb cycle myself
    now, and altough i may not be 100% strict, it is teaching me more about
    my body. I really have felt in love with foods nutritions, calorie
    counting and knowing what type of foods to eat to get some sort of
    results on my own body. Cause one thing needs to be keep in mind. EVERY
    body is different and response different to food.I do believe in the
    calorie in calorie out concept. But that is for weightloss purely. If
    you wanna push yourself a little further, like lowering bodyfat, or
    building muscles this simple formula won’t work, at least for most
    people it won’t.

    • Thanks a lot. Glad you like it 🙂

      And I completely agree with you – it’s all about finding what works for you.

  • Alyson

    Between a last stressful semester in college and then being unemployed for a few months after, I gained about 10 pounds and was HORRIFIED with myself. I started a gym membership and using MyFitnessPal to count calories. I finally lost the weight but I only counted calories for about 6 weeks (around Thanksgiving I realized it would be hopeless and then would be a good time to end my counting). I am so glad that I did because it REALLY opened my eyes to what I was consuming and how good or bad it is for me. Its been about a year since I stopped counting and my portion control is still great, I still abide by how many chips (or what granola bars, crackers etc.) is a serving and is X amount of calories and I know how to portion all of my meals to avoid going way over what I should be.

    I really would recommend that everyone, at some point in their life, and sooner than later, count their calories at least just for a few weeks or a month in order to raise awareness for what they’re consuming!

  • Sheila

    My husband and I started dieting together, and since February I lost about 15 pounds (I was already skinny) and he lost 100. Our criteria was calories (1200/day in the beginning, now I increased to 1600 and he to 2000)
    It was very boring in the beginning, but we made a Google spreadsheet in which we input the total calories eaten and spent in exercises and our weight in the day. After 2 months we discovered our basal metabolism – it is getting more and more precise as we input more data. Nerd, but effective!
    Alyson, I pretend to never stop counting calories every day. It makes it so much easier to see what I am giving up to eat something or skip workout. It gets easier, you start to memorize a lot of things and people don’t even notice when you are counting.

  • Tina B.

    Yes! I find if I have to write everything down and figure out the calorie content, I learn what foods are good for me and what’s not. It’s a positive step in achieving a healthy lifestyle. We need to know what’s in the food we’re eating and calorie counting along with reading labels is a key in weight loss in my opinion.

  • Maria

    What am I to do ? 🙂 I am 62, female, 5’2″, 195lbs at this point; I know what to eat, how much to eat, except – I don’t do it – what is wrong with me ???

    • Hey Maria,

      You might want to check out some of the articles on motivation that I have written:

      http://travelstrong.net/30-days/

      http://travelstrong.net/how-to-get-motivated-to-exercise/

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    • Hi Maria,

      I just checked out the articles that Will recommended below, and I think they give great advice. I think the trick is to find a way to motivate yourself. Will’s article talks about setting goals. It’s important to set both long-term goals and short-term ones. The short-term goals should keep you on track to achieve your long term ones. Does that make sense?

      So if you want to lose 100 lbs in a year, then you should set a monthly goal to lose about 8.5 lbs per month. Then, give yourself some immediate motivation to reach that short-term goal. Make it a prize that you buy for yourself, a trip that you get to go on, or anything that will motivate you to reach that goal of 8.3 lbs this month.

      The trick is staying motivated. It’s easy to get pumped about the idea of losing 100 lbs, but that number is so big and it takes so long that it’s hard to stay motivated when you’re tempted with a treat you really like.

      So set a short-term goal with an immediate prize that you want more than that treat you’re being tempted with today.

  • I find that counting calories is a must losing weight. At least for me. Counting forces me to keep my calorie consumption at a reasonable level.

    While it’s impossible to know how many calories we actually burn, most likely your calculated BMR is fairly close. That calculation is a statistical average of people who are similar to you, and most people will fall fairly close to that number, although some will fall far from it.

    Anyway, I find that if I don’t count calories, I’m much more likely to overeat. Counting makes me accountable, even if only to myself. It helps me see what I’m really eating, and it helps stay within limits that I set.

    My recommendation would be this. If you set a calorie number for losing weight, say it’s 1,800 calories per day, and you don’t lose enough, then the calories in number needs to go down, or the calories burned number needs to go up. If you set that number of 1,800 calories per day and you’re losing more than 2-3 lbs (about 1-1.5 kg) per week, then maybe you should consume a few more calories. Find the balance that works for your body and stick to it. Then the calculated BMR number doesn’t even matter.

  • I understand the benefits of counting calories and have done it before but if I could avoid it, I will. I’d rather be more mindful of what foods I eat. Not all calories are made equal so I try to stick to more calorie-dense food. I think it’s better to be a mindful eater than a calorie counter. BUT I do see how calorie counting can be the first step to becoming a mindful eater.

  • Brian Barbour

    I started off with a low carb diet. Counting carbs was easier than calories and it felt like I could eat whatever I want. I lost 30 pounds. Except, now I have really bad gout and its hindering me badly.

    So, I’m on day 3 of counting my calories and aiming for a more balanced amount of macronutrients. Myfitnesspal is super helpful. It suggested I be at 2010 calories a day to lose 2 pounds a week. I haven’t even gotten up to that level yet, often maxing out around 1,800 caloriest. I hope my weight loss continues. Low carb worked well, but it doesn’t fly with my body apparently.

    • naturallythe1

      Right! I count calories and just go on 30-45 minute walks a day and have lost 35 pounds in 3 and a half months. It works and you don’t have to TOTALLY change your diet. Eat less, eat a little healthier, less junk food, less mcdonalds, less soda, and it will work. I don’t drink beer either and that helps.

  • Mary S

    I tried several kind of diets, in fact I tried also a low carb diet like you Brian. It worked out for a while, but I wasn´t feeling that well, by cutting of my carbs. I got my weight back and couldn´t see any success for myself. I was researching on some websites of methods to lose some weight and I really had my doubts about this kind of method and if it would really work! I mean there are so many different opinions on that! But it worked! I lost around 20 Pounds since, slowly, but right now I can tell, that I´m keeping up my weight and this is the most important thing for me. This kind of method kept me motivated until now and I really got a better feeling for nutrition than before. First I tried to write it down on my computer in excel sheets, but my friend told me to try some apps which are doing this kind of work, how lucky! In fact I´m also using a calorie chart http://www.calories.info/ which gives me a good overview about all kind of products! What kind of Apps or websites are you using, if you´re couting you´re calories? Do you have any experiences with this website? Looking forward for you´re replies 🙂

  • Leah

    I’ve just stumbled across this gem of an article and am super excited. I have been calorie counting since Christmas, it has helped me lose weight and eat clean and has really opened my eyes to how bad manufactured food is. I now have a new rule, if I can’t pronounce it, I don’t eat it 🙂 I also try to avoid refined sugars as much as possible. My weight loss has plateaued the last few weeks, I am 5’8 and 192lbs, perhaps it has stopped because I’m being too regimented, maybe calorie cycling will help? I am fairly inactive at the moment as recovering from spinal surgery but want to get back to working out as soon as possible, any tips?
    Thanks a million

  • Asverlaren

    Hi, new to your site and working my way through the articles you recommended in your first email. This one has helped a lot. I have just downloaded MyFitnessPal and apparently my swim session this morning has meant I burned the equivalent of my breakfast and lunch intake. I’m happy because it means if I eat a big healthy portion of salt & pepper tofu with fruity salad (grapefruit and apple make scrumptious additions to almost any salad) tonight, I’ll have taken in less than I expended. Hooray for progress.

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