Conventional wisdom says if you want to lose weight, you just need to ‘maintain a calorie deficit’ and sustain a negative calorie balance.
- ‘It’s all about calories in vs calories out (CICO).’
- ‘Just balance your calories, and you’ll lose weight.’
- ‘Weight loss is easy if you just know how to count calories accurately,’ they say.
Energy balance sounds so seductively simple, but the reality couldn’t be more complicated!
Yes, calories count—but only if you can always count all those calories perfectly (which you can’t).
Numerous factors on both sides of the ‘calories in vs calories out’ equation make it incredibly complex.
As you will learn in this article, maintaining a perfect caloric balance, precisely and accurately managing both sides of the energy balance equation, is impossible.
- So, is there any value in tracking your food?
- Is counting calories a complete waste of time?
- If not, how can I accurately count calories?
- When is nutrition tracking helpful?
Simply counting calories and trying to limit them to some arbitrary number is practically useless in the long term.
Aside from the inaccuracies on both sides of the calories in vs calories out equation, your body will always find a way to get the nutrients it requires to survive.
However, tracking your food can help you to manage what you eat to increase satiety.
Once you work out how to give your body what it needs, your appetite will settle down, your metabolism will ramp up, and you will be much more likely to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
This article will explain how we have guided 2,799 people in our Macros Masterclass and Micros Masterclass to fine-tune what they eat, which has a direct impact on how much they eat. Keep reading to learn more.
- Why Is Caloric Balance Important?
- Counting Calories In
- How Do You Calculate Calories Eaten Accurately?
- Counting Calories Out
- Counting Calories Can Keep You Accountable
- How Your Body Adapts to Long-Term Calorie Counting
- What Is the Easiest Way to Count Calories?
- Precision vs Accuracy with Calorie Tracking
- So, Is Calorie Counting a Waste of Time?
- Not All Calories Are Created Equal
- Counting Macros vs Counting Calories
- Tracking Your Micronutrients vs Counting Calories
- Counting Calories Is Directionally Accurate
- Plan Ahead When Tracking Calories
- When Is Tracking Your Food Helpful?
- So, Is Counting Calories Pointless?
Why Is Caloric Balance Important?
To see what all the commotion around tracking calories is about, we must understand why balancing calories is even necessary.
In accordance with the first law of thermodynamics, energy cannot be created, nor can it be destroyed.
If we apply this to food, we will have to dip into the energy stored in our bodies to compensate for eating less than our activity requirements, and voilà, fat loss!
Similarly, a long-term positive energy balance would result in weight gain, which has been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other metabolic disorders.
If we eat fewer calories than we are expending, this will force our bodies to break down stored fat and glucose for fuel to compensate for the energy we’re not getting from food. This would allow us to move towards our weight loss goals effectively.
While this sounds simple, the reality is much more complex.
Counting Calories In
First, let’s look at the ‘calories in’ side of the equation. It is arguably easier to track because it focuses on things outside the body we can see, measure, and control with some degree of accuracy. As you will see, there are still plenty of complexities, though.
The first obstacle is that your body doesn’t ‘burn’ food like a bomb calorimeter does when it measures your food’s energy for labelling purposes.
Second, the energy produced when you burn food is not proportional to the amount of energy produced when you digest food. This is because your digestive tract and the multiple processes involved in energy production (e.g., beta-oxidation, glycolysis, gluconeogenesis, Krebs cycle, etc.) are very different from a lab-run furnace that burns food to generate and measure heat.
Thus, absorption is not 100% efficient, nor is energy production through these bodily processes. We have estimated yields, but the number of calories measured in food through bomb calorimetry can only ever approximate the energy your body will extract.
Food labelling also introduces a significant margin of error. The FDA allows food companies plus or minus 20% in food labelling. This can substantially affect your weight loss goals, given that you’re probably only targeting a 15% deficit.
Food manufacturers are also allowed to round calories down. When labels are based on serving sizes, rounding an already small number down can result in zeros showing on the label when this is not actually the case.
