The Efficacy of Counting Calories
February 11th 2020
I am often asked if I should count calories or just eat healthy in order to lose weight.
If you’re starting a health journey, no matter what your end goal is, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about counting calories.
Legions of people, both on the Internet and in real life, are likely telling you just how effective maintaining a calorie deficit by carefully logging and calculating their caloric intake was in their weight loss or gain process.
There is truth to this—but, like all things, it does help to factor in your specific body, habits, environment, and goals.
One of our goals here is to educate you about how this issue revolves around resistance training.
Yes, this means going into the gym and pumping iron.
What Is Calorie Counting?
According to the Healthbeat column at Harvard Health Publishing, calorie counting is often considered to be just part of a simple weight loss equation: eating less—and exercising more. However, it isn’t that simple.
As a weightlifter, you know that the more you exercise, the more you need to eat to support your rising activity levels.
However, there is no doubt that overeating does not lead to a healthy body or weight loss, if that’s your goal; it can also be a waste of money and other resources.
It’s probably a good idea for many reasons that you figure out about what someone of your build, activity levels, and goal-setting should eat—and try to stick to it.
Counting calories, if you can do it healthily, for a short period of time may not be a bad idea as you find what that balance means.
The Calorie Control Council has simple rules and guidelines which can help you figure out the math of calorie counting easily.
Essentially, once you figure out what your target calorie count is for a specific day, you choose foods carefully to come up just short of that number—without going over.
The calorie count in specific foods and serving sizes can be found in the nutrition information (if available), or often by searching the food in question on the Internet.
Let’s Talk About Macronutrients
- Fats. This group of macros has had some really bad press over the past couple of decades, so let’s try to describe it simply: fat molecules are just really, really concentrated packets of energy.
The fat that you eat does not (generally) translate immediately to fat stored on your body. Fats are important to eat because they provide an extremely satiating way to get energy.
- Proteins. Proteins are the building blocks of our muscles, DNA, and just about everything else in our bodies.
Likely, if you’re a beginner bodybuilder, you’ve heard a lot about the importance of eating a lot of protein: eating protein can help rebuild torn muscles after a particularly exerting workout.
However, you don’t want to eat too much protein! Depending on your goals, it may be best to try to keep your macros in a relatively balanced place.
- Carbohydrates. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, you’ve likely internalized a lot about low-carb and keto diets.
Authors and nutrition experts are extolling the low-carb diet and demonizing high-carb foods and products—pointing to them as the cause for all unhealthy weight situations. As you may expect, the true story is much more nuanced than that.
Most of the bad effects that come from eating foods actually come from eating highly processed forms of carbohydrates.
If you get most of your carbs from vegetables and sources of natural fiber, you’ll be doing fine.
If you’re a strength training beginner, is it worth it to count calories?
As with any other habit, you should invest in it as much as you plan on getting out of it! When you’re thinking about beginning to count calories, ask yourself what your goals are. If you’re a strength training beginner, you might not need to count calories—if you’re working on increasing your strength as quickly as you can, your weight will be going up as well.
Generally speaking, to work towards a weight gain, counting calories will not be as valuable as a tool as if you’re trying to lose weight.
If you’re working out, hard, and ensuring that you’re eating mindfully and eating the right kind of satiating foods (fat and protein, not sugars and empty carbs), your caloric needs will take care of themselves—so working to strengthen those skills, rather than calorie counting, may be a better goal.
If you find that you’re not seeing your gains as fast as you would like—even with increasingly more challenging workouts—then perhaps making sure that you’re getting the right number of calories would be good.
For a novice strength trainer, according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, you should aim to get around 30 calories per pound of body weight per day.
However, I did the math and that is a crazy number, even for me.
So, this is what you should do instead:
Count your calories for a week and make that your “baseline” level. Then, you can adjust accordingly after you know how much you should eat to maintain your body weight currently.
Ultimately, if you’d like to learn how to calorie count, go for it—those skills may come in handy if you find yourself wanting to diet down and lose weight at a later time.
What about just ‘eating healthily’ and not counting calories?
Counting calories takes a lot of work!
It may seem like a much more implementable plan to simply eat healthy and not worry about calculating the caloric content of every meal you eat.
That’s definitely true!
However, there are two main drawbacks to this seemingly foolproof plan:
- In a seeming contradiction in terms, just ‘eating healthily’ can take a lot more discipline than counting calories. The reason for this comes with the concept of decision fatigue. When you decide to just eat well, you still have to make a myriad of smaller decisions on a daily basis about what to eat. If, however, you’re working within the constraints of a calorie counting framework, then what you can eat each day is made clear. It’s a lot of work upfront, but in such a way that will drastically reduce the amount of thinking you have to do about your food in the long term.
- The second drawback is simply an inevitable side effect of the above theory. If you’re suffering from decision fatigue, you’re going to make your own life easier by choosing to eat the same foods over and over—the ‘healthy’ foods. After a while, you’re going to get bored of those foods—which will make binging and going astray from your diet plan that much easier.
Which system is better for losing weight?
There’s no getting around it: For losing weight, case study after case study shows that counting calories is among the most effective ways to succeed in your endeavor.
This is less because it in itself makes you lose weight, but simply because it provides a framework for success and (if adhered to properly) makes it clear exactly what you’re doing to your body.
More data allows you to track your losses accurately, and tweak your diet if needed to break through plateaus and see safe, healthy weight loss quickly.
However, you definitely can lose weight without having to count calories.
Weigh out your goals as well as your body fat percentage, and make sure that your methods align with your likelihood of sticking to them!
When you’re just starting out on your health journey, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the different tools touted to help you live a healthy life.
It’s important to keep your eyes on both your current status and on the goals you’ve set so that you only prioritize learning tools which will definitely help you get to where you need to be.
Counting calories can be an incredibly effective tool for doing so, especially if you enjoy calculating and keeping records!
Complement Your Strategy With An Efficient Program
You have a great framework for nutrition.
Great, now you need to kick butt in the gym as well.
Starting Strength is one program I believe beginners cannot go wrong with.
And if you are skeptical, you should read my review here where I detail my training logs and training numbers.
I hope you can take this information and make positive changes in your life.