Written by: Nikolaj Bach, BCs. Scient. Med.
There are many different attitudes to calorie counting.
Some believe that an effective strategy for one's training diet always involves counting calories and following a fixed distribution of protein , carbohydrate and fat. How else would you get optimal results if you leave your diet to chance, and do not "track" what you eat?
Others believe it's far less about calories and macros, and far more about food quality. It could be people within the "clean eating" camp who recommend a fixed diet plan with quality food, rather than eating flexibly and what you feel like, within your total calorie intake.
However, certainly not everyone associates calorie counting with flexibility. On the contrary, many argue that one should only eat intuitively, and that weighing and measuring the things one eats helps to keep people in eating-disordered dietary patterns, and makes them neurotic and over-focused on everything they eat.
But if we take off the black and white glasses, what are the pros and cons of calorie counting?
I believe in principle that all 3 views can each have some accuracy. It is about who, why and how to use calorie tracking.
Because where I myself have criticized how many people use calorie counting within the fitness culture, it is definitely a tool that can have value. However, it requires that you are also aware of the limitations of calorie counting, and know how to use the tool in practice. Otherwise, it can do more harm than good.
And that's exactly why I wrote this article, which should give you a more nuanced insight into calorie counting. So I want to discuss the practical pros and cons of calorie counting so you can best assess how to use this tool - and whether it is the best solution to achieve your goals at all.
Is calorie counting accurate?
Many people think that they can track their calorie intake very accurately, using calorie counting.
However, it does not fit. In fact, calorie counting is very inaccurate because our energy balance (calories in vs. calories out) is affected by a lot of unknown variables.
If we start with the "calories in" side of the equation, then there can be large variations in the nutrition team in foods, in relation to the nutrition declaration. This is just the way it is when dealing with raw materials.
Especially for foods with a high fat content, this means that the calorie content can have large deviations, because fat contains more energy than protein or carbohydrate. For example, there may be large differences in the fat content of fish such as herring, depending on when in the year they are caught.
And that's just one of many limitations. Thus, calorie counting also does not take into account:
- Variations in physical activity
- Variations in non-exercise activity ("NEAT"), typically regulated against a calorie surplus or deficit, such as a buffer (1).
- The thermal effect of protein and coarse foods that increase energy consumption (2,3)
- That you, for example, absorb up to 40% less fat from nuts and kernels if they are consumed whole (4)
- That, among other things, calcium and whole grains can bind a little fat in the intestine, resulting in a lower uptake of calories (5,6,7).
This means that there is no need to weigh every single food very accurately, just as you do not have to drop eating out because you do not know the exact nutritional content of the dishes. That effort is still lost among the other uncertainties.
Calorie counting and strength training
However, if you are aware of these limitations, then calorie counting shame can be a fine tool in connection with your workout.
Personally, I try to have a scientific approach to training, and a scientific approach involves collecting your data. Otherwise, we shoot blindly when we make changes, or assess progress.
If you do strength training, you have an increased nutritional need (especially for protein and calories). And if we do not have an overview of our dietary intake (which, among other things, can be in the form of calorie counting), then we leave our results to chance.
For example, I meet many who are frustrated that they "eat and eat, but they do not gain muscle mass". When we actually track what they consume in a day, many of them get less than 3000 kcal, while training 5 times a week. Guess what, then it's clear you are not putting on!
That way, calorie counting can help create awareness and an overview of what you are actually eating, and is used as part of gaining more quality and structure in your exercise diet.
For my own part, tracking calories means I have to think much less about food during the day. With apps like MyFitnessPal, tracking has become much faster and easier (which is one of the reasons it's become more open to calorie counting), and in minutes I can have keyed in my diet for the whole day, and then I'm free to go and think about whether I have now eaten enough protein and calories during the day.
For me, tracking therefore provides more time and space for more flexibility in the diet.
And flexible eating and a varied diet are healthy - not only for the head, but also for the body. If you thus compare an "If It Fits Your Macros" approach - where you eat flexibly within an overall nutrition distribution - with "clean eating" on a fixed diet plan, then the flexible eaters are better covered with nutrients. Especially among women, who have fewer calories to do well with (8).
This is not to say that I think "If It Fits Your Macros" is the best trade-off between precision and flexibility for trainers. I return to this in the last section.
Calorie counting and overeating
For the ordinary overweight Dane (there are now more overweight adults than normal weight) who want to lose weight, calorie counting has both benefits and limitations.
Just as calorie counting can help people who think they can not put on weight, calorie counting can also be used to create awareness about the actual food intake, for people who do not understand why they do not lose weight. When they then get noted and measured everything they eat in the course of a day, it suddenly becomes clear where they overeat - and where they can most easily put in!
Focusing on calorie balance can also be used to alleviate the forbidden thoughts that often lead to overeating (9,10,11). When you know what you have eaten, and know that it is only the total calorie intake that determines whether you lose weight or not, then you also know that you have not thrown it all on the floor because you have eaten a piece of cake.
And then you do not eat the whole frying pan, because you thought you had failed anyway, and then it can all be just as much. First THERE is overeating.
In other words, calorie counting may be part of a weight loss strategy, but there will have to be a plan for how you will subsequently keep the weight loss - unless you are willing to weigh the food and count calories for the rest of your life, for to avoid overeating, and it is probably the few ordinary Danes who want to live like this.
Calorie counting and orthorexia
One argument against this, of course, is that tracking calories is getting easier and easier, and with the technological advances, it probably does not take many years before we can just take a picture of a meal and then the phone calculates the contents.
Where calorie counters can easily keep track of your daily intake, and for some exercisers can make it easier to eat enough, and more flexible, then it is not a beneficial tool for everyone.
Thus, the use of apps like MyFitnessPal is very common among people with eating disorders (12). This is not so strange, because it is part of the disease picture that you want to control the diet down to the smallest detail. Where it becomes a problem is that the use of calorie counter apps seems to be able to aggravate symptoms in people who are already eating disorders (12).
However, for people who do not already have an eating disorder, calorie counter apps do not appear to create eating disorder behaviors (13). So it's about how and why you use calorie counting.
For example, I have no clients that track macros slavishly. Instead, they may have a rough calorie target to hit, along with a fixed amount of protein.
Partly because the exact distribution between fat and carbohydrate is not very important (it is protein intake in return) as long as you get something of both, and then because it allows far more freedom than if you have to hit a fixed macro distribution. Combined with the right habits regarding food choices, it is in my eyes a diet strategy that has a good tradeoff between flexibility and efficiency.
For calorie counting is therefore a tool that should make nutrition easier and more flexible for you. Therefore, if you have been trying to count calories, ask yourself two questions:
Am I going to eat more or less flexibly and varied when I count calories?
Do I think more or less about food when I count calories?
If calorie counting makes you more stressed and neurotic about eating, then it is not a tool that is relevant to you where you are now. So instead, it makes better sense to look at more habit- and behavior-based strategies to reduce calorie intake.
Examples of this (there is no one universal solution as there are many causes of overeating) could be:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables, for greater satiety.
- Eat more protein , for greater satiety.
- Make the things you overeat less accessible - for example, do not have sweets and chips left at home if that is what you overeat.
- Avoid "trigger foods" that you know you can not stop eating once you start.
- Be present in the meal when you eat, taste the food, and enjoy it. Do not watch TV while eating.
- Set the cutlery aside while talking to your fellow diners so that the meal is stretched over a longer period of time and you have time to get full.
- Do not eat if you are full before the plate is empty. It is no less food waste that the food smokes in the stomach rather than the garbage.
- Clarify the emotional causes of why you overeat (especially relevant during severe obesity), and work on these.
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