Calorie Counting - Should You Do It?

Calorie counting as a way to manage your intake is often criticised, by myself included. Ask a room of athletes whether they calorie count and many will say they do (or at least their coaches do!) but most will probably laugh and say no way. Yet they seem to be getting results regardless. So what’s the point of going to all the effort?

In my first ever blog post for Opal Fitness, entitled ‘Calories are not the Enemy,’ I made the point that it’s pretty hard to eat your target calories for the day whilst eating junk food. Therefore you might as well just eat healthily, use that as your starting point and let your body take care of the rest. The main thing calorie counting teaches you is what food satisfies you.

Not to mention that caloric intake is not an exact science. Counting every little thing you put in your mouth can be time consuming and stressful and, ultimately, many people who start out with good intentions to calorie count give up after a week or two, deciding it’s not worth the headspace.

That all said, my views on calorie counting have changed a little recently.

Make no mistake, I still think the most important determinant of how successful you are with diet is simply what you choose to eat. Managing the quality of the foods you eat will have the biggest impact on the quantity your body demands and eating to its requirements. And conversely, the easiest way to eat too much is to eat bad quality foods.

However if managing quality is the most important factor, then the second most important factor, and by no means unimportant, is simply your eating habits - because it is still possible to overeat on good quality food if your habits are out of whack. Quality together with habits form the 80:20 of diet – the 20% of actions that will deliver you with 80% of the results. They say that abs are made in the kitchen. This is true – abs are made by 1) managing food quality and 2) healthy eating habits.

What made me change my mind was when I embarked on a challenge recently where I walked 550 miles in 50 days, plus daily training. I figured that with that amount of energy expenditure, it would be basically impossible for me to overeat on healthy, wholesome food. Something in my head switched, and I decided to just eat and eat and eat, to stop myself ‘losing weight too quickly.’

My chosen diet for this plan was the Ketogenic. For a couple of weeks I even went full Carnivore Diet – eating nothing but meat and fish.

After several weeks I found I had leaned up a little, but not as much as I would normally expect to during a cut. I carried on assuming I just had to persist with it, eating as much calorie dense, low carb food as I could get my hands on, including mountains of brazil nuts, creamed coconut and roast meat drenched in olive oil.

After a couple more weeks my weight hadn’t changed a great deal. So I finally decided to tally up how much I was eating. It turned out I was eating generally in the region of 5000-6000 calories per day. Even though typically less than 5% of this came from carbohydrate, my appetite was running wild and I seemed to be addicted to food. Amazingly I didn’t gain weight either, although my performance did increase and I got a new Personal Best on the deadlift at around 94kg bodyweight.

Then Christmas came around, I completed my walking challenge and the guardrails came off. By the end of it I realised that what I was eating, the quality of my food wasn’t a huge problem. The issue was my habits. By giving myself a free pass, I had succumbed to eating purely for pleasure and lost track of what was enough for me.

So I decided to start figuring out what someone of my build and activity level should be eating to maintain and lose weight. I still wanted to lose a couple more KGs of body fat.

I Googled ‘calorie requirements calculator’ and entered my details into the first calculator I found: height, weight and the highest activity level which read ‘extremely active.’ It calculated that I should be eating around 3300kcals per day to lose weight at a slow but reasonable rate.

So I tried eating only 3300kcals. Day 1 and I was STARVING, couldn’t focus on anything and then fell asleep. Not the best start.

Other calculators placed my requirements at somewhere between 1800 (absolutely, most definitely wrong) to around 4000 (probably more realistic). Bear in mind that none of them were accounting for my extremely high training volume particularly well.

Clearly some degree of listening to my body was still going to be required here, but also that my previous 6000 calories per day was probably a bit much, no matter how low in carbs it was and how active I was.

It felt like going back my early days of training and re-learning some basics. The truth is calorie counting early on served as a really useful guide for how much I should be eating, and helped me understand what it actually felt like to be ‘full’ whilst not overeating. I needed to revisit that again to re-align myself.

Since then I am back on track and have lost around 3kg of body fat without losing performance. Still sticking to wholesome food, eating a mere 4000 or so kcals per day.

So it seems calorie counting can serve a purpose after all in steering you towards the right diet. I still think that it should be used as a guide to help you get a feel for what you should be eating, because it will inevitably become boring and you will be tempted to stop doing it.

I also recommend not trying to be too exact with it. There are natural margins of error anyway in how calories are presented and how our body assimilates them. I have found just keeping a tally to to the nearest 50-100 calories is fine to ensure you’re in the right ballpark, and makes it a lot easier to keep count. It doesn’t matter so much if you’re 100 kcals out with your count, your body’s needs will likely fluctuate by more than that anyway. What matters is that you’re not eating 6000 calories when you only need 4000!

So there you have it. Calorie counting can be very useful after all, especially as a way to re-align your habits when something seems off.