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!?


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!