Boring. Unnecessary. Time consuming. These are a few of the excuses that I constantly hear when I talk to people about whether or not they count their calories. If you don’t have fitness or health goals then sure, there’s no reason to participate in something like that. Or honestly if your goal is very general and gives you the benefit of fluctuating in weight a bit while being overall “healthy” with eating choices, then again there’s probably no reason to partake in calorie counting. However, if you have a goal you’re trying to reach with your fitness or health, and maybe you’re struggling with consistent progress or find you’re not able to get to that next level, counting calories may be for you.
Why count calories?
The key to counting calories is that it gives little to no room for error. If you can log in everything that you eat, there’s no guess work about whether or not you’re eating right. It’s factually in front of you. The “I only eat 1500 calories and still gain weight” becomes “oh wow that coffee I have on the way to work loaded with creams and sugars is actually 500 calories. And that orange juice in the morning tacks on some more, as well as that wine in the evening. Next thing you know that 1500 calories is actually 2400 calories, and suddenly that weight gain is making a little more sense.
Trust me I’ve been there. I’ve been the skeptic and thought that it couldn’t possibly make that much of a difference. I’ve also thought it was super time consuming, but with the apps out there now counting calories has become extremely simple as long as you have access to a smart phone. Each app (and we will recommend an app later in this article), has a scanning function and a search function that make almost every food you can imagine easy to log in.
How do I start?
The first thing you want to do is download an app. In my experience the easiest app, available for both iPhone and Android, is MyFitnessPal by Under Armor. Once you download it, you can go into the app and put in your height, weight, and goal weight. This will give you a recommended daily calorie amount in order to meet your goal. You can even see the recommended fat, protein, and carb amounts you should hit each day. Unfortunately the percentages of that default to something like 50% carbs, 20% protein, and 30% fat. Luckily you can adjust this. I would recommend leaving fat at 20%, adjusting protein to between 85% and 100% of your bodyweight, and leaving the remainder for carbs. Right now I’m using 40% carbs, 30% protein, 30% fat. Once you have this set up you can start entering as you eat!
As I mentioned before there are two ways to enter items: scanning or searching. Scanning is the easiest, so if you’re eating something or cooking with something that has a barcode, simply click on the barcode icon and scan the food. This will load in the food item just as you see it on the box, and will load in with the recommended serving size. Adjust the serving size to accurately represent what you’ve eaten, and there you have it! Food entered. It really is that easy with scanning.
Now let’s say you’re eating something that isn’t scannable. Fortunately the search function, at least in the MyFitnessPal app, is extremely helpful, and quite specific. If you’re eating a burger at a chain restaurant, don’t simply search burger. McDonald’s Big Mac, Five Guys double cheeseburger, etc. will give you accurate calories. Most are used frequent enough that you can break down the toppings you put on. You’ll find a green checkmark next to the item that shoes it’s verified and accurate. Now, if you’re at some local diner ordering an omelette it may not have that information available. In this case you just have to search “western 3 egg omelette diner” and you’ll probably be able to get something very close that someone entered into the app before at another diner.
At the end of the day if you do this for all your meals you’ll have an accurate look at what you truly are eating in a day.
Again, people often don’t realize what they’re eating every day because things like alcoholic drinks, coffee, or even snacks don’t make it into their thoughts when they’re adding up what they eat in a day. If you’re eating or drinking ANYTHING, put it in the app. Even putting 0 calorie items into the app will help to establish the habit. You don’t want to miss anything because you want to be able to know for a fact what you’re consuming in order to help make progress on your health and fitness goals. If you’re one of those people that truly is eating low calories and aren’t losing weight, and you know this to be accurate because EVERYTHING is being logged in, then that’s the time to see a health professional and try to figure out if you have any underlying issues. But more often than not, it really does come down to the fact that people are almost always eating more than they think when they’re gaining weight. With a few exceptions, weight loss or weight gain is a set-in-stone formula: calories in minus calories out. Or, calories consumed versus calories burned. If you eat less calories than you’re burning on a day to day basis. You will lose weight.
Be prepared for a learning curve
When you start logging in every meal every day, one of the first things you’re going to become aware of is that what you’ve been eating is probably not cutting it. On day 1 if you log everything in then go to the “Nutrition” tab and see the breakdown of carbs, fat, and protein, you will probably realize that you’re not hitting that 40% carbs, 30% protein, 30% fat. It very well may be that you’re way over in one and way under in another. Or possibly over in everything. The point is that at the beginning it’s going to take some adjusting each day. Eventually it becomes almost second nature. Not only will logging in become a habit, but you’ll start to understand what types of foods you want to eat at different points in the day in order to hit all of your daily macronutrient numbers. You should even get to the point where you know how to sneak in those unhealthy snacks!
Be honest with your numbers
If the serving size says x amount and you’re eating double that. Put the 2 servings in there. If you eat a whole bag of chips and you look and see that there are 12 servings in the bag, you have to put that in. These numbers are for you only, no one else is going to see them. So if you want to get the most out of counting calories you have to be honest with yourself. This is an important theme throughout health and fitness in general. This is what can separate you from the “I only eat salads I don’t know why I’m gaining weight!” Fun tip, most salad dressings have a TON of calories. You may think your chicken Caesar salad is healthy. It’s probably not. But you’ll see that when you put it in the app! If you’re dumping ranch dressing on your salad and the serving size says 1 tablespoon, make sure you’re honest about the fact that you drenched that salad with 4x that. Honesty with counting calories will lead to results.
Go for it!
I’ve introduced the MyFitnessPal app to a lot of people over the last few years. It really works. It’s funny to see some of them struggle at first in thinking that it won’t make a difference but essentially just doing it because I plead with them. Then, the transformation starts to happen. Not just with their attitude towards the app, but with results for their bodies.
Pro tip! You can add in workouts as well to most of these apps that will estimate calories burned. Log in your exercise and you can find some room for an extra snack. Remember, calories in versus calories out. Calories consumed versus calories burned. If you want to have a caloric deficit of 300 calories (burning 300 more than eating) it doesn’t matter if it’s 2000 eaten versus 2300 burned, or 2400 eaten versus 2700 burned. Simply eat less than you’re burning. Not too complicated right?
The key, as always, is getting started. Develop the habit and it becomes second nature. I’ve seen it work for so many people and I know it can work for you. Good luck!