Does Calorie Counting Work?

Talk about a big topic, huh? Calorie counting is at the foundation of many popular diets including macros, keto, and of course a basic calorie counting plan focused on a set number, regardless of what the breakdown of nutrients is. However, a lot of research indicates that calorie counting is an inexact science at best, and downright incorrect at worst. Given that, does calorie counting work?

The Case Against Calories:

The FDA requires that any food label is within 20% of the actual calorie count of the food. First, that is a very large range. Imagine a 300 calorie protein bar. That could be as few as 240 calories, or as many as 360 calories in reality. Second, the FDA does not actual enforce this policy. It takes a competitor to sue a company in order for the actual calories to be found out. So they created this rule, and then don't follow it.

Additionally, the amount of calories in a food may be completely different than what is on a food label based on a variety of factors, including:

  • How the food is prepared (grilled, sauteed, steamed, raw, etc)
  • The speed with which you eat the food
  • Your attention during the meal
  • The combination of foods eaten at the meal
  • Whether you drink or eat the calories

So many things there to consider! This makes counting calories extremely difficult, overall. Consider yourself an extremely efficient calorie counter if you're within 20% of the actual number. Which you'll never even know. So what's the point?

Finally, even knowing how many calories you need is a bit of a crap shoot. You can get your basal metabolic rate (aka how many calories you burn before activity) in a given day measured through a device such as an Inbody, or via a fitness tracker like a Fitbit, Apple Watch, or WHOOP strap. However, these will typically give you an error rate of 10% - so if you burn 2,000 calories, you may actually only burn 1,800 or as many as 2,200. You get the picture - it's hard and you're never going to be exact.

The Case for Calorie Counting

Given all of the above information, why would you ever count calories and macros? One key word: consistency.

Consistency is the number one leading indicator of success in a nutrition plan. Most people have wild fluctuations in their daily consumption habits - one day they skip breakfast while following an intermittent fasting protocol, then the next day kick things off with a donut in the office. Or, throughout the week you may eat really clean with a focus on lean protein and produce. Then, Saturday rolls around, and it's chicken and waffles for breakfast, a sub sandwich at lunch, and pizza with your friends for dinner. Pretty inconsistent, isn't it?

Calorie counting creates a mechanism through which you are your own accountability partner. Your coach has told you exactly how much you're supposed to eat, and if you don't follow those numbers it's on you. By having a calorie or macronutrient goal each day, you have to log your food to ensure you're getting close to your numbers. Inevitably you fall into a routine and develop consistent habits. Consistent habits lead to long term results.

The other major factor is ability for coaching. If you do not track your food, your coach is going to be a lot less capable of helping adjust the choices you're making - even if that coach is you. You can't understand patterns of behavior, unhealthy choices, and the actions which are limiting your success unless there is a record to look back on.

What's the right answer?

Like most things, the right answer for does calorie counting work comes down to "it depends."

I hate giving that answer, but it is completely accurate in this situation. To illustrate this, let's consider two different goals for two different people.

One person has a vacation coming up, and she is all in on looking great on the beach. She wants to show off her hard work in the gym, and knows that getting nutrition dialed in is going to be the key to do this. Additionally, she has only 12 weeks to make this happen and has to be extremely accountable for her actions. With these goals, calorie or macro tracking is the best choice. Even if the calorie counting is not accurate, it will be consistent, and if we see the trend moving in the right direction we know the plan is working. Conversely, if the line is moving in the wrong direction, we know we need to adjust and can do so accordingly. Remember, it's not about the exactness of the calories and macros being consumed, but about the consistency of the consumption.

The second athlete is looking at a long term goal of a healthy relationship with food. He wants to go out to dinner with his family on Friday night, like they have the tradition of doing, and not stress out about his nutrition. It's also their family tradition to make a pancake breakfast at home and all hang out through Saturday morning. He is not concerned with getting ready for any event, but wants to optimize his health over the long haul. For this person, the right choice may not be macronutrient or calorie counting. He will be unable to count macros at the restaurant on Friday, and on Saturday the focus is on relationships, not on the weight of his pancake he's enjoying with his family while lounging around for a slow morning. Counting will just add unnecessary stress. Instead, the plan for this person is going to prioritize quality over concern for quantity. His focus will be on 90% of his diet coming from whole foods like sweet potatoes, lean protein, vegetables, fruit, and nuts and seeds. His Friday night and Saturday morning traditions leave enough flexibility to enjoy the processed foods in both environments stress free.

In summary...

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for the question of does calorie counting work. The best way to find your answer is to define a goal, get with your coach, and build the plan that will fit you best. This will take time, effort, and some trial and error to get perfect, but when you do you'll have a freedom around nutrition which is rare in today's hyper-scientific approach to something as simple and enjoyable as food.

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