For decades, the fitness industry was ruled by the idea of counting calories to lose weight. Many followed a method known as calories in vs calories out, or CICO for short. This was a popular strategy that people used, and still use, to promote weight loss. It involves tracking calories to ensure that you're eating fewer calories than you burn. The idea is that the number of calories you eat needs to match the number you expend. Tracking calorie intake as a strategy for weight loss is still fairly popular because there are no restrictions on what you can eat, as long as you're not eating more calories than you burn.
But does this old and tried method actually work?
Some would argue yes, while others claim that you don't need to count calories for weight loss. Both sides make very good points, but which one's right? Let's find out...
Do you need to count calories for weight loss?
The answer is not as simple as it seems... It's a bit of a yes and no answer. First things first, calories matter. Losing weight comes down to burning more calories than you're consuming. In fact, being in a calorie deficit is the foundation of almost every popular diet and weight loss program! For example, low-carb diets are extremely popular for weight loss (like the keto diet, Atkins, and paleo diet), and what do they all have in common? They require you to cut back on refined carbohydrates which will help put you in a calorie deficit! This happens you'll be cutting back on processed foods and filling up on nutrient-dense whole foods. Think of any diet and you'll notice that it comes down to creating a calorie deficit.
The thing is you don't necessarily need to count calories to lose weight. Yes, they matter and it works but it shouldn’t be heavily relied on...
Not all calories are created equal
You don’t only want to rely on only counting your calories to lose weight because there are a few flaws with the system in place. First, there really is no way to get an exact number for your daily calorie intake. Getting an exact number is nearly impossible because you'll need to know your basal metabolic rate and how many calories your body burns every day. Let's face it, no one has the time to figure that out! Even if you use a calculator that calculates your calories for you, it’s still only an approximation, so it's not something you should obsess over. That's just one thing. There are other things that can impact your calorie intake...
These are three main things that play a factor in how our body processes calories – your gut, how your body absorbs food, and the foods you eat.
- Your gut: There are trillions of organisms that live in your gut that are responsible for so many body processes, including how many calories your body absorbs from food. Some organisms are better at breaking down and using more calories from certain foods than other types. This is why you may see some individuals who are naturally thin yet eat a relatively unhealthy diet. So, our gut influences the amount of energy that is extracted during the digestion process, meaning you won't know exactly how many calories (or macronutrients) you're consuming.
- How your body absorbs food: The way you prepare your food affects how many calories your body actually absorbs. How a food is processed, prepared, and how much fiber or other nutrients it contains all determine how many calories your body absorbs from it. For example, peanut butter is more calorie-dense than peanuts although they're the same food, they're processed differently. How you prepare foods, whether steamed, baked, or fried, will all be absorbed differently in the body which can result in a higher or lower calorie count.
- The foods you eat: Tracking only your calorie intake, with no food restrictions is not effective for weight loss. Your food choices matter, in fact, they can influence the number of calories you consume. Eating highly processed foods, whether they're in small to moderate portion sizes that fit your calorie intake, can cause overeating and potentially weight gain in the long run. This tends to happen because they are highly palatable foods and if you lack self-discipline and willpower then there's an increased risk of binge eating. Not only that, but if you're eating 1,500 calories a day and getting most of those calories from mostly processed foods as opposed to nutrient-dense whole foods then you're not going to get the most effective results. Your bodyweight might drop, but there's a higher chance you're losing muscle, not fat.
So, after all of this... Does counting calories work?
Yes, despite there being factors that influence the number of calories you consume, calorie tracking works if there is a specific fitness goal you want to attain. But it's not necessarily because you've counted calories, it's because you're in a calorie deficit. The body needs to be in a deficit in order to achieve weight loss and tracking your food intake is one way to reach that goal - but it's not necessary.
Another thing, you want to know how to actually count calories effectively to maximize your results. Knowing how to do it can help reduce how big of an impact the three factors above make, and also promote healthy eating which is of the utmost importance!
How to track calories effectively
Calorie tracking can be time-consuming and even stressful at times. So, before we dive into some tips to help you get started tracking calories the right way, we want to make it clear that you shouldn't be obsessed with tracking your calories, nor should it be long-term. Counting calories is great for those who want to achieve a fitness goal, and therefore it should be short-term. Obsessively tracking what you eat can increase the risk of an eating disorder or disordered eating patterns developing, or coming back. So, if you have had issues with that in the past or feel like going a different route that doesn't involve tracking calories, then check out our tips on how to achieve weight loss without following a diet plan.
