Calories: To Count Or Not To Count

There is a war going on outside, one that will once and for all decide the nutritional strategy of choice. Many have already chosen sides.

On one side of the battlefront, you have the calorie counters. They often look down on those who disregard the gospel of the numbers. The numbers don’t lie, and if you don’t count them then you’re lying to yourself. On the other side you have the intuitive eaters. They often look down on the calorie counters who haven’t mastered the Zen that is their body, and therefore spend day and night obsessing over food. Food is food, and treating it like it isn’t will only lead you down a dark, dark road.

Ok, so maybe it isn’t that epic, but my description is not too far from the truth, as I’ve seen enough debate on internet forums regarding this very subject to know that these e-streets can get pretty scary. I just have one question for everyone – can’t we all just get along? Both camps have something to offer, so there is no point in vilifying one strategy in order to make another appear more valid.

The calorie counters

I can’t even begin to think about considering the thought of saying that the counters don’t tend to get great results, because they do. Wanna know why? Because they respect the caloric deficit, and when it comes to fat loss this is one fundamental principle that cannot be avoided. They’re like the Navy Seals of the nutritional world – they get in, handle their business, and then get out quick fast and in a hurry.

They also take away one of the main excuses people use to justify their lack of results. When you’re in a deficit, you’re in a deficit – there are no ifs, ands or buts about it. I’m sure we all know at least one person who swears up and down that they are “eating so healthy” but still fail to lose the weight that they so desperately want to lose. I certainly commend them for cleaning up their diet, but if their goal is fat loss they first and foremost must align their food intake with their daily or weekly energy expenditure, and calorie counting is a useful strategy to achieve this end.

The intuitive eaters

As someone who ascribes to this style of eating 99% of the time, I can say that there is something liberating about not having to keep count of every little macro nutrient that goes into my mouth. Intuitive eaters as a whole tend to have a pretty healthy relationship with food – they treat it like food and not as calories. This style of eating has a pretty steep learning curve as it takes awhile to adjust portion sizes, food choices and other variables in order to line them up with with ones goals and individual responses, but once a person is dialed in it takes little effort to maintain. While intuitive eaters don’t count calories per se, through portion control and certain food choices their calories are definitely controlled.

Is there room for both?

There is certainly room for both, but many people see it as more of a battle between the two ideologies rather than two halves of the greater whole. Which one is best for you? It all depends, as there are pitfalls and benefits to both strategies. Are you a goal oriented person who likes to achieve their results in the fastest way possible, no matter the difficulty? Do you need to achieve quick results in a short amount of time? Then calorie counting could be just what the Doc ordered.  Create a menu, calculate the calories/macro nutrients and call it a day. Most restaurants these days offer caloric information online or in-house, so that works in your favor as well. Many physique athletes, models and Hollywood actors who need fat loss in a hurry, or who have to achieve a very low level of body fat have people who handle their nutrition for them, and while they themselves may not count their calories, you better believe that someone is doing it for them – when money is on the line, results can’t be left up to chance.

There are some people who, by counting calories, could do more harm than good for. If you find yourself obsessing over the numbers to the point of seriously stressing out, then I would give intuitive eating a try. Also, if you’re using calorie counting as an excuse to justify eating jelly beans, marshmallows or something equally as foolish all day as long as you stay in a caloric deficit, do yourself a favor and stop – in the end you’ll do more harm than good.

Are you the kind of person who likes to experiment and get in tune with your body? Are you more relaxed about the deadline for achieving your fat loss goals? Are you simply trying to clean up your diet and eat healthier. Then intuitive eating might be best for you. While it does take some getting used to, there are ways to tweak and adjust in order to keep you on track to hit your target. Are you eating healthy food and still not losing weight? Check your exercise intensity and frequency. Still not seeing results? Drop your food intake a bit. Rinse and repeat. Those who are successful without counting calories are doing just that. Besides, once you reach your fat loss goal, you should have learned enough to never have to count another calorie again.

If you are the kind of person who isn’t willing to put in the necessary time and effort into adjusting your portions, exercise intensity, food choices and other variables often in order to start to see results, then intuitive eating may not  be for you. If you are someone who is prone to emotional eating binges, then calorie counting may be something for you to attempt in trying to get such urges under control.

It doesn’t matter if you want to lose fat, build muscle or just maintain your current physique In the end these strategies are just two more tools in a tool box and should be treated as such. Don’t use a hammer when you need a screwdriver, and don’t use a blowtorch when a welding gun will suffice. Both work, but it all depends on your goals, commitments, and what you are willing to sacrifice.

