Contrary to popular belief, this question crops up time and again to counting calories and weight loss.
And there are camps for both arguments. One is pro-counting the number of calories you have, while the other is against.
And there’s no right or wrong; it comes down to opinion.
In this article, I will share my thoughts and provide as much information to you as possible. Then it’s down to you to consider what you believe is the best approach for your weight loss journey and whether you feel you should be counting calories or not.
Why Do People Ask If They Should Be Counting Calories to Lose Weight?
First of all, we need to understand why we ask to count calories to lose weight.
Something within us begs the question, so this needs unpacking.
A key reason people ask the question is that they lack knowledge and are confused.
There’s a lot of information out there regarding weight loss and counting calories.
It’s enough to send someone’s head spinning out of control. It can leave them more confused than before they started their research.
And this isn’t a knock on anyone, by the way. We can’t be knowledgeable in everything, can we?
I couldn’t tell you the first thing about a car other than you drive one and they have four wheels and some seats.
Someone else could tell you everything there is to know about a car. And that’s because they’re knowledgeable and passionate about them.
I’m not knowledgeable or passionate about them. But I could tell you quite a lot about nutrition, exercise, and healthy food choices because this is what I love.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand…
Some people know the difference between healthy, moderately healthy, and unhealthy foods.
And they don’t have to have an education in nutrition to know this. It’s stuff they’ve learned along the way throughout life.
And then some people know very little about nutrition.
I mean, they may have a basic understanding of healthy foods. They know chicken and salad are healthy. But that might be the peak of their knowledge and their interest.
But this is where lacking that bit of knowledge can impact someone’s weight loss journey.
Let’s say someone has a chicken salad for dinner because it’s healthy. But they cover the meal in cheese and dressing.
And I’m talking a hefty serving here, not a sprinkle.
The meal has gone from healthy to unhealthy immediately.
These little “extras” that people class them as are adding hundreds of calories to meals.
Now it depends how much they added, but you get my drift.
Many people don’t know how much they’re adding, and it isn’t necessarily their fault.
We’ve not been educated on how to read nutrition labels and understand the importance of counting calories to help us monitor precisely what and how much we’re consuming.
And it would be a game-changer if more of us did.
Now take these little “extras” across an entire week’s eating, plus snacks, etc. Someone could be in a calorie surplus by thousands.
And this is one example of many.
The picking at dinner as you make it.
The sneaky biscuit here and there from the pantry.
Finishing off your kid’s dinner because they were full.
The sauces, the dressings, etc. They all add up. And add up by a lot if they aren’t monitored.
And if you don’t know, it takes a surplus of 3,500 calories to gain just one pound of fat.
That’s not a lot when you consider the examples I outlined.
And it’s entirely possible to gain a pound of fat from unaccounted for extras.
So having a little knowledge is essential for a successful weight loss journey.
And the beauty is you don’t need to spend years accruing this knowledge. You can learn a hell of a lot from reading a few articles online.
The world is at your fingertips.
Activity Does Not Mean Weight Loss
Another area that hinders people’s weight loss is activity.
Let me explain.
Say you have lived a sedentary lifestyle and started an exercise routine. You will likely (at first) see the scale go down if your food intake remains precisely the same.
Because if everything else is the same (food intake) – and you’re moving more – then you’re going to burn more calories than you were. Which means you’re in a calorie deficit.
Being in a calorie deficit means you’re going to lose weight.
But all things are not created equal, especially when it comes to weight loss.
When someone becomes more active, they can adopt a belief. A belief that they need to eat more to compensate for this new level of activity because they are more active.
They also think they can get away with eating more.
The truth is, we burn fewer calories through activity than we think.
Starting the Couch-to-5k program doesn’t mean you should increase your food intake. Don’t think you’re burning lots of calories from the off.
Neither is hitting the gym three times a week for an hour per session.
You may be shocked at how little energy you’re burning.
A neat little article on Lifehacker is worth reading, explaining this in more detail. Please give it a read here.
Eating Back Exercise Calories
I also hear of people “eating back their exercise calories.” This is usually linked to when they use a food tracker like MyFitnessPal.
The food tracking app tells you how many calories you allegedly burn. It’s based on activity.
I’d recommend against eating back your exercise calories. Because what it shows as burnt is an estimate. And also – as I said a moment ago – you’re not burning as much as you think.
Why would you want to eat back your calories burned through the exercise anyway if your goal is weight loss?
You want to leave them alone and stay in a deficit.
But if you eat them back, your numbers will be off, resulting in weight gain, not loss, because they’re not a valid, accurate representation of what’s happening.
So the best thing to do is leave everything the same and see how your body weight responds (and body) to the increase in activity.
Stick to your calorie allowance. And don’t eat any burned calories that a food tracking app or smartwatch is showing you.
They’re an estimate.
