I used to count calories in my head while I was running. I distinctly remember the feeling of pounding the pavement as I rounded the bend at the Hollywood reservoir trail adding up the sandwich I ate for lunch and the cereal I had for breakfast and subtracting the 380 calories I had burned in three and a half miles and wondering if I should do another loop so I could have dessert after dinner. It was a horrible feeling. I don’t wish compulsive calorie counting on anyone and that is why I want to share with you how I more mindfully track my nutrition now.
Calorie Counting is Only a Fraction of the Big Picture
I’ve spend a lot of time researching how to lose body fat and gain lean muscle (i.e. “get toned”). It’s my job, so I’ve done a ton of research, tried everything under the sun for myself and worked with a bunch of clients in the 10 + years I’ve been a trainer and here’s the bottom line: Calories matter, but there are a BUNCH of other factors that also matter to fat loss and muscle gain. Here are just a few: macro-nutrients, food quality, sleep, stress, hormones (that’s a BIG one), current muscle mass, genetics, intensity of exercise performed, mindset (yes, the way you think matters!), gut health. This list alone is enough to make your head spin and it’s only a partial list of all the factors that affect fat loss and body composition. Also, if there is anything certain I have learned in counseling people it’s the different approaches work for different people. You cannot tell someone to do something you do and expect them to get the same results you do. Just because it worked for you doesn’t mean you should write a book (or blog) telling everyone you found the definitive answer to fat loss, individuality matters.
Basic Take Away: Instead of only focusing on calories in and calories out, focus on creating healthy habits that will stay with you for a lifetime. Here’s how…
Just Calorie Counting Misses the Goal
Is your goal to lose weight and then balloon back up after you hit your target weight? If so, then maybe calorie counting is for you. This is what usually happens when people are focused on the scale and the calories in and out model, depriving themselves of food, obsessed with creating that deficit of calories. Most of my clients tell me that their goal is to permanently lose body fat, gain some muscle (or “tone up”- same thing really, but that’s a lot to get into right now), and feel good. Well, to accomplish those goals more than your calorie intake needs to be addressed. Some of my top priorities when helping people lose fat, gain muscle and feel good are: sleep, eating veggies, proper hydration, ample protein intake, exercise habits, mindset and food quality – just to name a few. Don’t get caught up in the hamster wheel of just calorie counting, instead make one SMALL goal each week to create a new habit. For example, cutting out soda, working out three times a week, only having dessert on Saturday night, or drinking 1/2 your body weight in ounces water daily. Once you have made one new action a habit, move on to the next small goal and don’t lose the previous one. Just calorie counting is not a sustainable practice (without going nuts), creating new healthy lifestyle habits is!
Calorie Apps and Exercise Calculators are Not Accurate
When I use a online app like My Fitness Pal to log my food I’m doing it for the purpose of accountability and to track my grams of protein, carbs and fat aka “macros”. I do pay attention to calories, in relation to my training intensity, but not without tracking grams and marcos. I also give myself a mental break from logging my food 1-2 days a week and just allow myself to “eyeball” the portions. I feel that wiggle room is good practice for keeping it real and giving me a chance to eat socially with friends on the weekends. Don’t bring a food scale to a potluck people – that’s just crazy!
I no longer log my workouts in the My Fitness Pal app. I do eat more on more intense workout days, but I got the pro version and it allows me to customize my macros on different days of the week. So for example Sundays are usually a non training day. I try to focus on just protein and veggie based meals and my carbs are low at 75 grams on non-training days. Mondays are my hard day I eat way more carbs and also overall calories on that day, Tuesday is a light day, I eat only slightly over my BMR, same as non-training days, but my carbs are slightly higher and my fat grams lower.
Another reason I don’t track calories in and out is if I put in that I did 60 mins of Muay Thai (kickboxing, tae kwon do, etc) it says I burned over 600 calories and then it allows me to eat 600 calories over my BMR. There are a few things wrong with this equation. First, I have seen people do a Muay Thai class for 60 minutes and barely punch the pads harder than a second grader and then I’ve seen people that go full retard on those pads and leave crawling out of class in a pool of their own sweat. How does the calculator know which one you were?