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Comments

  1. Jack says

    Roger,

    Where would you categorize someone who typically prepares the lion’s share of his meals and weighs out portions and shoots for macronutrient targets as the way of manipulating kcal intake? This isn’t calorie counting per se, but it clearly isn’t intuitive eating, either.

    I often find myself weighing out portions as I prepare them, since it takes 2 seconds…………..oddly enough, I often am spot on in portion size when I randomly dole out a portion and then weight it, plus I have a good handle on how much is in a particular food. And yet I seemingly don’t trust myself to “wing it,” and thus I end up giving it a quick weigh. It’s a habit I suppose I need to break at some point.

    Do you see this as problematic, or is it reasonable to say that if I am preparing something myself and the scale is right there, then a quick weigh is not a problem. I find it is supremely effective at allowing me to produce a desired result at will, plus it makes budgeting for my groceries a snap, as an ancillary benefit.

  2. says

    Hey Jack,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    If I had to categorize someone like that, I would put them somewhere in the middle between the two. They don’t count calories per se, but they use portion control as a way to indirectly control their caloric intake. In the end though, I wouldn’t worry about categorizing as long as you’ve found something that works for you and aren’t married to a certain strategy.

    I don’t view this as problematic at all, Jack. In fact, when I’m trying to lean out, meal prep and the scale is one of the first things that I bring back into my overall plan. The only way it would be problematic is if it were causing you some serious stress, or if you wanted to move away from what you were doing but couldn’t because of fear of losing control.

    It sounds like you want to try and move away from using the scale all the time though, so if that’s true then I suggest giving something like this a try: For a few days out of the week, or maybe an entire week or two if you’re feeling particularly brave, try and just “eye-ball” your portion sizes. From what I’ve gathered, you have a pretty good handle on things so I think this could be a great way test the waters and see how you feel about it. Besides, whats the worst that can happen in a week or two? Nada!

    Keep me posted on how everything works out for you.

    – Rog

  3. says

    MediaCurves.com conducted a study on 402 viewers of a news clip featuring restaurants that provide nutritional information to their customers. Results found that the majority of respondents (84%) reported that restaurants should be required to list nutritional information. The study revealed that 60% of respondents indicated that requiring all restaurants to list nutritional information would help to decrease the national obesity rate.
    More in depth results can be seen at:
    http://www.mediacurves.com/HealthCare/J7577-CalorieCounting/Index.cfm
    Thanks,
    Ben

    • says

      Hey Ben,

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing this. I think it would be great if more restaurants provided nutritional information, but then again I also wonder how many people would take advantage of it. In the end though, its all about giving people choices and letting them do with it what they may, and this would be a great step towards achieving that end.

      – Rog

  4. says

    Excellent article Rog! Diet and transformation is not even close to as black and white as many fat loss experts claim it to be. It’s great to see another fitness blogger who has an open mind and takes a variety of views into consideration.

    I feel that calorie counting is an incredible education. It’s not something that you have to do for the long term, but it can be a huge eye opener if you are unaware of how many calories you are consuming in a day.

    I like how Tom Venuto labeled the different levels of consciousness about the foods that we eat… http://www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2010/02/how-to-go-from-calorie-clueless-to-calorie-competent.php

    Most of the time I am at Unconscious Competence. I don’t “need” to count calories because unconsciously I know that I am right around where I should be for the day. But I got to this stage because I put in some time to record what I was consuming.

    Getting absolutely ripped typically requires a more focused attention on the calories for myself. I actually enjoy the process… which is what is really important. Different strokes for different folks. You can arrive at a certain destination by taking a variety of different roads.

    Keep up the great writing. I’m really enjoying it.

    • says

      Hey Scott,

      Thanks for stopping by, and you definitely hit it right on the head with calorie counting. It’s just a tool (an effective tool nonetheless) that can be used to get you on track, hold you accountable to your goals, and if nothing else really open your eyes to the reality of the situation. It’s easy to have a ton of reasons as to why you’re not where you want to be when you have no objective data to track it!

  5. says

    I like this post. I think these approaches to fat loss need to be pointed out because they are the honest truth. Personally speaking I can say that I started off counting calories. It really helped me learn the portion control that is essential in being an intuitive eater. Now, I don’t need to. It is second nature to me.

    Whenever I start out with a client I always ask whether or not they are comfortable with counting calories. If they are, we go down that road. But if not, I don’t even think about it. I find other ways to teach them portion sizing and eating just the right amount. Like you said a lot of people can get obsessive so everyone should pay attention to the signs.

    I like reading your posts Rog. We have similar ways of thinking in regards to nutrition and fitness. I’ve now started going back into your archives to read up on all the great things I’ve missed. Keep it up man.

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