Give it 3-4 weeks and assess from there.
If you’re losing a healthy amount, keep everything the same, especially if you feel good.
If you’re dropping too much weight too fast, then – and only then – is the time to add some extra calories to your allowance.
5% is a good starting point.
And assess again.
How Does The Body Use Calories?
I’ll break this down in laypeople’s terms.
Food is made up of energy, and we call this energy “calories.” This energy is how you function.
Ultimately, this energy (calories) comes from three different macronutrients, which are:
The body breaks down the food it needs to build and repair tissue. It also has the entire job of providing itself with enough energy to function.
Your body uses the majority of its calories to stay alive and provide energy to the following:
And we’re talking basic survival here, which I’m sure you agree is necessary.
It’s referred to as BMR (basal metabolic rate) and RMR (resting metabolic rate). They both mean the same thing, but it takes up the most significant part of your energy requirements.
In other words, your body is using energy to keep you alive.
The body also uses energy through physical activity.
This means any movement, not only exercise. Fidgeting, moving your hands and feet, scratching your head, getting up and down off the sofa, etc.
All this requires energy.
When it comes to exercise, though, food helps fuel this.
And when it comes to the amount of energy the body needs to use for fuel, it varies person-to-person.
It isn’t one-size-fits-all.
When it comes to the body digesting the food you eat, it will use some calories to help you do that.
TEF (thermic effect of food) is the name of this.
You Have to Be in a Calorie Deficit to Lose Weight
As most of you know, if you take in more energy than the body needs, it will store this excess energy as fat. A small part will be water retention too.
But, to lose fat, you must be in a calorie deficit. In basic terms, this means the body is burning more fuel through food than the number of calories it’s taking in.
This is how and why we lose fat.
Another typical situation can happen, though.
Many people eat far less than their body needs, or burn a lot of calories through exercise. When this happens, the body will resort to protein stores and burn muscle for fuel instead.
And you don’t want to be in this situation.
This is the skinny-fat look. Or the skinny, saggy look with no muscle tone.
There’s no “pop” to the physique. It’s very soft, floppy, and wobbly.
Burning muscle does that to you.
And here’s a tip: you want to eat plenty of protein when you’re in a calorie deficit. This will help you avoid the skinny-fat look.
A Calorie is Not a Calorie
This is an age-old argument when it comes to weight loss.
Some people say that 100 calories are 100 calories, regardless of what food you get it from.
If you eat 100 calories from candy or 100 calories from chicken breast, it doesn’t matter.
They see this as total calories.
And they’d be right.
But it’s not as plain and simple as that. This is where the argument comes in.
Others say it does matter what food source you eat, regardless of the calorie amount is the same.
And they’d be right too.
Confusing, huh? A little. But let’s break it down.
In terms of weight loss, 100 calories are 100 calories. So if those calories come from chicken breast or candy, they equal the same amount.
Are you following? Cool, let’s carry on.
But let’s be honest, the food quality can differ immensely. And the quality can determine possible health implications in the future.
If you eat foods like chips, candy, alcohol, and processed foods, then over time, this will impact your health negatively.
Eating whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, lean protein, complex carbohydrates, whole grains, and essential fats is critical.
These will positively impact your health, and that’s the most important thing.
The quality of your food doesn’t just affect you physically either. It affects your metabolism, hormones, and appetite.
One hundred calories from candy will not meet any of those markers in a good way.
You need nutritious food to make a beneficial impact.
And as I talked about earlier. What you eat plays a massive part in how you look. I learned this the hard way.
My motto is that you’ll look like junk if you eat junk. Eat quality; you’ll look quality.
Your energy levels also play a factor based on what you eat. We’ve all experienced that inevitable insulin dump that comes from consuming sugary food.
You feel fine for 20 minutes then your blood sugar crashes.
You don’t get that crash when you eat quality, clean food. Your insulin levels remain consistent for the most part.
And it’s much easier getting up for work in the morning when you follow a clean lifestyle.
Don’t be late for work now…
Keto/Low-Carb And Fat Loss Hype
Over the past 10-15 years, we’ve seen a significant spike in the keto and low-carb lifestyle.
Celebrities from across the world were keen to share their success. And you know what happens after it’s plastered all over social media. It gains attention and traction.
The reason why keto and low-carb diets are so popular is because of one thing:
Fast weight loss.
We’ll touch on this in a minute, though.
Some say the health benefits of a keto or low-carb diet are superior to any other diet out there.
And this is why they follow it.
But studies show carbohydrates do not solely cause health issues alone.
They can contribute to health issues if they’re abused, sure. But that applies to any macronutrient.
Another example would be overconsuming protein for a prolonged period. This can cause kidney issues in some.
If someone needs to avoid carbohydrates for medical reasons, then do this. But there’s no reason to leave them out of your diet otherwise.
