Is Counting Calories a Waste of Time?

woman counting calories on phone with food in background

Figuring out calories on a smartphone app can be time-consuming. Is it worth it?

Many weight loss systems use counting calories to guide clients in their food choices. Weight Watchers usually comes in near the top of all those mainstream option polls about “the best diet”, and it’s based on a calorie counting system which they call points. What’s the truth? Is calorie-counting really that effective?

Do you really have to count calories?

Calories in, Calories out?

The caloric balance system is the commonly-accepted model for determining how to lose or gain weight. It’s what was drilled into me in my university nutrition courses. It basically states that if you burn more calories each day than your body uses to function then you will lose weight and if you burn less calories than your body uses then you will gain weight.

If only it were really that simple…

The problem with calorie balance is that it’s based on a lot of guessing.

The amount of calories your body burns is your basal metabolic rate (BMR) multiplied by your activity level. Your BMR is calculated using a formula that incorporates your height and weight to estimate how many calories you’re burning. Since there is so much variation in the way that each individual’s body burns calories, it’s hard to figure out how many calories your body burns each day.

Then you have to estimate your activity level, which – if you’re like me – varies from day to day.

Oh, and wait…

You also have to figure out how much you’re eating so that you can determine how many calories are going in. Remember burning food in your high school chemistry class to determine its caloric content (how much “energy” it contains)?

It’s another oversimplification of the idea of calories in.

The Bottom Line

Here’s an easier way to figure it all out.

If you’re carrying a few extra pounds more than you’d like, then your calorie intake is too high and/or your calorie expenditure is too low. So you could just reduce calorie intake or increase your activity and lose weight, right? Probably.

But…

This is where it gets a bit more complicated. The caloric balance model assumes that 500 calories worth of lean chicken breast will affect your body the same way as 500 calories worth of white sugar.

They’re all calories, right?

Yes, but 500 calories of quality protein will benefit your weight loss (or health) efforts more than 500 calories of sugar.

That’s where MACROS (protein, carbs, fat) come in.

Protein is slightly less likely to be stored as fat than protein or carbs.

Fibre can decease the total amount of calories in that you’re taking in, because less of the calories are absorbed (they pass through the digestive tract).

How Hormones get Involved

Every food you ingest effects your hormones in a different way. Taking in 500 calories of sugar on its own will cause a larger secretion of insulin – a hormone which regulates metabolism of carbs and fats – which can set you up for a cycle of food cravings. Chicken is unlikely to have that same effect (although protein still slightly increases insulin. Fat does not).

Other foods also have beneficial hormonal effects that would assist fat loss. Fish oils, for instance, can reduce inflammation and increase insulin sensitivity, and can assist with fat loss.

Calories aren’t the only issue here.

The hormonal effect on your body can also be important.

Because if you feel tired and weak, you’re less likely to burn off calories moving around or working out at the gym.

Getting Educated

Despite everything I’ve just said, calories still matter. For most people (ie. those without hormonal issues such as low thyroid or menopause), calories are the “big picture” and hormones are secondary. If you’re only looking to improve your health or only improve your body composition a little, then you’ll probably see improvements just by making small changes to your diet like adding more vegetables and reducing processed foods. If you have specific weight-loss or muscle-gain goals, calories aren’t a bad place to start. It’s important to be “calorie-aware” so that you’re not kidding yourself about how much you’re eating or how much activity you’re doing.

Nuts are good for you, sure, but they’re very calorie-dense and can still prevent you from losing weight if you over-consume them. I usually start coaching clients off with at least a couple of weeks of monitoring their calorie intake with an app like myfitnesspal. You enter in what you eat on a daily basis and the app calculates how much you’ve consumed and what percentage is carbs, proteins, and fats. Of course, it’s only an estimate, but it’s a valuable starting point. Once you get the hang of it you won’t need to monitor your intake all the time. You’ll have a better idea of what you’re consuming and will make better choices according to your goals.

When Should You Count Calories?

There are times when counting calories, as much of a guesstimate as they are, is valuable. If you’re preparing for a fitness or bodybuilding competition, or have to make a weight class for your sport, then monitoring calories becomes important so you can make relevant changes for your goals. Also, if you’re the type of person who needs a lot of structure with your eating plan and you want to be accountable for your daily choices, then counting calories is a good idea.

My Way

Do I count calories?

No.

I really can’t be bothered. Weighing and measuring everything I eat isn’t how I want to spend my life, quite frankly. Also, after years of educating myself, I have a good idea of how to balance my food intake to get the results I need. I’ve gone through periods of fitness competition prep when I monitored my calories daily to achieve specific physique changes. Most of the time though, I just wing it!

You need to figure out what system works for you. There may be a role for some calorie education initially, but I’ve yet to meet the person that wants to count calories for the rest of his/her life. Unless that’s you, calorie counting isn’t a long-term solution. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an important place in your weight loss toolbox.

Ivana Chapman 

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Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 5-year-old boy. She is a writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training and chocolate, not always in that order of preference.
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