Should You Be Counting Calories?

By Dani Shugart T-Nation

Here’s what you need to know…

•  Because their instincts are bad and their appetite is low, skinny guys seeking gains should spend some time counting calories.

•  Physique competitors are at risk of undereating more than overeating. Counting calories and macros keeps them on task when their contest-crazy minds get out of hand.

•  Average overweight people are better off focusing their efforts on other areas, like food quality, than counting every little morsel.

•  For most people, calorie counting is a useful but temporary strategy. If it makes you neurotic, you’ve been doing it too long or it’s just not for you.

It takes a special kind of person to actually want to keep track of every last thing he consumes. He measures it, analyzes it, then determines whether or not he should adjust it. He plays accountant with his body. Some calorie accountants are very successful. They build more muscle, lose more fat, and become aware of deficiencies. Some of them even develop the skills to masterfully manipulate calories from different sources and achieve a specific look for a specific event. Anal retentive tendencies pay off for them.

But others play accountant and get nothing back for their efforts. They plug their weight into a formula or online calculator and track every morsel, then make either temporary progress or none at all. Why does it work for some people but not for others? While working with clients it’s become clear to me who benefits from counting and who would get better results by placing their focus elsewhere.

Who Should Count Calories

1. Skinny Guys Wanting Gains
Those who struggle with keeping weight on their bodies benefit from figuring out how many calories they need in order to actually build muscle. Two reasons for this:

1. Naturally skinny guys often don’t have a consistently strong appetite. They’re the type who can forget to eat, or eat inadequately when they do finally sit down for a meal. If their main goal is to get big, yet their appetite doesn’t support it, then figuring out the numbers is necessary.

2. Naturally skinny guys are often unaware that they’re not eating enough. To them, they eat “a ton.” The numbers will usually tell a different story. These guys cannot rely on their instincts. Awareness is key here. Once they track their calories for a few weeks and see how much they need to be eating in order to grow (which is often a shock to skinny dudes), they can put away their food logs and just eye-ball serving sizes. But that ability must first be trained by tracking intake. For these guys, it’s a skill they must work on, just as they work on their squat technique.

They’ll also need to be aware that as they build muscle they’ll require more fuel in order to keep it. Larger bodies require more energy, especially when they’re training hard for hypertrophy. So if the scale starts going down, they’ll need to either recalculate, track more and eat more, or just add more food to their plates, assess the results and adjust from there. It doesn’t have to be precise, but it can’t be intuitive at this stage. Remember, these are guys who want to grow, yet have no appetite. Calculate, measure, eat. If the results aren’t coming, recalculate, re-measure, eat more. Train the skill.

2. Bodybuilders and Other Physique Competitors
A calculated prep can make the difference between coming in flat and coming in phenomenal. Counting calories and macros can prevent competitors from undereating and peaking too early. Bikini and Figure competitors are famous for panic-mode: a temptation to eat less and less as the competition nears. Not only will they step on stage looking depleted, they’ll experience rebound weight gain after the competition.

Knowing the difference between a reasonable calorie intake and a reckless one is vital. Even competitors who have a coach telling them what to eat need to double check the advice they get to make sure they’re not following a recklessly low-calorie plan. Another benefit of calorie counting is the precision with which competitors can manipulate their calories and macros. Tracking these numbers throughout their prep will give them an awareness of how their body responds to such measures, which means they’ll have a better grasp on what to do the last couple weeks in order to look their best on stage. And competitors who have more fat to lose at the beginning of their prep can make conservative tweaks to their caloric intake without hurting the gains they made during the off-season.

If a competitor knows he or she is going to be competing the next year, tracking calories during the off-season can give them the advantage for building muscle wisely without spilling over. A calculated “bulk” in the off-season can mean less time on the treadmill once competition prep begins.

Counting calories enables you to make sure that you get enough, and get enough at the right times. If you tend to undereat around your workout and overcompensate for it later when it doesn’t serve you as well, keeping track will help you hold yourself accountable.

Finally, competition dieting and the stress of knowing you’ll be standing on stage getting judged can wreak havoc on your mind. Even an advanced bodybuilder can make poor decisions during this time. The solution: remove the decision making process and go by the numbers.

