You probably think calorie counting is an inevitable step on your fat loss journey.
We aren’t anti-calorie counting, it’s just not the only way to do it. The question is, is it the best way?
Let’s look at the pros and cons.
#1 - It’s an eye opener.
The main benefit of counting calories is you become more aware of the foods you eat.
As you learn how many calories some foods have compared to others, it opens your eyes to what types of food aren’t worth your time.
The more you know about the food you eat, the easier it is to make better choices.
#2 - You won’t do it forever.
It’s not that you can’t do it forever, it’s that you won’t.
It’s a lot of work.
This isn’t necessarily a major drawback. If you at least get to where you can estimate how many calories most foods have, that’s useful knowledge.
In this way, calorie counting can be a great tool to use for a few weeks. Unfortunately, many people can’t keep up with it for even that long.
#3 - You could be way off.
Even if you consistently track calories and get good at making estimates, there’s a good chance your calculations could be off by 20%. Possibly a lot more.
Unless you always eat the exact same thing, your estimates could be fine one day, and way off the next.
This can be frustrating when you think you’re eating enough to lose fat, but it doesn’t work out.
#4 - It gives you a baseline.
The fact that you’re trying to track your food intake is a good thing.
It might not be as accurate as you’d hoped, but having a baseline will give you a concept of the difference between a cup of strawberries (50-ish), and a cup of mixed nuts (800-ish).
And whether a dinner roll is really 100 or 150 calories, having a rough estimate can help you decide if it’s worth it or not.
#5 - It’s a calorie culture. (A)
Calorie info is widely available.
You can look at nutrition labels, online, or right on a menu.
If you do your own diet research, it’s almost impossible to get away from it.
Just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s the best. But it’s helpful to have the information you want so readily available.
#6 - It’s a calorie culture. (B)
Our culture’s obsession with calories and weight loss has led to unhealthy practices.
Just because you lose weight in a calorie deficit doesn’t mean you’re healthy. Here’s an extreme example:
If you need 1,500 calories a day to lose weight, you could have 7 candy bars, or a few small meals with a balance of protein, carbs, fat, and veggies.
Both will help you lose weight. Only one is good for you.
Don’t value calorie quantity over nutrient quality.
#7 - So many changes.
Calculating calories for fat loss isn’t a one time event — the number is always changing.
As you lose weight, you’ll have to cut calories more to continue losing fat.
At the same time, your metabolism may adapt to your calorie deficit by slowing down. How much this will happen is impossible to predict.
Your body might also adjust your physical activity. Your energy expenditure could go up or down, and you’ll be unaware that it’s happening.
All of these things complicate the idea of a simple math equation for determining how many calories to eat.
#8 - It’s easy to conceptualize.
Having a sharply defined number to work with is appealing.
As we’ve already seen, that number can be somewhat inaccurate, and will likely change at some point, but there’s no reason why you can’t adjust it as you go.
As long as you don’t mind staying on top of those adjustments, the guide of a specific calorie goal can be a successful strategy.
#9 - The daily accountability.
Tracking calories is like having a built-in accountability partner.
Whether you do it on your phone, or on paper, your notes will be staring back at you keeping you honest as you go about your day.
After a long day at work, they’ll let you know if the beer and chips you’re craving fit your calorie goal, or if they’re off limits.
#10 - It can take over your life.
If you’re not careful, that accountability can turn into oppression.
It takes a lot of calculating, tracking, double-checking, more calculating… it can take up so much space in your life that you become fixated on it.
If you find yourself having anxiety over 20 extra calories, or feeling guilt or shame when you don’t hit your mark, you need to try something else.
#11 - Too many formulas.
There are many ways to calculate how many calories you should eat.
Sometimes you have to figure in exercise activity, non-exercise activity, the types of foods you eat… the details can either help, or lead to inaccurate guess work.
You could get so bogged down in research that you never move on to actually counting calories.
#12 - Any formula could potentially work.
No formula is perfect. So you can just pick one and go with it.
That’s easier said than done, but if you realize adjustments will have to be made regardless, it takes some of the pressure off deciding which formula to use.
One of the easiest ways to do it is on the myfitnesspal app. Enter in the information it asks for and it’ll give you a calorie goal.
#13 - It’s easy to learn.
When you break it down, the fundamentals of calorie counting are very easy.
You have a goal number of calories for each day, and you simply add up the calories you eat as you go, making sure you don’t go over your goal.
Nothing anyone with a 3rd grade education couldn’t do.
#14 - It’s hard to implement sustainably.
Although it’s easy to learn, the longer you do it, the more difficult it is to execute.
It’s tedious work tracking calories for everything you eat all day, every day.
Then accounting for all the changes I’ve mentioned, learning how to calculate and recalculate as you go, knowing how to adapt without provoking negative effects… it can be frustrating to the point of making you quit.
#15 - The tricky science-y part.
A big criticism of calorie counting is that calories are not created equal. (This is because of thermogenesis.)
Here’s a simplified example:
If you eat 100 calories of an unprocessed protein (like chicken), a chunk of those calories will immediately be used up just to digest the food. You may only retain 70-80 of those calories.
Whereas, if you eat 100 calories of a processed high fat food (like store bought, boxed frozen cheesecake), you’ll retain almost all 100 of those calories.
It’s not quite that simple, but it does complicate the matter.
#16 - It’s still a good starting point.
Although the science behind point #15 is real, it’s not a deal breaker.
The types of food you eat will probably remain somewhat consistent. Which means the percentage of your total net calories will also be somewhat consistent.
Even if your diet changes, it will most likely happen over time, meaning this will simply take another adjustment as you go.
#17 — It’s great for “type-A” personalities.
If you’re the kind of person who loves organizing, categorizing, making lists, and managing details, counting calories may be a dream come true.
Just keep in mind, as much as you’d like to control everything in your life, certain things take priority, and tracking calories might not stay at the top of your list.
If it works for you, and you enjoy it, go for it. But if you find yourself falling off the calorie counting wagon, it’s time for another approach.
#18 - For other personalities, it sucks.
If you aren’t a highly organized individual, counting calories may prove to be too demanding.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever attempt anything structured. You might learn a lot from calorie counting if you commit to it even for a couple weeks.
As for a long-term solution, for you, this isn’t it.
The Final Assessment
I wanted to be fair in my assessment, so I intentionally gave you 10 pros and 10 cons to think about. But now I’ll share my personal bias in these last two points.
#19 - It works.
As much as it can be argued that calories in vs. calories out is too simplistic, these two things are technically true:
1. If you overeat, you’ll gain weight, even if it’s “healthy” food.
2. If you under-eat, you’ll lose weight, even if it’s with food that isn’t so great.
The second fact can cause more problems down the road, but it’s still technically true.
#20 - It’s flawed.
It’s such a complex process that, for the average person, I don’t recommend it — certainly not for extended periods of time.
If you want to become a professional fitness or figure competitor, it’s more necessary to track every calorie and every macronutrient.
If fitness is not your life, you don’t have time for all that.
For you, we recommend using the hand guide, which you can read about here.
After reading this list, it’s time to decide for yourself: is calorie counting right for you?