Should you count calories to lose weight?
In this article, I look at the pros and cons of counting calories to lose weight, so that you can decide whether or not it is the best approach for your lifestyle.
We live in an era that is more “calorie aware” than ever. There are labels on virtually everything we eat and many restaurants will provide calorie information on their menus.
But how studiously do we need to monitor these numbers if we want to get in shape? Do we need to keep track of everything we consume right down to the final calorie or is counting calories a neurotic waste of time?
What is calorie counting?
In its most rudimentary form, calorie counting can be defined as keeping track of the number of calories you eat on a daily basis. The aim of calorie counting is to be able to understand exactly how much you eat, so that you can make the necessary adjustments to help you lose weight.
You can either write down the amount you eat each day or, seeing as the good old pen and paper is about as much use as a Blockbuster card these days, you can use any one of the abundance of apps that have surfaced.
Now that you know what calorie counting is, let’s take a deeper look at the pros and cons.
The pros of counting calories
It can help you lose weight. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that counting calories can help you lose weight. One study (1) found that keeping a food diary can double a person’s weight loss.
Counting calories can make you more aware of your current habits. Many people simply do not know how much food they are eating day to day, tracking your food meticulously can be a real eye opener.
It is easily app-cessible (see what I did there?!) - You can use apps to quickly scan or type in the food you eat so that you have a daily running calorie total, making it easy to stay on track.
Counting calories can allow you to have structure with your diet. If you have a set calorie target per day, it can help you plan your meals accordingly, meaning that you’re less likely to over eat.
It's easy to understand. Many people enjoy the simplicity of counting calories and aiming to eat a set amount per day. It’s much easier for some people to comprehend, than trying to have a more complex nutritional understanding.
It can help you to break through plateaus. If you’ve been stuck at the same weight for a long time counting calories can help you reach the next level, as it’s easy to assess how much you’re eating and what you need to adjust to make progress.
It can help you identify high calorie, low nutrient value foods. Are the grande lattes with extra sugar going to keep you full up or deliver a decent amount of vitamins and minerals? Probably not. Are they full of calories? Definitely. Counting calories may mean you can see where to make adjustments with what you consume.
It can mean that you allow yourself to eat chocolate or crisps without guilt - as you’re less likely to binge eat and go overboard if you have to stick to a daily calorie target.
The cons of counting calories
Counting calories can make you neurotic. You need to be organised and enjoy crunching numbers, otherwise counting calories can seem like a stressful chore.
It’s not good if you’re not tech-savvy. If you struggled to load up snake on the Nokia 3210, then using an app to monitor your food intake may not be for you.
It can be hard to track everything you eat. Most restaurants won’t provide calorie information and there is little chance your Mum can tell you how many calories are in that roast dinner she has just cooked you.
It may mean you shy away from social situations. “Sorry Mum, I can’t come around for that roast dinner later, I need to be able to track my calories”.
You’re reliant on information that food labels give you. Just how accurate are the labels on food? Can you fully trust what it says on the packet?
There could be inaccuracies on the apps you use. My Fitness Pal is a little like Wikipedia, in that anyone can add in information. Unfortunately, this means that you could be faced with 50 different entries for eggs, all ranging massively in calorie content.
It can lead you to become less intuitive with food and not reacting to hunger and fullness cues but instead going by the numbers on an app. “I feel full but the app says I can still eat 300 calories more so I’m going to!”.
Counting calories can lead to repetitive eating. You can end up choosing foods based on their ability to track, as opposed to how much you want to eat them or what nutritional value they possess.
Alternatives to counting calories
We’ve looked at the pros and cons of counting calories, what are the alternatives?
One method is to keep a more basic type of food diary. With this approach, you write down what you eat, but not necessarily the number of calories. This will help make you aware of what you consume and any potential habits you may need to change, without the necessity to be so studious with the numbers. For many people, this is a great starting point.
