Should You Count Calories?

Calorie counting is a finicky business. It means weighing food, looking up databases, nutrition label reading, and keeping track of everything consumed. It’s a lot more effort than merely eating whatever we feel like, and adds a layer of complexity to life that many people find unwelcome.

But is it even necessary?

Mechanical calculator

What Is Calorie Counting?

Food contains energy. A calorie is a unit of energy measurement. Therefore counting the calories our food contains is a way to quantify how much energy we’re taking in through eating.

We can calculate it using known food energy values from publicly accessible databases such as nutritiondata.com, food nutrition labels, and the weight of our portions.

Macronutrient counting is similar, but notes the exact breakdown of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. From these values we can also derive calories. For the purposes of this article, I’ll use “calorie counting” as shorthand for both because the most widely used methods of diet tracking give us both calories and macros.

Why Do It?

Whether we gain, lose, or maintain weight is determined by energy balance.

When we take in more energy through food than we require to stay alive, fuel activity, and maintain current fat stores, we gain weight. It’s made up of some mixture of lean mass (such as muscle and bone) and fat, depending on variables including food composition, activity, overall environment, and genetic factors.

Conversely, when the energy our bodies receive is less than required to stay alive, fuel activity, and maintain current fat stores, we lose weight. Again through some mix of lean mass and fat, variable dependent.

(Anyone who wants to improve health, strengthen their body, and look better will normally want to gain muscle and minimize body fat.)

To control body weight we have to control our energy balance. We can do this by either increasing or decreasing activity (through exercise, for instance), but this is actually a surprisingly weak method—it takes a lot of activity to burn enough energy to affect body weight.

By far the most powerful way to affect energy balance, and thus body weight, is by regulating the amount of energy we take in through food. That’s where calorie counting comes in.

Dietary Regulation

Calorie counting is a way to regulate diet, but it’s not the only one. There are various methods, each with benefits and drawbacks. Generally as the accuracy of your method increases, so does the time and effort you have to put into it, and there’s a corresponding decrease in convenience and ease.

Some Alternatives to Calorie Counting

  • People stay healthy and lean by relying solely on hunger cues and not eating to excess. (However, if you’re overweight, presumably this has already not worked for you…)
  • If you have a good understanding of the energy content of various foods and how much portion sizes weigh, you can estimate your energy intake by eye-balling your meals.
  • It’s possible to use general guidelines to control your energy intake. For instance, you could compose all your meals so that half your plate is taken up with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter by starchy carbohydrates, and the last quarter by meat or other protein source.
  • The ketogenic diet, which is high in fat, very low in carbohydrate, and moderate in protein, can result in a blunted appetite. This leads to an automatic regulation of energy intake without having to actually quantify energy intake itself.
  • Restricting the diet to minimally processed foods (as in the Paleo diet, for instance) is a way to limit energy intake. These foods are generally of lower caloric density than highly processed foods, and as such this is another self-regulating protocol. It’s not foolproof, though—there are still minimally processed foods that are very dense calorically (like nuts).

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but should give you some idea of possible alternatives to counting calories.

What Are You Seeking to Achieve?

The suitability of any particular method depends entirely on your goals, lifestyle, current state of your body, and tolerance for attention to detail.

If you’re overweight by 400 lb, fewer visits to McDonald’s might be all it takes to make amazing progress. However, if you’re an athlete who’s been training for decades with sub 10% body fat looking to get leaner, then a far more detailed and involved approach will be necessary.

The Strength of Calorie Counting

Calorie counting has inherent flaws. For example, the exact caloric content of a given food is variable, and can be affected by all sorts of things we can’t practically monitor (including ripeness and growing conditions of plants, whether a food is consumed with water, how refined it is, how much you chew it, how your particular body processes it, etc).

However, despite its issues, counting calories is still the most accurate way of controlling diet available that is easily accessible. That accuracy is its primary strength, and it enables quite fine-grained control. As such, there are a number of situations in which it’s invaluable.

Maximizing Muscle & Leanness

You should count calories if you’re trying to push the absolute limits of what you’re capable of leanness and muscle mass-wise.

At the limits of these endeavors, you need as much data as possible, and knowing exactly what you’re consuming, or as close to it as we can practically get, is an integral part of that. The distinction here is the concept of optimization—incredible progress can be made without calorie counting, but facilitating the most efficient, maximal progress requires very close tracking of dietary intake.

Hedonism!

From a very different perspective, calorie counting is imperative if you’re a foodie and want to stay in athletic shape. It’s extremely powerful here—you can indulge in the most delicious, energy-dense food imaginable, and provided you account for caloric content you won’t gain unwanted fat.

My Perspective

I’m in both of the above categories. I get a lot of pleasure from indulging in super calorically-dense, decadent food, but I’m utterly passionate about finding my body’s limits with respect to muscle gain and fat loss. Therefore calorie counting is non-negotiable.

I happen to be lucky insofar as I actually love it. First because it destroys the myth that you have to choose between perpetually “eating clean” to stay in shape, or getting grossly overweight through eating dessert. And second because it enables such powerful control of body composition.

Should You Count Calories?

Altering body weight, ie, the amount of body fat and muscle we carry, requires regulation of what we eat. Calorie counting isn’t the only way to accomplish it, but it’s the most widely available method giving the fine-grained accuracy needed to maximize physique goals, while at the same time enabling supreme flexibility of food choice.

Tolerance for the work of counting calories varies, so it’s by no means for everyone. The absolute most important factor for staying in good physical condition is long term sustainability—if you hate counting calories, another method of dietary monitoring will be necessary. Whether you should count calories is a question only you can answer.

Image credit: By George B. Grant Co. (Inventor/Manufacturer); Scientific American (Engraving) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons