Calorie Counting: Grab Your Diet By The Cojones

And so we have arrived at the conclusion (or is it just the beginning? Watch in awe as I twirl my curly mustache!) of my body transformation trinity that will undoubtedly go down in history as the most comprehensive treatise ever written on the subject.

Or not.

In the last two posts, I discussed caloric intake starting points as well as macronutrient recommendations depending on what your particular goals were. Now, it is high time that we tackle a subject that is, at least initially, absolutely paramount to your success. That’s right, I’m talking about the dreaded calorie counting.

When I bring up this topic to people who have never counted calories before, more often than not, they drop kick me in the chest and run off screaming bloody murder. All joking aside, many view calorie counting as an annoying, time consuming task that they want as little to do with as humanly possible. And I don’t blame them. As a society, we are becoming busier by the second, and with more and more to keep up with, I can see why people rebel against adding this to their to-do list.

But guess what? If you’re really as committed to your fitness and body composition goals as you say you are, then you have to come to terms with this one fact: if you don’t know how much you’re eating, then you’re just guessing. Notice that I didn’t say what you’re eating, but how much, because the devil isn’t so much in what kinds of foods you eat (although thats important, too), but how much of it. You can eat what are deemed the “cleanest” and “healthiest” foods in the world, and while you may be covered from a micronutrient and phytochemical standpoint, if you can still grab a fist full of fat and aren’t happy with the way you look, chances are you’re simply eating too much for your activity level.

Now that you’re committed to holding yourself accountable for your intake, I’m going to provide you with the only tool that you’ll need to do so, and in the process show you that tracking doesn’t have to be as hellacious as some make it out to be, but instead will put you on the fast track towards sexification.

Tools of the trade

I’m sure that we all know at least one person who can’t lose or gain weight no matter how hard they try. They swear that they are eating all the time, hardly eating at all or some variation of the two. More often than not, this person isn’t intentionally trying to mislead you or themselves, but the fact of the matter is that they’re just horrible at playing the estimation game. They are using their subjective mind to gauge how much they are eating and how hard they are working in the gym, but research has shown that people tend to misreport both their food intake and exercise intensity.

So whats the solution?

Enter the digital food scale.

Since we now know that we initially can’t be trusted to accurately measure our own food intake, we need an objective tool to help take our emotions and feelings out of the equation, and the food scale is just that tool. My good friend Leigh Peele created an eye-opening video demonstrating just how off people can be when left to their own devices, even when they have the best intentions.

Digital food scales are relatively cheap and are a worthwhile investment to have in your kitchen. I personally use a $25 Escali, but click here to view a list of other scales to give yourself some options.

There Will Be Nuts

But enough talk. We’re now about to use an actual example of a food that people tend to overeat by mistake: nuts. While great from a health standpoint as they provide a nice blend of the different kinds of fats, nuts also pack a huge punch from a calorie standpoint. Lets check the stats:

As you can see, 1 serving of walnuts (30 g according to the food label) contains a whopping 20 g of fat. Now lets take a look at how a this serving actually looks in the real world:

Not much, huh? That’s not even a handful, but when you consider that the average person just reaches into a bag with reckless abandon and goes nuts with the Planters, you start to see how this kind of dietary digression can quickly start to derail any chance you have of achieving your fat loss goals.

Now let’s see what happens when I just reach my hand into the bag and come out with the goods:

Well would you look at that! At 67 g, I came out with more than double the serving size and I wasn’t even trying to go overboard. This is only one example, but are you starting to see how this happening to you several times a day could cause you some problems?

Remember when I said that counting calories would be a lot easier than you made it out to be? Here is where I make good on that promise.

In my last post I provided you with a breakdown of how many calories a gram(g) of each macronutrient has, so here it is again for your convenience and viewing pleasure:

1g protein = 4 calories
1g carbohydrate = 4 calories
1g fat = 9 calories

So, using our nuts example from above, lets calculate how many calories are in 1 serving of walnuts by using these numbers.

20g fat x 9 = 180 calories
2g carbohydrate x 4 = 8 calories
5g protein x 4 = 20 calories

Total calories for 1 serving of walnuts = 208

As a side note, when counting carbs, you want to make sure that you subtract fiber grams from that total number as they don’t contribute a significant amount of calories anyway. For instance, in the above example there were actually 4g of total carbs, but I subtracted the 2g of fiber to arrive at the final number of 2g that I used in the calculation.

And that’s how the game is played, my friends. Instead of counting calories per se, you would instead count grams of protein, fat and carbohydrate, which is a lot less stressful and infinitely more manageable than meticulously adding up each and every calorie.

Common Pitfalls And How To Avoid Them

Back in the day, when I was eating tons of chicken breast/thighs, nuts and an assortment of other foods, I had no concept of portion OR calorie control. I really thought that the magic was in avoiding certain foods and as long as I did that, I would be ripped to shreds like a bad report card in no time flat. Needless to say I was wrong a sin, but I want you to learn from my mistake instead of repeating them like a foolish mortal.

Pitfall #1 – Overcomplicating things

Solution – Simplify, simplify, simplify. If you’re weighing a food item, the serving size is based on the form that the product is in when you buy it. For example, if you’re rollin’ through the grocery store and pick up a package of raw ground beef, you would grab a handful of meat, find the serving size and weigh it in its uncooked form. Meat will always weigh less after being cooked, so if you’re going to weigh it cooked, I would cut the serving size in half to account for the water & fat lost during the cooking process.

Example: 4 oz of raw beef = 2-2.5 oz cooked

Leaner meats, such as chicken breast, tend to weigh closer to their raw serving size than fattier meats (think 80/20 ground beef).