As an alternative to the written diary, keeping a photo diary is an increasingly popular method of tracking your food intake. You just take a quick snap of everything you eat before you start eating, allowing you to keep an eye on your total intake in a more visual manner. There is an app called See How You Eat which is geared towards the more snap happy.
Of course, another option, is to simply not track anything at all. No calorie counting, no written or picture diary, you just eat as per your intuition or by the rules of a particular dietary style you wish to follow.
The best calorie counter apps
Hopefully by now you will have read through the pros and cons of calorie counting and assessed the alternatives. You should have a good idea as to whether or not you think this approach is for you. The next step if you want to give it a go is to work out which app is best for you. Below I’ve outlined the two most popular apps.
My Fitness Pal
- MyFitnessPal has the largest database available in a diet tracker, and it includes many restaurant foods.
- It can download recipes from the internet and calculate the calorie content of each serving.
- You can "quick add" calories if you don't have the time to add details about a certain meal.
- Most of the foods are uploaded by other users, so they may not be entirely accurate. There may also be multiple entries for the same product.
- Serving sizes in the database may be hard to edit, creating difficulties if your serving was smaller or larger than the one listed.
- Aimed at users within the UK.
- Photo data base so you can see exactly what you are logging.
- Icon on home screen shows how many calories are left per day.
- You have to pay for app after the free trial.
- Limited functionality after the initial free period.
How to count calories
If you’ve read all the information I’ve given you and think that counting calories might be a viable option to help you lose weight, then now it’s time to talk about the main methods you should use.
My Fitness Pal is the most popular app used to count calories, so I’ll use it in my example.
Once you have downloaded the app and created yourself a profile, you will need to add in some basic information into the goals section, including your current weight, your target weight and the rate at which you wish to lose weight.
The app will also ask you to input your daily activity levels and how much and for how long you exercise each week. Adding these details allows the app to manipulate your daily calorie target, the more sedentary you are, the less calories you require per day and vice-versa.
It must be noted that all targets set are rough estimates, there is no equation that will work out the exact amount you should be eating per day, instead, it will give you a starting point, from which you can increase or decrease calories based upon results. All of this is something I calculate for my online personal training clients, in order to take as much of the stress out of weight loss process as possible.
Once all the details have been entered and you have a calorie target, it’s time to start entering your food. You can either add food as you eat it, plan what you will eat in advance or track at the end of the day. My advice is to use a mixture of the first two, as logging all your food at the end of the day can mean you have gone way under or way over your calories without any time to correct it. You are also more likely to forget exactly what you eat if you record your food retrospectively.
Logging your food is fairly simple, the main methods are as follows:
- Scan the barcode of the food you eat. The simplest method is to scan the food you eat as and when you eat it, obviously though this only works for foods that have a bar code.
- Perform a search. The next method is to use the search function and look for the food you want to enter. Many people add information regularly to My Fitness Pal, meaning the item of food may already be there.
- Add the food in manually yourself. The final option is to add the food in yourself by creating your own entry. You can input all the macros in or just go for the quick add option with the name of the food and the number of calories.
As mentioned in the cons section, you must be sure to check the nutritional value of the food, if you are using the information the other people have added. If you were to type in “apple” for instance, there are many entries all with different nutritional values.
Whilst calories are not the whole picture when it comes to nutrition and weight loss, for many people, counting calories is easier than understanding the complex effects food has on our bodies.
In the short term, counting calories can help you to understand more about what you are putting into your mouth and make any necessary adjustments you may need to help you lose weight.
Long term, I believe that if weight loss is to be successful, then you need to be able to adopt habits that are sustainable. Whether or not you count calories long term will ultimately hinge on whether or not you find the functionality of using an app a manageable long term habit.
Hopefully this article will help you to make an informed decision, as with most things, it is about finding what works for you.
(1) Kaiser Permanente. "Keeping A Food Diary Doubles Diet Weight Loss, Study Suggests." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 July 2008
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