And five alternatives if counting calories isn’t right for you!
Jamie Staley, NASM-CPT, Pn1
What do you think of when someone mentions counting calories? For most people, they think of an overly-restrictive diet that includes hours of weighing and measuring every morsel of food, obsessing over each calorie, and certainly not being able to enjoy a homemade dish or anything at a restaurant.
If you’ve made it this far, I applaud your open mind. Let me make my case for this real quick.
First, you can read last week’s blog post if you need the background story on why I’m such a fan. I found great freedom in calorie counting. It taught me the value of my food.
Think of counting calories as a crash-course in nutrition. You take the class, learn the skill, and implement the knowledge long after you’ve done your last homework assignment.
Does it add some extra time and planning? Yes. I’m not going to lie. But so does Weight Watchers, Adkins, Keto, Paleo, Vegan, Vegetarian, shake meal-replacements, and other ways we manipulate our diet. I would also argue calorie-counting is a more long-term solution and you can do it for free. From calories, it’s also easy to add in macro-tracking as a next step.
Also, counting calories is not just for weight loss.
So let’s get into the practical stuff, yes?
How Many Calories Do I Need Per Day?
This table will give you a good starting place in regards to your daily caloric needs.
Start by finding your goal: weight loss, maintenance, or weight gain. Next, locate your current activity level. Be realistic with what you do most of the time and what you can sustain over the next 30-60 days. Most exercising people in the general population will fall in the moderately active category. Very active is usually athletes or those with more serious training schedules.
Keep in mind this is called an “estimator,” not a “definitive number for every individual in every situation.” From here you can manipulate this number as you go to get your desired result.
Things to Remember When Counting Calories
- Give yourself a range. Striving to hit one exact number each day is exhausting and not realistic. From the number you calculated above, give yourself 100 calories in each direction to give you your range. (If the above table gives you a goal of 2000 calories, your range is 1900-2100.)
- Do not go too low with your calories. Especially when weight loss is the goal, setting a very low calorie limit seems like it will be the best option. Not only is this dangerous, it will not help the situation. Eat as many calories as you can while still seeing the results you want. Meaning: if you are losing weight at 1800 calories per day, don’t cut down to 1500 just because. Slow and steady wins the race, folks.
- Try calorie cycling. No need to get fancy with this. Eat at the higher end of your range on more active days and at the lower end of your range on rest days.
- Use MyFitnessPal. It is not a perfect app, but it has many benefits for a beginner. I do not recommend using their calorie counter, as often it is too low. Also, do not add your exercise into MyFitnessPal. Your activity has already been taken into account. For a full comprehensive guide on how to use this app, click here.
- There are no “zero calorie” foods. Count everything so that you can learn the value of your favorite foods. However, prioritizing protein, vegetables, fiber, and water will help you feel fuller longer and make a deficit much easier.
- Use a food scale. This is a more precise way to measure portion sizes and is actually pretty quick.
- Most restaurant chains have full nutrition information on their websites. When you know you are going to eat out, do your research before you leave. If the restaurant does not have nutrition information available, you can estimate calories. Once you get a better working knowledge of common portion sizes, this becomes pretty easy and is a great skill to have.
- You can calculate calories for your own homemade dishes. Add in all the ingredients and amounts into MyFitnessPal and it will save it for you. If you are only combining a few ingredients, you can do some quick math.
- Realize you won’t be perfect everyday. Do not expect perfection. If you decide to not track for a day, get right back on it the next day. Aim for at least 80% compliance (about 24 days out of every 30 days). If you aren’t seeing results, your compliance rate may need to be higher or you may need to examine what is happening on your non-compliant days.
- Stay consistent for 30-60 days before making any changes. Whatever range you select, give it enough time and a high enough compliance rate to gauge whether or not it’s the right range for you.
- Ease away from daily counting when it feels right for you. Some people feel anxious when they start to step away from calorie counting. Once you know what a typical compliant day looks like, you are comfortable with portion sizes, and it becomes more natural, you can start to ease away from counting. Realize you can always come back to the practice if you need to and that it is pretty common for most people to use it more than once.
When Counting Calories Isn’t the Right Fit
As beneficial as this approach can be for some, it isn’t right for everyone especially when weight loss is the goal. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to health and anyone who says otherwise is usually selling you something.
I don’t recommend calorie counting for anyone who has experienced an eating disorder, food restriction, food insecurity, or bingeing. Counting calories may not be the right fit for anyone who has participated in a sport where body image was central (dance) or had to manipulate their weight often (wrestling).
I also don’t recommend calorie counting for people who have a strong aversion to counting calories. What a concept right?
So what can be done instead? Take one of these for a test drive (don’t try all five at once) and monitor the results toward your goal (weight loss, maintenance, or weight gain):
- Pay attention to portions. In the hand-portion method, your palm is your protein serving, your fist is your veggies, your cupped hand is your carbs, and your thumb is your fats. The full Precision Nutrition resource can be found here. If that method seems too cumbersome, just stick to the portion on the package. Example: three Oreos instead of half the package.
- Three meals and two snacks. Plan your days to have three meals and two snacks. This can work well for individuals that “graze” throughout the day and create specific times to eat.
- Replace one meal with a big salad. This requires a bit of mindfulness on what you choose to put in your salad, but pick an array of veggies, a good source of protein, some healthy fats, and a lower-calorie dressing.
- Prioritize the good stuff. Focus on filling up on the food items that you know pack more nutrients and keep you feeling fuller longer. This includes: veggies, fruit, lean protein, and slow-digesting carbs. Have more processed and calorie-dense foods less often, but still enjoy them. Full infographic here.
- Keep a general food log. This can help bring awareness without feeling overly restrictive. No need to document the amounts, calories, or macros of each meal. Simply write down what you ate. Instead of logging “two eggs, 1/4 cup of cheese, and 2 TBSPs of salsa” write down “eggs, cheese, salsa.”
If tackling your nutrition on your own feels too intimidating and confusing, I can help! I am a Level 1 Certified Nutrition Coach through Precision Nutrition, one of the most reputable nutrition companies in the world.
I will coach you through individualized action steps to meet your goals and help you formulate a plan for change that fits your life, instead of trying to make your life fit a plan. I’ll give you the accountability, real information, and guidance to make lasting nutritional change.
Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s chat about your goals!