Calorie counting is not a new weight loss/weight management technique. Most everyone has heard that you must eat less calories than you expend in order to lose weight. There’s no debating this fact, but does it mean that counting calories is the way to go? Hopefully by the end of this post, you’ll have a good understanding of the pros and cons of calorie counting so that you can decide whether or not it’s the right technique for you.

“But didn’t I just see an article a few weeks ago that said that the quality of your food matters and that a calorie isn’t just a calorie? Doesn’t that mean that calories don’t matter?” Not exactly. Recent publications have explained that people who eat nutrient-dense foods tend to naturally eat less calories because they are more satiated than the comparison groups eating processed foods. The main takeaway is that eating non-processed, whole foods can help you feel more satisfied so that you eat less without feeling like you’re “dieting”. This makes it much easier to stay within your calorie goal and stick with your personalized nutrition plan. Whether you eat all processed food or zero processed foods, calories still count.

A successful weight loss technique is one that you can integrate into your lifestyle and continue to use it as long as is necessary or desired. It’s all about consistency, my friends! If a certain weight loss program or product makes you think “I can do anything for 2 weeks, 21 days, 30 days, etc.” then the plan might be too short-term to reap long-term benefits. We’re looking for something that you can turn into a lifestyle. While I don’t think anyone should count calories forever and ever (read the end of the article for my recommendation for how to use this tool without having to obsess over the numbers), I think that it can be a very valuable tool for some people. Let me ‘splain:

Pros of Calorie Counting:

  1. Increases awareness. The first time I counted calories using My Fitness Pal, I was truly surprised at how many calories I was actually eating, and which items were the biggest calorie bombs. That awareness alone can help you figure out where you can make some small changes to reap large rewards!
  2. Offers accountability. Many calorie tracking apps will shoot out reminders if you haven’t logged that day. Plus, you can add your friends to keep eachother accountable. The good news is, you don’t have to share your food diary with them, the app just lets them know that you’ve logged consistently and will even congratulate you when you log in a workout! If you do want extra accountability, you can allow your trainer, nutritionist, or another person to have access to your diary so that they can give you feedback.
  3. It works. If you measure out what you’re having, log honestly, and stick to the recommended daily intake, you will see results. That doesn’t mean you won’t plateau eventually (the body is an adaptation machine!), but the app will give you recommendations for how to change your numbers if your weight changes.
  4. The app does the math for you. Not sure how many calories you should be eating daily? No problem. Just answer some questions about your height, weight, gender, goal weight, and daily physical activity level in order to get your recommended calorie intake.
  5. Measure progress based on the behavior of logging consistently, not just by the number on the scale. The app will congratulate you when you successfully log your foods consistently. I love this because it gives you another measurement of success besides just weight. Focusing on reaching your goal of logging daily and staying within your calorie range will lead to success without the stress of fighting the scale.
  6. Learning proper portion sizes. Having to log and measure food is a great way for you to actively learn what portion sizes look like, and how they measure up in your daily/weekly nutrition.

Cons of Calorie Counting:

  1. Having to log everything you eat. This really can be a deal breaker for people because it can be inconvenient to try to log a meal at a restaurant when you’re out with friends on the weekend. This is where it might help to look at the menu ahead of time and see if you can find the menu item in the app’s data base (you might be surprised at all that they DO have in there!).
  2. Lack of accuracy. Because we can’t always find the exact restaurant meal in the database, this leads to having to guesstimate how many calories were in your meal by searching for each individual item. This usually leads to under-reporting how many calories you’ve eaten and can give a false sense of success if the number in the app shows you’ve met your calorie goal, when really you’re over by a few hundred calories. Additionally, many people don’t log every lick, sip, taste that they have. The truth is, these calories add up and can be the difference between losing or gaining 5-10 pounds in a year.
  3. Logging can be time consuming. Especially when you’re first learning how to use the app. The good news is, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Plus, most apps can memorize your favorites so that you don’t have to do as much work to log them in.
  4. Individual variances in calorie absorption. It’s true! If you and I each eat the same 500 calorie meal, I may absorb different amounts of each nutrient than you do. Since none of us live in a lab hooked up to machines to measure this, it’s impossible to know exactly what our bodies absorb. Logging and calorie counting is about as good as we can do without becoming lab rats.
  5. Becoming obsessed with the numbers. After logging for a while, it’s easy to stress over the numbers and worry about whether or not x food will throw off your goal for the day, or feel bad because you ate a snack that was over your calorie count, etc. If logging leads to negative thoughts and feelings, it might not be the best option for you. Stress is weight loss’s mortal enemy!

