A calorie is a calorie. Just the same as a watt is a watt or a volt is a volt. Consume more than you burn and you will gain weight. This is an undisputed truth, and I’m ok with it. I can live with not eating mac and cheese all day because when I do have it, I’ll enjoy it all the more. That’s why it bothers me when companies try to sell me on low cal versions of foods that, quite frankly, shouldn’t be meddled with.
Low-fat cheese, cauliflower pizza, skinny rice, and keto bread are good examples (seriously, go fuck yourself, Keto, this is not bread). Yet, companies you’ve heard of regularly make products smaller, or reduce their calories to sell their products to an increasingly obesity aware population. Their stance was summed up in a collaborative paper from 2009:
“In recent decades an increasing proportion of the UK population has gained weight reflecting a chronic positive energy imbalance (i.e. calorie intake exceeding calorie expenditure), and this has led to an increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of a number of diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and some cancers.”
No fucking shit. However, how about this: I, as a grown adult can decide to eat what I want, when I want, without anyone needing to take all the flavour out of my monster munch or turning my, once bright, smarties the colour of sad pebbles. You see, when you are aware of calories, you earn the right to budget for a bit of junk here and there, because you know it’s not going to lead to gaining fat. Calorie counting for weight loss should be the go-to choice then, but popular diets tend to look down on keeping track of your intake.
It’s easier to make people believe that insulin is what is really driving obesity, or that fat can’t make you fat as long as you don’t eat carbs than it is to drive home the message that calories count. For that reason, calorie counting as a method for weight loss is often attacked by an industry that prefers to sell its own special techniques.
One argument put forward by the giant Precision Nutrition, is that counting calories is inherently inaccurate. PN state that calorie estimates of foods are unreliable, and that the number of calories we absorb varies so much it makes calorie counting useless. Their fix for this, rather ironically, is to use your fist, thumb, and hand to measure your food as a method of portion control. While this has merit in some situations, the logic behind eschewing an, apparently, inaccurate measurement system for an even worse one doesn’t stand up.
Another argument put forward by fitness megastar Joe Wicks is that counting calories is just too much trouble. He states that “’Counting calories is an old-school, outdated approach to nutrition — and not all calories are equal… Who wants to have to track, monitor and obsess over hitting a certain daily calorie intake? Not me.” Framing calorie counting as the bad guy makes it much easier to sell “fat burning workouts” or meals, but in reality only burning fewer calories than you consume is what really leads to fat loss, regardless of how hard your cardio session was.
For my clients, tracking calorie intake is their first, and most major step to getting the body of their dreams. It doesn’t have to be forever, but its importance at first can’t be denied. Here are 4 reasons why I recommend tracking calories for weight loss.
1# You’re eating more than you think
I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times someone has told me that they are eating some super low number of calories and they still can’t gain weight. After a quick investigation from me, the problem quickly becomes apparent.
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Several studies have tested the number of calories someone says they’re eating, compared to the number when measured using a highly efficient technique called doubly labelled water.
- In a study by Prentice, overweight women who claimed to be consuming 1,610 kcal were shown to actually be taking in 2,445 calories a day.
- Studies have shown that people underestimate what they eat by as much as 2,000 calories.
- In another study, so-called “small eaters” claiming to consume 1,340 calories a day were actually eating an average of 2,586.
This isn’t meant to be a negative message. Learning to track the number of calories accurately puts the ball back in your court. The frustration from thinking you were consuming 1,000 calories without making any progress should be replaced by pretty rapid weight loss now you’re doing it right.
2# It gives you flexibility
If you’re anything like me, then you like the odd pastry, brownie, or beer here and there. The problem with these foods isn’t that they contain toxins, gluten, or spike your blood sugar, it’s that they’re so damn hard not to eat a shit tonne of. Our brains are programmed to make us crave high-fat, high-sugar foods, and if we start eating foods like this, it’s hard to reign it. Tracking solves that problem.
Tracking allows us to eat a calorie dense goodies, on occasion without the fear of mindlessly consuming way more cals than you thought. I’d still base my diet on whole, minimally processed, foods for the most part, but indulgences are easy to eat if you understand how to fit these foods within your calorie budget.
3# You get to eat like a normal person some of the time
A common strategy I use for my clients is cutting calories harder at the start of the week while being much more liberal with the calorie budget towards the end. It’s the average number of calories burned by the end of the week that matters, not what happens on a daily basis. Making more of a deficit during the week works because of the structure and greater routine imposed by the daily work week, while higher calories at the weekend make you feel like you can eat like a normal person for a couple of days.
4# You’ll make better progress
Losing weight calls for consuming fewer calories than you burn, but your body isn’t willing to give up the fat it worked so hard to store without a fight. As you get leaner, your body adapts, slowing down metabolic processes and stopping you from burning too many precious cals. When this happens, the 1,800 calories that worked so well at the start of your diet might not result in any weight loss at all now.
Decreasing calories by 5 to 10% is usually all you need to do to start making progress again, but making small adjustments to what you’re eating using just guesswork simply isn’t going to cut it. Sometimes, if a real stall occurs, a full weeks diet break may be in order. In this case, the goal would be to raise calories past a certain point, but the problem is still the same; without a good idea of how many calories you’re consuming in the first place, you’ll never know if you’re getting this all-important recovery week right.
Calorie counting isn’t obsessive, time-consuming, or inaccurate; it’s the best way I know to reach your weight loss goals while still eating the odd packet of smarties.
Want to lose weight while still going out to eat the foods you love? Get the eat out stay lean system and never worry about eating out again.