Additionally, how many people weigh and track everything they eat? And even if you do, do you occasionally sneak a bit of extra peanut butter when you lick the spoon or have you added milk in your coffee that doesn’t go on the scale?
It takes a lot of time and effort to be precise with every morsel of food that goes into your mouth.
Most people don’t successfully keep up with tracking over the long term, and many of those that do get a little neurotic about it after a while.
While we like to think we are in control of what we put in our mouths, there seems to be something embedded deep within our psyche that rebels against our conscious efforts to override our natural appetite, urges, and cravings.
We also notoriously underreport food intake. Studies have shown that even dieticians underreport by more than 200 calories per day, while the general population underreports by a massive 400 calories per day.
We also like to think we are a little better than we are (optimism bias). Our subconscious reptilian brain, which is in charge of keeping us alive, usually finds a way to get us to eat more than our conscious mind (neocortex) would like us to, especially if we’re hungry after dieting successfully for a while.
How Do You Calculate Calories Eaten Accurately?
Although it’s easier to track what’s coming in, there are usually too many factors working against you to measure it accurately 100% of the time.
Whether it be your digestive capabilities, the number of calories in a food, or the underreporting factor, it’s impossible to track calories perfectly.
If you’re going to track your food, it’s best to be consistent with whatever method you choose so you can alter your practices accordingly.
Counting Calories Out
While the ‘calories in’ side of the equation is complex, the ‘calories out’ side is even messier!
This depiction of the biochemical pathways in the human body will give you a taste of what is happening inside you. Note: These pathways depend on adequate micronutrients — or vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids — to function.
To lose weight, a 15% deficit below this amount is typically calculated to set someone’s target intake. If you start eating to reach your new calorie target, there is a real chance you will be ignoring your innate hunger cues and eating more than you would otherwise have eaten because you now have a goal to satisfy.
Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is made up of your basal metabolic rate (BMR or BEE), the thermic effect of food (TEF), and your physical activity (PA). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) and exercise make up your physical, with the latter not accounting for much in most people. If you’re injured or sick, there are additional factors to include.
- As you lose weight, your BMR and NEAT will reduce as your body adapts to conserve energy. You will stop producing as much heat, and you will stop fidgeting and using up so much excess energy from other involuntary movements to save the energy you didn’t eat from that extra helping of dessert last night.
- Irrespective of your metabolism down-regulating, you will need less energy as you become smaller. So, you will need to reduce your calorie target to keep losing weight.
- Your TEF varies based on the macronutrient content of your food. Protein generates more heat during processing (20-35%), followed by carbs (5-15%), then fat (3-15%). Although we know these factors, protein’s ‘metabolic advantage’ is not usually accounted for in your calorie counts. Calories from protein, carbs, fat, and fibre are generally treated as equivalents, which is a gross oversimplification.
We like to think we are super active, but the reality is that most of us are sedentary most of the time. We see the number of calories our Fitbit or Strava tells us we burned and add that to our daily calorie allocation. We then tell MyFitnessPal that we had a tough workout, allowing us to eat back those calories.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a 2016 study showed that activity tracker use made people less likely to lose weight!
Aside from these factors, your stress levels, the amount of sleep you get, where you’re at on your monthly cycle (if you’re a woman), and even the amount of water you drink can influence the ‘calories out’ side of this equation.
For more on the fascinating topic of the female hormonal cycle and nutrition, see Blood Sugar, Insulin and What to Eat for Each Phase of Your Monthly Menstrual Cycle.
Hence, the ‘calories out’ side of the equation is an ever-changing moving target that is hard to quantify.
Counting Calories Can Keep You Accountable
Tracking your food makes you more mindful of what you eat and helps you make better choices. If you record what you eat, you might be a little more thoughtful, knowing you have to log it in Cronometer or take a photo of it. You may also think twice before that second helping of your favourite indulgence!
Tracking your food enables you to keep a tally of what you ate. Regardless of whether or not you accurately weighed and measured everything that went in your mouth, this is a valuable tool for self-reflection.