Also, unless you have had your lean body mass measured you don’t have an accurate number for your BMR. According to my hydrostatic weighing test (the gold standard of body composition testing) I have a BMR of about 1700 calories, which means that if I just sat at this laptop and typed all day I would still burn 1700 calories. This number is higher than your average 150 pound female because of my high lean body mass. However, I am still aware that this is an estimate (remember all those other factors for metabolism and fat loss I listed in the beginning) so I don’t go by it blindly. I also listen to my body and my hunger cues. If you just type in height and weight into the calculator chances are your BMR is off and so is your estimated activity/exercise expenditure, and therefore so is that calories in and out model you are trying so hard to fit.
Lastly, the calorie apps automatically set your goal percentage of macros to 60% carbs or something crazy like that. Unless you go in and manually customize your goals to different percentages, or get the pro version and have a professional help you with the macro grams, their formula is wack. I have had very few clients that can eat a 60% carb diet and lose body fat. There are exceptions to the norm, but not many. I customize mine to my training intensity, keeping with my motto of “earning my carbs”.
Remember that you have to play around with what works for you. That is another reason why I use the online calorie counters for my clients: trial and error. Everyone has their own “fat loss formula”. You need to track what you are eating to see what works for you.
“Earn Your Carbs” and Other Macro Basics
If all this talk of macros, percentages and BMR is ultra confusing to you start with this:
1) Eat .8 – 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily. This number should not change based on workouts or intensity*.
2) Aim for approx .5 grams of carbohydrate or slightly less per pound of body weight on non-workout days.
3) Increase carbs on training days to approx 1-2 grams per pound of body weight. Most gen pop will not go as high as 2 grams, but stay in the 1-1.5 grams per pounds of body weight range.
4) Eat some good fat at every meal, but don’t do overboard, if carbs increase fat will decrease slightly…
For example. On non-training days I eat 1850 calories 75 grams of carbs and 105 grams of fat. On light training days (technique lifting, low reps sessions, some sparring, heavy bag work, a tennis game, or some sprints) I will eat around 1850 calories, 150 grams carbs and 75 grams fat. Remember 1 gram fat = 9 calories, 1 gram carbs = 4 calories.
5) Get at roughly 30 grams of fiber per day (eat your veggies!)
6) Drink lots of water.
If you can master those four things you are ready to start tweaking things even more and maybe dive into supplements. But first just log your food, and get those basics down. You will learn a lot just from keeping a journal and focusing on creating new habits.
* I do find that since it’s so difficult for people to eat the right amount of protein, having one serving of a high quality whey protein daily (pre or post workout) is a simple fix. Just remember to space your protein servings out by at least 2 hours to optimize absorption.
Use calorie counting apps to track grams of carbs, fat and protein, to hold you accountable, and learn what foods have what composition so you are more informed. Don’t use the app’s calories in and out formula and expect to lose weight.
My pet peeve is that little box that pops up when you complete your entry on My Fitness Pal that says, “If you ate this way every day for 6 weeks, you’d weigh —-!” I just want to smack the screen when I see this. For so many reasons, it’s just not true.
If Calorie Counting Has Made You Crazy…
If you have ever uttered the words, “I just ate a slice of cake, so now I have to go for a run.” Then you know the depths of neurosis that calorie counting can do to a person. Don’t feel me on this? Maybe you are still in denial, but I hope I can help you snap out of it, because that kind of thinking can drive a person mad and no one needs to live like that. You really want cake. Fine. Eat it! No guilt, no excuses, no justification. Then, just go about your day as usual. Exercise is not a punishment, it’s a reward. Exercise is a celebration of having a healthy, strong, courageous body that can do amazing things. Eating should not be a cycle of binge, guilt, punish, repeat. We need to create healthy, positive habits we want to live with for the rest of our lives, not negative ones that make us feel like failures. If you have been calorie counting for some time and it’s causing you problems mentally and physically, I challenge you to lose your online food tracking login for a while, until you are full of self LOVE for your body and just keep a paper and pen journal. Focus on creating a positive mindset around your eating and exercise – the stress relief you get from you new way of thinking will help you get to your body comp goals faster than any 300 calorie workout.
This blog was updated on 6/8/2015 to Calorie Counting vs Macros – Previous Title was the Pitfalls of Calorie Counting