Let’s throw it back to basics today to discuss: What is calorie counting? And, do you have to count calories to lose weight?
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What is Calorie Counting?
If you’ve ever been interested in losing weight or have attempted to lose weight in the past, then you’ve likely read about the importance of calorie counting.
Calorie counting means that you are recording everything you eat or drink each day that contains calories. This can be achieved by writing down your calories in a notebook or a food diary or by logging electronically through a free app like MyFitnessPal or LoseIt.
For weight loss, you would be counting calories to check that you are in a calorie deficit, meaning that you are eating fewer calories than your body is using to sustain your bodily functions and daily activities. A calorie deficit is required for weight loss, and this is common across all “diet” approaches.
Though significant differences can exist based on your sex, starting weight, and activity level, a calorie deficit is most often achieved by targeting 1200-1800 calories per day (Diabetes Prevention Program Research Group, 2002).
The purpose of calorie counting is to help you hit the daily calorie target that will allow you to make consistent weight loss progress. I have created a step-by-step guide on how to calculate your calorie target for weight loss to help you get started.
The Science Behind Calorie Counting
Calorie counting has consistently been identified by research studies as one of the single most effective strategies for weight loss and long-term maintenance of weight loss progress (O’Neil et al., 2005; Schulte et al., 2020).
The evidence-based benefits of calorie counting are that it:
- Increases your awareness of the number of calories that are in the foods you typically eat
- Helps you practice portion control (e.g., reducing the amount you typically eat)
- Encourages you to eat healthier foods because you can have larger portions for a modest amount of calories (e.g., for the same number of calories, you can eat a much larger portion of grilled chicken with veggies compared to mac and cheese!)
- Keeps you accountable throughout the day by providing a running tab of what you’ve eaten so far and how many calories you have left for the day
- Allows you to learn how to incorporate all foods into your healthy lifestyle (e.g., if you enjoy a higher calorie food for breakfast, you just adjust the calories you eat at lunch and dinner to make it fit!)
The Gold-Standard Method for Calorie Counting
Put your researcher hat on for a moment (my favorite hat to wear!), and think about calorie counting as an experiment you are conducting, with the goal of finding the daily calorie target that allows you to make consistent weight loss progress.
I’m guessing you agree that you would want to use a method for calorie counting that is as accurate as possible, so you have the best “data” to figure out that sweet spot for your daily calorie target!
Tips for Accurate Calorie Counting
Tip #1 = Get the Tools for Accuracy!
Purchase a digital food scale and weigh out each food item you eat, as often as possible (check out this step-by-step guide for using a digital food scale). As a second-best option to a digital food scale, you could use standard measuring cups/spoons. These tools are a MUST for accurate calorie counting– I recommend them to every single patient I work with.
Tip #2 = Learn the Art of the Best Guess
When you are eating away from home and aren’t able to use your food scale, learn the art of the best guess! For example, let’s say you log your calories on an app like MyFitnessPal and are getting a sandwich from a local spot for lunch. While the exact sandwich may not be on the app, don’t let this deter you from trying your best to log something! Type in as many details as possible about the sandwich, such as “8-inch sub with turkey, swiss, red peppers, and spinach on whole-wheat bread.” Then, pick an estimate for the calories that is somewhere between the middle-to-high end of the options. For instance, if the ranges MyFitnessPal presents are between 200 (likely too low) and 800 (likely too high), you may choose around 500-600 calories.
Tip #3 = Log Throughout the Day (or Before!)
What did you have for lunch yesterday? I can’t remember either…
This is why I strongly recommend that you make a mental rule to log the foods you eat right before you eat them. This makes it more likely that you’ll be measuring/weighing the foods as you prepare your plate and logging them as you go. Then, you can enjoy the meal knowing it’s already tracked!
If you have a busy schedule throughout the day and would find it challenging to weigh your food out and track immediately before each meal and snack, then I recommend weighing all your food out and counting the calories in the morning. Then, you’ll be all set for the entire day and won’t have to do a single thing except follow your game plan!