These lists are not exhaustive, but they should give you a good look at some of the pros and cons of calorie counting. Read through both lists and decide whether the pros outweigh the cons in your life. If you decide that it’s worth a try, here are some of my recommendations for successful calorie counting.

Tips for success:

Find the calorie counting app that speaks to you. My Fitness Pal and LoseIt! are the OG’s* of calorie counting programs, but there are many out there! Go to your app store and search “calorie counting app” to browse the results, take a look at the design of each app (visual appeal matters! If you think it’s ugly, you probably won’t be inclined to use it), consider the ease of use, and read reviews. These can all help you decide which ones are worth your precious free download :D. When in doubt, narrow it down to 2-3 and test them out for a few days. By then you should have a feel for which one is your favorite to use.

*(OG = Original Gangster, in case you are unfamiliar with that pop culture reference)

Be conservative with your weight loss goal numbers. Start with an initial weight loss of 5-10%  of your total body weight for the first 3-6 months (depending on how much you have to lose). After that, see if you can maintain this weight loss for another 3-6 months (that’s the hard part!). Whatever you do, don’t set the weight loss goal for a 2 lb/week weight loss. Faster weight loss is not better! Instead, that will set you up for failure fast. Set the app to have you lose weight at a rate of .5-1 lb/week maximum to generate a daily calorie goal that is sustainable. Remember, just because you can eat lower calorie for 2 weeks straight doesn’t mean that you should, nor will it will lead to sustainable weight loss. If you set a daily calorie goal that is too low, you’re more likely to binge on weekends or drop the plan entirely and not see the success you want. Take a more even-keel approach with a slow, steady weight loss goal so that you can continue to see your weight decrease over time. Plus, you won’t feel like you’re starving yourself!!

Log for at least an entire 1-2 weeks to get the hang of it and increase your awareness, then reserve logging for spot-checks. I often recommend that clients start out by logging to get a feel for how they need to portion their meals/snacks in order to meet their calorie goal. Log for as long as you feel you need to in order to keep yourself honest, but the ultimate goal is to get to the point where you have the knowledge and the freedom to eat healthy portion sizes without being chained to your phone. If you feel like you’re stalling out or not seeing success, try logging for 3 consecutive days (including 2 weekend days) to see where you stand. That will give you a good look at what’s going right, and what might need some adjusting to help you continue to make progress.

Log everything. I mean EVERYTHING! Take a sip of your friend’s wine at dinner to try it? Log it. Lick the knife after spreading your measured peanut butter? Log it. Why? Because you might look back at your log and realize that these behaviors are a daily practice and are adding 300-500 calories to your diet per week. Every bite counts, for better or for worse.

Update your weight in the app for an accurate calorie goal. As you lose weight, your calorie requirements will get lower because your body doesn’t need as much energy for your normal tasks. The good news is that if you increase and maintain lean muscle mass, you will see your body fat percentage drop (giving you the slimmer, toned look you’re going for), but your weight on the scale might not change significantly (simply because muscle is more dense than body fat). When this occurs, you won’t necessarily have to cut back in calories as you see success. Gotta fuel those muscles, baby!

Get your friends in on the action. You might feel less intimidated or embarrassed about logging if your friends want to do it too. That way you can share tips and tricks and talk about restaurant choices and recipes that have helped you stay on track! Healthy living is better together. You could even plan a spa day or girls night out to celebrate a full 2-4 weeks of tracking consistently. It never hurts to have some fun rewards along the way!