In any study, we see the Hawthorn effect (observer effect), where people modify their behaviour because they know they’re being watched. By tracking your food, you are harnessing the power of the observer effect.
People often lose significant weight in the first week of our Macros Masterclass when they are meant to be tracking their baseline diet. While this may be initially encouraging, it often doesn’t last if we don’t change what we eat. Our cravings will eventually take over.
How Your Body Adapts to Long-Term Calorie Counting
When the body perceives starvation — which is what calorie restriction effectively is — it goes into ‘power save’ mode to minimise the amount of energy it’s expending.
The thyroid, reproductive (sex hormones), and adrenal glands are some of the first to lower their energy output. These systems are critical for ‘stoking the fire’ of your metabolism. As a result, you may feel increasingly tired and cold. The longer your calorie restriction continues, the more significant it may be.
Monitoring your weight loss and calorie deficit alongside one another can ensure you don’t lose too much weight too quickly and avoid those side effects. Your body has somewhat of a threshold for how fast it can release the energy it has stored away. Once this is exceeded, your body’s internal alarms will sound, and you may see changes in sleep, mood, hormone balance, and cravings. You may also see a decrease in muscle mass or tone as your body begins to catabolise its lean muscle to account for the energy difference.
In our Macros Masterclass, we guide people to dial in their macros to achieve between 0.5 and 1.0% weight loss per week. Unfortunately, while rapid fat loss might sound attractive, it’s rarely sustainable for long, and people feel like more of a failure when they end up in a rebound binge.
If you find you’re not sleeping, your cravings are kicking up, or you’re colder and tired, it may be your body’s way of saying it’s time to back off and work to maintain your weight for a while before pushing again later. While it might seem counterintuitive, increasing your calories for a bit might keep your progress from stalling or going backwards over the long term.
For more details on the perils of rapid fat loss, see Secrets of the Nutrient-Dense Protein Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF) Diet.
What Is the Easiest Way to Count Calories?
The best and easiest way to count calories is to download the Cronometer app and begin logging your food.
Not only does Cronometer keep track of your calorie intake, but it also monitors your macronutrient and micronutrient intake. In addition, Cronometer has access to most nutrition databases, which gives you the most valid, up-to-date details of what calories, macros, and micros are in the foods you’re eating.
Other food trackers like MyFitnessPal and Lose It aren’t as accurate in all disciplines because they’re more focused on calories and macros without the ability to dial in your micronutrients.
Precision vs Accuracy with Calorie Tracking
Just because food tracking is not accurate or reliable does not mean it is always useless. It can still be of service if you are precise when tracking.
The image below helps explain the difference between accuracy and reliability (precision). Our estimation of our food intake doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate to be useful.
Let’s consider the target in the top left corner (i.e., accurate and reliable). Because of the inaccuracies in food labelling, it’s unlikely you will be entirely accurate and reliable in your food tracking. While most people expect this from their tracking, it, unfortunately, doesn’t occur in the real world.
Because of the various inaccuracies in food labelling mentioned above, we are unlikely ever to be accurate. Thus, it would be unlikely that we’d be accurate and unreliable (top right target).
A bodybuilder who consumes a regimented diet and weighs and measures everything they eat in preparation for a contest will likely be inaccurate and reliable (bottom left corner). They will eat similar things every day for weeks to months, with only minor modifications to ensure they keep moving forward. Even though their calorie estimation is not accurate, they are reliable. Thus, their food tracking data is valuable. You can think of this as an ‘offset’ from inaccurate measurements.
If you don’t weigh and measure everything all the time, you may be inaccurate and unreliable (bottom right target). While not as powerful, this data can still be helpful.
It’s worth mentioning that developing a regular eating routine without too much variety—as is the case with most bodybuilders—is helpful to maximise sensory-specific satiety. So, constant novelty and variety will always cause you to eat more, making it harder to be reliable or accurate.