3. Anyone With a Specific Aesthetic Goal
Bigger quads, wider lats, rounder delts: If these are the kinds of goals you’re setting and you’re not making progress, yet you’re hammering these body parts hard, the dismal results could be caused by:

1. A lack of overall calories.
2. A lack of the right calories and macros.
3. A lack of the right calories around your workout.

It’s easier to build an area if you’re fueling up for what you’re training. Even those who aren’t naturally skinny often struggle to achieve specific aesthetic goals because they’re holding themselves back by undereating. If you can relate, first figure out how many calories you’re already taking in, then figure out how much you actually need. And if you are eating enough to build muscle, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board with your workouts, workout nutrition, and macros. Hint: chronic low-carb dieting and fasted training won’t help you build body parts.

Counting calories and their macronutrients has its place, and this is one area where it’s most beneficial. Lifters seeking hypertrophy simply need more protein and carbs than the average sedentary person. So if you’re only getting your calories from Paleo-approved foods and you’re wondering why your progress has stalled, it could be because you got too obsessed with fat loss and spent too long on a diet that’s best suited for the average overweight American. Remember, you’re not average and neither are your goals.

Finally, counting calories may be temporarily necessary for anyone seeking mass, not just to avoid undereating, but to avoid overeating. There’s a limit to calorie intake, even when your goal is size. Overdo it and you risk unnecessary fat gain and even anabolic resistance. You may need several hundred calories over your maintenance intake to optimally build muscle, but several thousand? Unnecessary, and the excess fat gain will come back to haunt you. Count calories and find your sweet spot.

Who Shouldn’t Count Calories

1. Average Overweight People
You should pass on calorie counting if you’re an average Joe or Jane with the main goal of weight loss or just “getting in shape.” If you really want to keep weight off for the long haul, your focus should be on increasing your metabolism (something that will make your body able to expend more and more energy) rather than decreasing your caloric intake (something that would require you to continually eat less). The problem with counting calories and decreasing your intake is that it often leads to a slower metabolism.

Dr. Jade Teta explains this phenomenon perfectly. It’s called adaptive thermogenesis. Your body can adapt to low calories and then expend less as a result. In contrast, your body will expend more calories when it has the energy to do so. At the risk of sounding condescending, your energy expenditure increases when you have more energy.

Your body already knew this. Going to the gym sluggish means you’ll see a workout as something to just get through. Going to the gym with pre-workout nutrition means you’ll kill it and then look for more to do. Counting calories trivializes the metabolic phenomena that’ll make you a human furnace. Granted, counting calories doesn’t have to mean eating fewer than necessary, but why micromanage something that doesn’t even contribute to the results you’re after? You miss the point of getting lean and staying lean when you get hung up on the numbers.

Keeping track of calories won’t do as much good as simply getting those calories from sources that increase your satiety and energy, and thus increase your ability to perform better and train harder. Those who fuss over the numbers while neglecting food quality often don’t prioritize their body’s instinctive hunger cues. Usually because they can’t. These are the same cues that, when overridden, lead to fat gain in the first place. This is where the quality of food comes into play. Those who consume hyperpalatable foods on the daily can’t tell if they’re actually hungry or if they’re just craving more of the same hyperpalatable foods. Improving their nutrition decreases their desire to consume more of the junk. Quality food invites autoregulation.

When calorie counters place their focus on eating less without consideration for the quality of what they’re eating, its impact on their appetite can make fat loss much harder. Instead of trying to limit the portion size of your junk food, switch to quality food. Portion controlling garbage foods has about the same success rate as the “I’ll only put in the tip” method of teenage birth control.

2. Those Who Need a Nutritional Makeover
Trying to count calories is the wrong approach if the way you’re eating and living makes you blow your caloric allotment anyway. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hired by someone whose erratic calorie counting just made them more discouraged and frustrated. They’d meticulously log what they ate in a calorie or macro-counting app at the beginning of every day or week, and then as their eating got worse, they’d track less and less. That’s exactly the type of person who needs to walk away from numbers.