If you’re a pasta lover, take heed of this advice as it will save you some tears down the road. A typical serving of pasta is 2 oz measured dry, which is actually a pretty decent amount, but those who are pasta eaters really LOVE THEIR PASTA and rarely tend to eat just 1 serving, or even know what that serving looks like. Welp, now that I’ve gotten that admission of pasta induced self guilt out of the way, let’s move right along!

Pitfall #2 – Being a slave to the scale

Solution – Keep it in perspective. The scale is a tool to keep you accountable to yourself and nothing more. If you’re working towards your goals just fine without it, then good. If you’re not, then stick with it for a week or two, which is a small amount of time in the grand scheme of things. Over time you’ll find that you’re able to reliably size up portions of food with your eyes like you’re in The Matrix or something. As you gain more experience and start to move away from relying on the scale for as much you did in the past,  people will start to notice and become mad jealous of your newfound abilities. If you play your cards right, you might even get invited to the local diner for a malt with all the cat daddys and groovy chicks. True story.

Pitfall #3 - Too anal

Solution – Relax. Breath. Fat loss is certainly an emotional undertaking, so don’t make it more of one by making it harder than it needs to be. You don’t need to weigh your broccoli, spinach, cauliflower or green beans. However, be careful more starchier veggies such as carrots and peas as they tend to have less fiber in them per gram of carbohydrate in each serving and that adds if you go overboard up.When in doubt, use one of the sites below to check up on your veggie of choice and if you notice that it has a lot of carbs relative to fiber, keep an eye on overdoing them.

Having said that, if thinking about it too much is causing you to fall deeper into this pitfall, let it go. I’ve never seen someone who was overweight because they ate too many veggies.

Superior Tech!

I want to wrap this up by giving you my go to websites when I want to get all sexy with watching my intake. I don’t do it very often anymore, but it’s good to have when I want quickly reference a food or create an intake trend to keep myself on track when I’m going after a new goal.

Fitday – This is the most user friendly site that I’ve seen so far. Wanna know the best part? It’s free to sign up, and it even lets you enter your own custom foods that aren’t on the list – win!

USDA Nutrient Database – This is for those that wanna get down to the nitty gritty and know everything and more about a food. Fitday actually uses information from this database, and while this site is nowhere near as sexy as Fitday, its worth checking taking a peek at.

So, how are you feeling? Great? Overwhelmed? If you feel like I’ve left something out or you have any questions, please leave a comment so I can address your concerns directly. Even if you don’t have any questions, come on by and share how you keep track of your intake and how its going for you.

Photo Credit: Michele Eve Photography

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Comments

    • says

      You are one lucky mofo. I read that article while I was writing this too, but figured it was still a valid enough example to convey the concept of watching your overall intake. I’m one of those guys who gets fat off the nuts…but that’s because I don’t change the rest of my intake at all =D

  1. Ben Stockton says

    Roger,

    I must confess that even years after initially starting to use my digital scale, I still use it for quickly weighing almost all portions of food that are not fibrous vegetables. While some may be quick to label me as neurotic, I find that it only takes literally seconds to weigh food (even though my estimation skills are quite good when I have tested them against pre-weighed portions) and with items like frozen berries, it ensures that I am always spot on with matching what I buy in the store to what I am consuming. If anything, popping stuff on the scale when I am the one preparing it is more reflex than anything else.

    Your tip about frozen vs. cooked meat and serving size is a very useful. I’m not sure why I never used that as my rule of thumb. For some reason I went to that USDA database, looked at cooked servings sizes and values for various protein sources and have been going by that as my ballpark estimate for years.

    I suppose in the end it matters not, as my intake, regardless of actual serving size remains very consistent, so inevitably I was bound to find my intake sweet spot by noting current consumption vs. scale weight, tape measurements, visuals (pictures/mirror), and what have you.

    • says

      It sure does turn into a habit, doesn’t it? I still use my scale today, mainly on carb items like raisins and pasta because I’ve been known to go overboard on such foods. It’s only when people get actually scared about being away from their scale (i.e. at a restaurant or social gathering) that it becomes a problem.

      • Ben Stockton says

        I find that the scale keeps me honest most of the time so that when I do have various detours, be it out at a restaurant or simply choosing to add in the occasional “unscheduled/unweighed” portion it doesn’t even matter. But then again I have gotten to a point where I’m in that range that would require a fairly major mental lapse to go on the sort of multi-day binge that might make any sort of noticeable negative impact on my physique.

        Dare I say that using the scale is less about the food and more a microcosm of how I have always operated in my life. Is it any wonder that as a youngster, I was partial to “Mr. Roboto” by Styx? For now I will simply comfort myself by claiming the scale gets used because it sits in the kitchen right where I prepare most of my meals……………but I will remain on guard against any potentially encroaching neuroses.

  2. says

    Rog:

    Great post. I’ve been promoting calorie counting for years. Qualitative changes in nutrition, by and large, don’t work. Sure, in the early stages, it might produce some weight loss. Simply “eating clean” or “eating healthy” isn’t enough if you want to loss more than about 2-3% of your body weight.

    I’ve always like Alan Aragon’s approach: figure out what you want to weigh (realistically), and then eat for that weight. If you want to weigh 180 lbs., then eat like a 180 lb. guy. 180×10=1800 calories daily. Add 1 calorie per pound for every hour of exercise you do each week. 3 hours per week would be 13 calories per pound (180×13). It’s simple.

    I’m going to re-post your post on my blog.

    Good stuff.

    • says

      So true, P.J. If someone’s diet is complete crap, then making qualitative changes, for the most part, will work for awhile simply because by moving to more of a whole food based diet they end up reducing their overall calories a bit. In the long run though, unless they are super diligent with portion control and constantly adjusting it based on their progress (which can take a helluva long time), the changes they make will be minimal.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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