In our Macros Masterclass and Micros Masterclass, we guide Optimisers to develop a shortlist of 30 meals and 30 foods they love eating that align with their goals. We call this their Optimal 30/30. Once they have this locked in, they are much more likely to be able to survive in the real world without relying on weighing and measuring every morsel that passes their lips.
So, Is Calorie Counting a Waste of Time?
To recap, food tracking is never perfectly accurate and often unreliable.
Because your body continually adapts, the ideal calorie target for you at any time is a moving target! But fortunately, this isn’t a problem we can’t manage.
Unless your income depends on reaching an unnatural and unsustainable level of body fat, there is some value in listening to your appetite and cravings to ensure you’re getting the macronutrients and micronutrients you need.
At some point, you probably want to eat ‘normally’ again and maintain your progress without such a disciplined approach that fights against your instincts. But in the meantime, you can use some modern tools to retrain your appetite and build new healthy habits around food.
Not All Calories Are Created Equal
Although we must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight, we now know that refining our macronutrient intake and prioritising protein can have a profound effect on feeling full and restricting our calories. While this has been a well-known theory in the bodybuilding community, our recent satiety analysis has proven it true.
Aside from your macronutrients, how many micronutrients you’re consuming (or not) significantly influences how well you can control your appetite and stay full on an energy deficit.
If you give your body what it needs to function, it will be less likely to retaliate angrily with uncontrollable cravings!
A calorie is simply a unit of measurement we use to show how much energy a piece of food contains. It does NOT say anything about the micronutrient content of food or how many vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids it contains.
We know that foods with a higher percentage of their total calories from protein are more nutrient-dense and satiating because they contain more vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids per calorie. Per our detailed satiety analysis, these factors influence feelings of fullness the most.
If your goal is to lose fat, you must reduce the energy you’re consuming from fat and non-fibre carbohydrates while consuming adequate nutrients like vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids.
Counting Macros vs Counting Calories
Tracking your macros is invaluable for managing your diet’s satiety value. Left to our own devices, we instinctually gravitate towards an ‘autumnal’ macronutrient profile (top left diagram below) that combines carbs and fat and promotes weight gain.
To ensure you’re getting enough protein and staying away from the fat-and-carb danger zone, it can be helpful to track your macros. Visit Optimal Macros for Fat Loss, Maintenance, and Bulking for more details.
If your weight is not moving in the direction you want it to, you can nudge your macros to move further from the hyper-palatable, low-protein, moderate fat-and-carb zone. You can start this process using our free macro calculator.
Ensuring you’re getting enough protein is the first step to regaining control of your appetite and relying less on the accuracy of your food tracking.
In our Macros Masterclass, Optimisers use the Smart Macros Algorithm in Nutrient Optimiser to calculate updated macronutrient targets based on your weight, body fat, and blood sugars to ensure you continue to make sustainable progress.
Tracking Your Micronutrients vs Counting Calories
Another advantage to tracking your food in Cronometer can also help you understand whether you’re consuming all the micronutrients you require.
Per our in-depth satiety analysis, nutrient-dense foods are more satiating and vice versa. It’s much harder to over-consume nutrient-dense foods, so you won’t need to focus so much on limiting calories from them. If you want to drill down into the details, this chart shows the relationship between nutrients vs energy.
Counting Calories Is Directionally Accurate
While not precise, tracking your food intake is directionally accurate.
We are creatures of habit. Most people eat a similar quality and quantity of foods week in and week out. It may not be perfectly accurate or precise, but we can make use of these trends. You can use the information from your tracking to modify your current habits and goals progressively.
While tracking food quantity can be helpful in the short term, focusing on food quality usually yields better long-term outcomes. Knowing what you ate last week, you can make minor adjustments for the coming week. For example:
- You can focus on hitting your protein target to improve satiety.
- You can reduce your carbs to control your blood sugars if they are still higher than you’d like them to be.
- If you are not losing weight, you can dial back your energy from fat and carbs while still prioritising protein.