They had great intentions. They’d begin every day with every calorie and macro predetermined, then make food choices that fit the right numerical allotment. And it would work. At first. But by the end of the day they’d find themselves consuming what they perceived as infinity calories – meals they didn’t even bother calculating. Their appetites eventually took control of their consumption, rather than their desire to reach the quota. It makes sense. Nobody wants to measure what makes them feel erratic and embarrassed. Recalling the numbers is just a reminder of their failure.

Do you think more counting would solve their problem, or do you think they’d be better off figuring out what caused them to spiral out of control? Getting to the bottom of this question is what makes their intake go from erratic to steady. And more often than not, it’s a nutritional issue, not a numerical one. This is why every TV diet plan that allows portion-controlled amounts of junk food fails in the long run. Foods that make people feel satiated, energized and stable are the ones that will prevent overindulgence later on. Foods filled with the hyperpalatable trifecta (sugar/salt/fat) will leave people wanting to eat more of the same without even reaping the benefits of baseline nourishment. America’s obese, yet malnourished, population is evidence of this.

If you’re eating to fill a quota with no attention to quality, be prepared to have your appetite hijacked. Your daily willpower allowance is a non-renewable resource. You’ll spend it eventually, and when it’s gone so will that entire box of low-fat, portion-controlled ice cream bars.

3. Those Who’ve Been Counting Too Long
Continually counting calories, yet not achieving anything as a result, is more like obsessive compulsive disorder than it is nutrition. At some point those doing it need to trust their ability to eye-ball an appropriate serving size and eat till they’re satisfied. Not being able to do so without intense fear crosses over into neuroticism.

Are you going to carry a measuring cup and a scale with you everywhere you go for the rest of your life? Are you going to only eat at your house, or only eat out if you’re carrying pre-measured food with you? These are things that competitors do in order to win contests. If your body doesn’t even reflect that kind of obsessive behavior, then what you’re doing isn’t working. Put another way, if you analyze every morsel that enters your mouth, then your body should look spectacular for all the trouble you’re going through. If it looks average, then your return on investment is too low.

People who should count calories are also the ones who feel comfortable stopping. If you’re afraid to stop counting, that’s a sign you need to stop counting. Anyone who’s at risk for such obsessive behavior might want to rethink the calorie counting approach, even if they are planning to step on stage. In fact, they may want to rethink stepping on stage. If you’re prone to neuroticism, then counting calories is not for you… and probably no diet is until you change your thinking.

So where is the point at which a dietary strategy crosses into neurotic behavior and calorie obsession? When it disrupts your normal life and the things you do which don’t have anything to do with food. Meal-math shouldn’t take up more time and energy than actually eating, unless you’re a competitive bodybuilder with a deadline.

Counting calories all the time while getting nowhere means a couple things. First there could be something out of whack with your body that you’re probably not seeing because you’re hyperfocused on calories. You may need to see a doctor and have some blood tests done to make sure your hormones are functioning properly. Second, you need to learn to eat and gain some perspective on your life. Zoom out. If you’re wasting a lot of time toying around with something that doesn’t benefit you, then for the sake of sanity it’s time to eat for pleasure and nourishment rather than to fill an allotment.

Get back to basics with your eating habits. Incessant counting is a red flag that you forgot what hunger and satiation feel like. Get in touch with those before you do any kind of dieting. Consume nutrition from sources that don’t make you crave more food and you won’t have to worry about spiraling out of control. Choose foods that’ll make you feel good for the entire day, not just what makes you feel good for ten minutes.

Counting: Should You Invest?
Yes. If you have specific physique or performance goals which include building muscle, your body image is healthy, and your eating habits are fairly consistent, then becoming aware of how much you’re consuming for a short period of time will help you tweak your intake to support your goals. Counting calories doesn’t necessarily mean decreasing them. And those who count to build rather than lose are most successful. If your goals are more general, i.e. lose 20 pounds, get in shape, etc., then the best place to start would be focusing on the quality of what you’re eating.

Finally, remember that all calorie counts are estimates. You’ll never get your daily count perfect. Food labels are legally allowed variances in either direction, and calorie calculators can only give you ball-park estimates. So if you find yourself wondering how many calories are stuck to the side of your blender, you need to relax. Remember, even with the same activity level, your body doesn’t burn the exact same number of calories every day. So don’t get too obsessive about your food log. Calorie counting is just a tool. Pick it up when you need it.


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