A lot of people blame carbohydrates for their weight gain. I’ve heard it so many times.
“Carbs make me fat. I can’t have them”.
No, you definitely can.
Here’s why people blame carbohydrates for their weight gain.
They put on weight because they overate of everything. And instead of taking ownership of this, they blame carbohydrates.
It sounds crazy, but it’s true.
It’s an easy way to shirk responsibility for their lack of discipline, so they blame a food source.
Clients had told me this when they started working with me.
But they didn’t overeat on carbohydrates alone. They overate period.
They put weight on because the majority of their diet came from processed, crappy carbs.
Otherwise known as the “Beige food diet.”
Deficient protein and hardly any good fats. But a diet high in poor carbohydrates.
Anyway, let’s get back to the fast weight loss…
In a nutshell, keto and low-carb make you initially lose weight at a fast pace.
You can drop anywhere between 5-10lbs pretty convincingly in your first week.
But did you notice how I said “initially“? There’s a reason for that.
Carbohydrates and Water
Carbohydrates are stored with water in your cells.
To break it down further, for every one gram of carbohydrate stored in the body, it’s retained with 2-3 grams of water.
So if you had 200g carbohydrates in a day, your body would hold at least 400g water.
Quite a lot, right?
So what do you think is going to happen if you go on a keto diet and cut all carbohydrates out? Bear in mind you’ve been consuming a copious amount of carbs?
Yes, that’s right!
You’re going to drop a lot of water because you’re not retaining anywhere near as much anymore.
Your carbohydrates are non-existent.
The same applies to a low-carb diet. What defines a “low-carb diet” is anywhere around <25g carbohydrates per day.
This isn’t a lot at all. So it’s the same as keto.
If you eat a couple of hundred grams of carbohydrates per day before going low-carb, you’re going to lose water.
It’s not rocket science.
So the thing is, people see weight loss and get attached to what the scale says. But it’s not necessarily fat loss.
After a week or two, fat loss does happen though, but it slows down and doesn’t produce long-term results.
The 4-5 pounds loss per week soon stops, and that’s when people hit the panic button and give up.
And I’m not being harsh here hating on keto or low-carb or the people doing it.
But it’s hyped so much, and I wish people were more educated about it.
The people pushing it fails to explain the whole process.
Counting Calories: Failing to
It’s expected that people think they can wiggle their way out of counting calories on keto and low-carb diets.
They assume protein and fat are exempt from caloric intake. They think this because carbohydrates are not in their diet.
Protein and fat can make you fat if overconsumed. They’re not exempt. They’re still made up of calories.
They are just like carbohydrates. Eat too many, and you’ll put weight on.
Tracking all macronutrients would be my advice.
This is the topic that people relate to when I talk about keto and low-carb.
You can find health benefits for all diets out there. And there’s plenty linked to a low-carb one.
But sustaining these diets for a prolonged period is very difficult.
At some point, the body will crave carbohydrates. It’s designed that way.
And it sucks when the cravings come.
Can you live without carbohydrates and survive? Yes, you can.
But why put yourself through it if it’s making you miserable?
You can lose weight safely and sustainably through a “normal” well-balanced diet.
It makes no sense to me.
And it should make no sense to restrict yourself.
The diet places limits on your social life. You can’t go out for meals with your spouse/partner, friends, colleagues, etc., and have what you want to eat.
And you bore everyone around the table telling them that you “can’t have this” or “can’t have that.”
Talk about bumming everyone out.
And the restriction on a diet is a crucial reason many people fail and fall off the wagon.
Diets should be enjoyable. They’re not supposed to suck.
If you didn’t restrict yourself, I guarantee you would make way more progress. And enjoy the journey too.
I Say Counting Calories Wins
Counting calories has been around forever.
Tracking what you eat along with your activity is a great way to lose weight.
Here are three reasons why I say count calories:
1. It ensures you’re eating in a calorie deficit consistently.
As I covered earlier in the article. How do you know how much you’re eating if you aren’t counting calories?
Counting calories removes all guesswork (and stress). It does it all for you.
2. You’ve got somewhere to go.
What I mean by this is when you stall, you know how many calories you’re on. This means you know how many you’ll also be on when you take a few away to keep progress moving forward.
If you didn’t know how many calories you were on, well, it’s a guessing game, isn’t it?
3. It teaches you proper portions and serving sizes.
You get a real knack for portion sizes by eye. And this is a great skill to have.
If you’re out and need to grab something to eat, you’ll have a ballpark figure of how many calories you’re eating.
Feel free to reach out if you have any questions, and I’ll come back to you!
About the author
I'm Chris. I have a vast interest in all things relating to health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition. I also love to improve my mindset and learn how to increase my productivity. If you'd like to say hello or ask me a question, please visit my contact page, and I'd be glad to hear from you. Alternatively, you can find me on Twitter (@liveliftlife).