- You can also increase your protein target if you lose too much lean mass relative to fat.
This is not voodoo magic; it’s the science of continual improvement. You don’t need to be perfect; you just need to be a little better than you were yesterday!
Plan Ahead When Tracking Calories
If you’re serious about managing your weight or body composition and improving your diet, you can plan (act) rather than respond (react) to your appetite! This is critical to the system we guide Optimisers through in our Macros Masterclass.
Rather than tracking what you just ate and going down the path of, ‘How much did that weigh again? Dunno, I’ll just make something up,’ you can use Cronometer to build your meal plan for the coming day or week to ensure you meet your macro and micronutrient targets.
Planning is paramount for our Optimisers that regularly crush our Macros and Micros Masterclass leaderboards. The real magic happens when Optimisers use the numbers to ensure they are giving their bodies what they need rather than constantly depriving themselves!
If you find yourself snacking ‘off-plan’, you can increase your meal size and protein intake earlier in the day. You can also add some healthy snacks the following week and ensure they’re available when you’re most tempted.
If it doesn’t quite go to plan, you can update and refine your plan again for the following week until you get to where you want to be.
For more on the benefits of eating a bigger breakfast, visit Eat Like A King For Breakfast: Does It Really Work? What The Data Has to Say About Early Time-Restricted Feeding (eTRF). To learn more about eating more protein first thing in the morning, you can also visit Does More Protein at Breakfast Help You Lose Weight?
When Is Tracking Your Food Helpful?
Periodic tracking may be beneficial:
- To understand your diet quality (micronutrients);
- To help you dial in your macronutrients and improve your satiety, body composition, and blood sugars;
- To lower your body fat levels;
- To keep you on track for an extended period if you have a lot of weight to lose; or
- To determine why your progress stalled and to dial things back in.
If you’re looking for a more sustainable outcome with food tracking, you can use a more relaxed approach and focus on food quality.
If you need results now, you may need to get serious about tracking and commit to weighing and measuring everything you put in your mouth until you see the results you want.
Once you get to where you want to be, you can back off and use your intuition based on the new habits and routines you’ve picked up. You will now be more familiar with the foods you need to eat to achieve satiety and nutrient density, and these foods make up the majority of your plate.
Once you are getting the results you want, you may want to take a break from tracking, if:
- You have built good eating habits,
- You can listen to your appetite signs for energy and different nutrients,
- Your blood sugar levels are dialled in, and
- You are maintaining the weight and body composition that you want.
Autoregulated eating habits should be your long-term goal. But in the short term, some quantification can help you start your journey towards Nutritional Optimisation.
You can think of food tracking as a bridge to get you to the other side of being able to make it work on your own. Let’s face it; most people don’t aspire to track everything they eat for the rest of their lives!
So, Is Counting Calories Pointless?
To summarise, while there are many benefits to tracking to retrain your eating habits, a few potential downsides are lack of accuracy, a false sense of security, and losing touch with your healthy appetite signals.
Many staunch advocates for strict tracking within the bodybuilding community will tell you it’s all about CICO. However, there is also plenty of discussion about weaning yourself off tracking. Instead, focus on intuitive, flexible, and autoregulated eating so you can let your hunger signals guide you to your ideal body composition.
Unfortunately, strictly tracking calories by itself is a waste of time for most people. To effectively manage the quantity of the food you eat, you must modify the quality of the food you eat at some point.
In addition, relying on foods that don’t contain many micronutrients will awaken your inner lizard brain and have you seek the micros you’re missing with endless cravings. Calorie tracking should be paired with improved nutrient content for long-term success.
- Satiety Per Calorie vs Calories In – Calories Out
- Diet Quality and Weight Loss: A Deep Dive
- Nutrient-Dense Meals and Recipes
- Cronometer [Macros Masterclass FAQ #3]
- What Do the Numbers on My Bioimpedance Scale Mean (and How Can I Manage Them)?
- Macronutrients [Macros Masterclass FAQ #2]
- Macros Masterclass