Tracking Calories – Sense or Nonsense?
You can diet without having any sort of knowledge. Counting calories is one of the oldest and easiest ways to regulate your weight. No background knowledge, just counting and simple mathematics. But is it also an effective way to lose weight?
To lose weight you must expend more energy than you take in. The energy in food is measured in calories (kcal). The basic formula for weight loss:
calories in vs. calories out = calorie deficit
If you take in 1700 kcal and you expend 2000 kcal you will have a deficit of 300 kcal.
Most diets recommend a deficit of 300 kcal per day for slow and maintaining fat loss. To lose 1kg of fat per week, you’ll need a deficit of about 1000 kcal per day. There are always exceptions because it’s all up to your metabolism function. Be careful, going too low in calories will slow your metabolism to a minimum. Your body will shut down important functions to save energy.
If you’ve ever been on a very low calorie diet, you might have noticed yourself freezing. Not to mention your non-existing sex drive and your bad emotional state. That’s your body shutting down functions to save energy.
There are various problems about the “calories in vs. calories out” method:
You can’t really calculate your energy output properly because the calculators aren’t reliable. The calculators can only give you a simple idea about your energy needs. You also can’t calculate the calorie input because every piece of food has a different content. E.g. the same kind of apple can have different nutrient contents, depending on the way it was cultivated, the season and the apple’s ripeness. Now imagine two different kinds of apples. In the end, you have to work with an average value of a basic “apple”. You can find nutritional value on the labels, but who knows if the labels are right?
Whenever you eat, not all calories get absorbed. If you eat nuts, you will notice that parts of them get excreted with your stool. The calories in the excreted portions were not absorbed and you can’t measure them. That also depends on digestion and gut health. Having a good gut flora might help you save calories.
By the way, digesting food also takes energy. It is a different amount for different food and even every person is different here.
And please, don’t say “calorie is a calorie”. It indeed makes a difference whether your body is breaking down calories from carbs, protein or fat.
Becoming obsessed about counting calories can be dangerous for your mind set. All you will see is numbers instead of wonderful food. Experts say that your body will regulate hunger and intake itself once you get enough micronutrients in.
But, there are also pros about counting calories:
It is fact that to lose weight you still must consume less energy than you expend! So, it’s not only about what we eat, but also about how much we eat. Counting calories is simply the most convenient way to keep record of what you eat. It can give you a limit to avoid overeating when you are surrounded by a lot of food. It simply helps you to stay on track.
With record-keeping and counting calories you get a feeling for how much you’re eating and what does and doesn’t satisfy you. It gives you a feeling for proper portion sizes and the nutritional value in different foods. You simply need to know how much protein a chicken breast has compared to your lentils.
Simply counting calories won’t do the job for you. If you have a good feeling for food and what you’re eating, you don’t need to count calories. The background knowledge is much more worthwhile than counting. But when you combine your knowledge with keeping records, it can be very powerful for your weight loss. Just keep a food diary for a few weeks and write down your daily weight and meals. You can try a tracking app (e.g. My Fitness Pal, LifeSum, My Diet Diary etc.). You don’t need to measure everything with a scale; it’s about getting the feeling for portions and daily intake.
The more serious it gets, e.g. you’re cutting weight for a competition, the more we recommend to keep record of what you eat and when. It is not just important to stay on track, but it’s also important to analyse mistakes and to adapt.