Why You Should Be Counting Calories
One of the biggest pain points of any diet is counting calories. People just don’t want to do it. It’s seen as overly laborious, time-consuming, and no fun at all. It seems like work. This is probably due to the fact that for most people, what they’ve always done is simply put food into their mouths whenever it seemed like a good idea. (Which, if you’re listening to your reptilian brain, is pretty much all the time). And that’s what they’ve ALWAYS done, since they were little kids.
Changing that up and expending a small amount of mental energy in order to be conscious of what’s going into our bodies can cause a big headache for most of us. Especially when, in the past, the act of eating had always been so reflexive and frictionless. We’re creatures of habit, and nowhere is that more true than the realm of food and diet.
The simple truth is that just about everybody wants to eat whatever they see fit, whenever they see fit, without thinking about it; even if it makes them…not so fit. (See what I did there?) Anything beyond that simply feels like a chore. The problem is that THOSE SAME PEOPLE, after years (or more likely decades) of this behavior, often find themselves looking in the mirror at a reflection they don’t recognize saying, “Damn, what the hell happened?”
Now, because you’re reading this, I have a strong suspicion that that person may be you, and if it is, first off, I COMMEND YOU. You’ve already done something that the vast majority of people are unwilling to do: find a solution. So congrats, the battle is halfway over, and you’re winning.
But keep in mind, your old behaviors are what got you where you are today, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s somewhere you don’t want to be. And you’re not going to get to where you WANT to be (for example, ripped up and shredded with badass six pack) without doing something you’ve never done before. And that includes counting calories.
If it sounds like too much work, if it sounds too difficult, too tedious, or too grueling, well, I’m here to tell you…too bad. If you want to be successful with your diet-related goals, whatever they may be (including gaining weight!), you HAVE to count your calories. You HAVE to hold yourself accountable. You have to be responsible. It’s imperative and quite literally the only path to success. (Plus, it’s really not all that bad.)
I recognize that there are a lot of trendy diets and diet gurus out there that promote very lax methods of counting calories in order for it to seem less taxing. (A piece of potato the size of your fist is this many calories, a grapefruit the size of your kneecap is that many carbs, etc., etc.)
However, at the end of the day, what you put into your body must be accounted for, and if you’re aiming to be successful (which, if you’re reading this, I think you are), you have to know whether or not you’re hitting your targets or if you’re way off. Part of that is being as accurate as we can be, with the smallest margin of error as possible.
Personally, I think oversimplifying calorie and macro counting just ends up making things more complicated. Estimating portion sizes just by looking can be very difficult, especially if you’ve never tried it before. Plus, virtually all packaged food has the exact number of calories and macronutrients listed right on it, so why not use that information?
For me, in a counterintuitive way, precisely counting calories ends up being the simplest and easiest way to go about it. Eventually, as you gain more experience dieting, the easier it will be to “eyeball it” and know what you’re eating. But if you’re just starting out, in order to avoid wasting weeks or months spinning your wheels, I recommend tracking your intake down to the gram.
Another reason it’s so important to track calories and macros is because our estimates of Basal Metabolic Rate and Total Daily Energy Expenditure are just that: estimates. You need to know that you’re hitting your calorie targets every day. You need to know if you’re getting your protein, fat, and carbohydrate intake JUST RIGHT. That way, if things aren’t going as expected, you know that adjustments need to be made. You can’t possibly know when or if to make changes if you’re not tracking anything and your adherence is all over the map.
Additionally, it’s good to track your intake is because it’s very easy to “accidentally” overeat. If you’re not being mindful and conscientious of everything you’re eating, those little snacks here and there can add up quickly. Tracking and logging EVERYTHING you put into your mouth can help keep you more focused.
So if counting calories is a must, how exactly do we go about it? As you can imagine, there are myriad ways of doing this. There are apps out there like MyFitnessPal and websites like calorieking.com (a personal favorite of mine) that can assist you. Or you could go old school and keep a handwritten food journal or notebook. However you want to do it, it’s totally up to you.
The method that I’ve personally been using for the last several years is to make a spreadsheet every day and list out all of the food I plan on eating. I have targets for my calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates and a minimum target for fiber (which is 25 grams daily, so, you know, you can keep pooping). All the totals are tallied up at the bottom and compared with my daily targets, making it super easy for me to see if I’m spot on, way off, or somewhere in-between.
Nobody is going to hit 100% of their macro targets accurately every day, day after day. I suggest aiming to land somewhere within 50-100 calories of your caloric target (plus or minus), and as close as you can with each macro.
Do NOT take that as, “Steve said I can eat 100 extra calories a day and it doesn’t matter!” That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying if you’re a little bit under, or a little bit over from time to time, try to keep those swings at plus or minus 50-100.
When it comes to calories, being under is preferred to being over. With protein and fat, I’d rather be over than under, and with carbohydrates, I’d rather be under than go over.
And here’s a pro tip: eating whole, minimally processed foods is going to make it MUCH easier to hit your macro targets each day, since they won’t be filled with empty calories. Additionally, eating things like lean meats, fresh fruits, and vegetables will not only make tracking easier, the micronutrients they contain will make you feel better, and you’ll be more satiated because you’ll be eating more volume.
The last thing I’ll say about counting calories (other than just do it) is this: there is something comforting in knowing that you’ve already made a decision of how much you’re going to eat that day. All the anxiety of the decision-making process goes away. All of the temptations seem that much less tempting because you’ve already made up your mind. In the grand scheme of things, counting calories makes dieting much easier. Couple that with Intermittent Fasting and as much black coffee as you can handle and you’ll be a lean, mean, dieting MACHINE! Good luck, and godspeed.