Now for those who want to use calorie counting as a strategy for weight loss, follow these tips to ensure you're not only going to hit your goal but also building better eating habits along the way.
Don't pick foods solely on calorie content
The first mistake everyone makes when it comes to counting calories is picking foods based on the number of calories they have. This leads to making poor food choices, like choosing to get a double cheeseburger from McDonald's that has roughly 440 calories (and that doesn't include fries and a drink) over a nutrient-dense home-cooked meal for roughly the same amount. This will only contribute to bad eating habits as opposed to good ones and can even trigger food cravings. However, this doesn't mean you have to restrict all your favorite foods and say goodbye to them forever. You can choose your favorite not-so-healthy food on occasion, but don't pick all the food you eat based only on the calorie content.
Instead, focus on prioritizing foods that are high in important macro and micronutrients! Always pick whole foods first. Focus on balancing your meals with sufficient protein, carbs, and fats to ensure you're giving your body what it needs for any fitness goal, not just weight loss. As you track your calories, you'll notice that you'll naturally be at a calorie deficit because you're filling up on foods that actually keep you full and energized throughout the day!
Track your macronutrients, not only calories
To add to the previous tip, track your macronutrients along with your calories for better results. This adds to the tip above because tracking your macros forces you to prioritize nutrient-dense foods. When calculating your macros, you are asked a series of questions that include (but are not limited to) age, body fat percentage, weight, body type, physical activity level, and fitness goals. You'll be given the number of calories you should consume every day along with the amount of protein, carbs, and fats.
Why should you track macros?
Tracking your macronutrients as opposed to only calories will help ensure that your body is getting what it needs to function properly. It's not only about weight loss, building muscle, or trying to maintain a healthy weight. It's about feeding your body the nutrients needed to recover from the day, keep your immune system strong, for sustainable energy, maintain muscle mass and bone density, and so much more. Plus, it'll help you build better eating habits that will stick with you for the long term! Counting calories is much more effective when you're tracking macros too, and it's easy to do because most calorie counting apps also include macro tracking!
And don't forget to use the Fit With Iulia Macro Calculator to find out what your daily macronutrient needs are! Then you can track your macros directly on the Fit With Iulia app along with getting your gym and home workouts planned 😉
Use a scale and measuring cups
Don't estimate what you're eating! Eyeballing your serving sizes is a slippery slope. You may think you're eating one serving of mixed nuts, but in reality, you've eaten multiple! If you want to maximize the effectiveness of tracking your macros and calories then invest in a food scale and measuring cups! Portion control is a part of dieting, whether you like it or not. This doesn't mean you need to only eat one serving of everything, it just means you should portion your food out as accurately as possible so you can make sure you’re not over or undereating.
When you cook at home measure the amount of lean protein you're eating, how many grams of vegetables you had, or how many grams of your favorite fruit you had. Although there are factors that can change the actual number of calories absorbed, you'll still have a better estimate than if you didn't measure your food intake.
Give yourself a break
Want to make calorie counting work for you? Don't be too hard on yourself and give yourself a break! Obsessing over hitting your calories exactly is not good for you mentally, and not sustainable. Some days you'll go over, some days you'll go under, and some days you won't track at all - it's okay. A fitness journey isn't linear, and neither is dieting.
To avoid overworking yourself to the point you give up on your fitness journey, have a few 'rest days' from tracking. Pick 1-2 days a week and don't track on those days. This doesn't mean you can go off the rails and eat whatever you want. Continue eating as you normally do, but put the food scale and your tracking app away to give your mind a break from it.
Bottom line is, counting calories works. Calories do matter and whether you like it or not the only way to lose weight is by being in a calorie deficit. However, you have to know how to go about tracking your calories to maximize your results. Following our above tips will do just that while helping you build healthy habits that stick with you in the long run and will help with weight management! And remember, it's not the only way to achieve a calorie deficit. Simply prioritizing whole foods that are nutrient-dense, being physically active, and being mindful of what you eat are all ways you can achieve weight loss without counting calories!