Tip #4 = Don’t Let Negative Thoughts Get in the Way
Our minds have a way of telling us that if we can’t do something “right,” we might as well not do it at all! With calorie counting, this could mean that if you forget to log one meal, you might feel like you “failed” or “messed up,” which can easily lead to a few days without tracking. Fight back when you have these thoughts! Remember, something is always better than nothing. So do your best to remember what you ate for the meal you missed or just start logging the very next meal. Your best effort is always good enough.
Do I Have to Count Calories to Lose Weight?
No! It is most important to understand the purpose of calorie counting as a tool for weight management and then decide whether its benefits may help YOU. While the research suggests that calorie counting can be a highly effective tool for long-term weight management, it is not right for everyone.
As you read the next sections about who should and should not count calories, think about how you personally fit in with each description. I hope this helps you figure out whether counting calories would be right for you!
Who Should Count Calories?
You are more likely to experience the benefits of calorie counting if you…
- Are unsure of how many calories you are eating each day right now
- Don’t know where the extra calories in your diet are coming from
- Would find it helpful to have a tool for accountability each day
- Want to learn how to include all foods in your diet by planning around treats
- Do not have a history of or current disordered eating behaviors like severe caloric restriction, self-induced vomiting, or excessive exercise
Who Should NOT Count Calories?
You may find calorie counting unhelpful, or even triggering, if you…
- Have a history of or current disordered eating behaviors like severe caloric restriction (eating less than 1200 calories per day), self-induced vomiting, or excessive exercise
- Feel uneasy about reducing your calories to a specific number
- Feel obsessive about your food decisions, or experience anxiety about what to eat
- Are under the age of 18
If any of the above points sound like you, then I strongly encourage you to reach out for support related to your eating behavior. I have the privilege of working individually with many people who are looking to improve their relationship with food, which I believe takes precedent over losing weight. You can use Psychology Today’s free tool to find a therapist who takes your insurance if you are interested in getting support.
If you are looking for an alternative to calorie counting that can help you improve your relationship with food, I strongly recommend Intuitive Eating (with a self-paced workbook), which invites you to listen to your body’s natural signals for hunger and fullness and learn which foods that make your body feel its best. Another book with beautiful messages about body acceptance and working on your relationship with food is Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield.
Dr. Schulte’s Summary
Calorie counting means recording the calories of every single food and beverage you consume that contains calories. The purpose of calorie counting is to serve as a daily check that you are eating in the calorie deficit that allows you to achieve consistent weight loss progress. Calorie counting is most effective when you are using a digital food scale to accurately measure your portion sizes and when you record either throughout the day or in the morning.
While calorie counting is an evidence-based strategy for weight loss and long-term maintenance of weight loss progress, it is not for everyone. Please prioritize developing a healthy relationship with food over pursuing weight loss and calorie counting, and seek out additional support if you would find it helpful!
Let’s discuss! Do you count calories for weight loss? How has it been helpful or unhelpful for you? Drop me a comment!
Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) Research Group. (2002). The Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP): description of lifestyle intervention. Diabetes care, 25(12), 2165-2171.
O’neil, P. M., & Rieder, S. (2005). Utility and validity of the eating behavior inventory in clinical obesity research: a review of the literature. Obesity Reviews, 6(3), 209-216.
Schulte, E. M., Tuerk, P. W., Wadden, T. A., Garvey, W. T., Weiss, D., Hermayer, K. L., … & O’Neil, P. M. (2020). Changes in weight control behaviors and hedonic hunger in a commercial weight management program adapted for individuals with type 2 diabetes. International Journal of Obesity, 44(5), 990-998.
Disclaimer: all opinions are my own and are not affiliated with my employers. Please seek medical guidance before pursuing weight loss or making significant changes to the way you eat or your physical activity routine.