Calorie counting is a useful tool for weight gain and muscle building but it’s not everyone’s best choice. There is some debate over whether calorie counting is a good way of getting healthier or adding weight. Some experts argue that calorie counting can lead to food restriction beyond what’s safe, and promote disordered eating. Other experts claim that calorie counting is an efficient and effective approach to weight gain.
While one thing is for sure, there is no “true” solution to weight gain or health. Just as some people excel on HIIT training while others find fitness by running— and others do not like organized exercise at all— some people will be successful with calorie counting and others won’t.
This calorie counting guide covers how it can help with health goals, when it is working and when it is not, and how to get started.
Counting calories for both weight gain and weight loss.
Weight management is nothing more than a game of calories in and out. A calorie is a measuring unit which describes how much energy there is in a given food or drink. The same measuring unit is used to describe how much energy you exert (calories burned) in a day.
You have to burn more calories than you consume to lose weight, and to gain weight you have to consume more calories than you are burning. If you’re interested in changing your weight one way or the other, you’ll need to create a calorie deficit or a calorie surplus— and you need to keep track of the calories you eat and burn to make sure you stay in your desired surplus or deficiency. By counting the calories you eat and burn, you can create the calorie balance you desire.
Say you want to lose 10 pounds (one pound per week) over 10 weeks. One pound of body fat is approximately equal to 3,500 calories, though depending on the density of body fat and how your body composition changes over time there is potential for variation between individuals.
Based on the estimate of 3,500 calories, to lose that one pound you need to create a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories every week. There are a few ways you can do this:
- Reduce your calorie intake by 500 calories per day
- Increase or intensify exercise to burn 500 calories per day
- A mix of the two, e.g. reduce your calorie intake by 250 calories per day and burn an extra 250 calories per day through exercise.
The fact of the matter is that all weight- gain and weight- loss programs are all about change in your calorie balance through dietary habits and exercise though other tactics, such as intermittent fasting or food group exclusions, might disguise that. Most people just like to eat and enjoy food without having to worry about the caloric value. Some people don’t have the time or energy to count calories (probably most of us) while others have health goals that don’t include calorie counting.
Calorie counting works when:
- Your main focus is strictly gaining or loosing weight.
- You want a simple, no-frills way to keep tabs on your diet.
- You need to keep track of your body composition for medical reasons (tracking macros is a better approach to body recomposition).
- You want or need to keep track of micronutrients, such as particular vitamins or minerals.
- You have a history of disordered eating and feel the urgency.
How to start counting calories the correct way.
The first thing to do is to decide how many calories you need every day. If you are eating too few or too many, counting them will not do you any good. The absolute best way to understand your daily calorie allowance is to work with a registered dietitian, physician or certified nutritionist who is able to take into account your weight, height, health history and goals for an ideal daily calorie number.
However, if seeing a pro is not on the table, you use an online calorie calculator, such as this one from Mayo Clinic, to find out. Most calorie calculators use the same formula, the Mifflin-St Jeor equation, which represents gender, height, weight, age and level of activity. As the disclaimer on calorie calculator at Mayo Clinic says, certain variables may influence the daily calorie requirements. Pregnancy, disease and education also contribute.
You can start counting your calories, once you have your number. Consume fewer calories than your maintenance number to create a deficit, and eat more to create a surplus. You can keep track in a pen-and-paper journal, or use an app to count calories.
Tracking fresh foods.
Monitoring fresh foods is a little more complicated than monitoring packaged foods, as usually there is no mark. But the calorie data can be found online easily. To find full nutrition info, you can check virtually any food in the FDA Food Central database. Many food tracking apps also have massive food repositories so don’t let the lack of a nutrition label dissuade you from eating fresh foods.
Tracking restaurant meals.
It can be difficult to log the calories into restaurant meals if the restaurant is not a chain. In 2018, the FDA mandated that all restaurants with more than 20 locations should disclose calorie information for all menu items, so eating at a regional or national chain restaurant is simple enough. Local restaurants aren’t required to disclose calorie counts, but there’s a good chance they’ll find out if you ask your server.
Don’t forget to count the calories in the drinks you drink all day. Except if you drink just plain water and zero-calorie drinks (including black coffee and tea without sweeteners or milk), your beverages contribute to your daily calorie intake. Check your coffee, sports drinks, alcohol, soda and juices to count the calories from the creamer.
Calories can’t tell you how healthy your diet is.
While calories are useful for deliberate weight loss or weight gain, they do not tell you micro nutrients in the way. Perhaps the consistency of your diet is just as critical as the number of calories you eat every day: Where your calories come from makes a big difference in your health. A calorie is more than just a weighing device when it comes to determining how food impacts your overall health.
For example, a 100-calorie peanuts serving affects your body much differently than a Twinkie’s worth of 100 calories. Peanuts include food, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, while a Twinkie mainly contains sugar and saturated fats. A handful of peanuts will give you sustained energy; a Twinkie would undoubtedly spike and crash your blood sugar— and those are only the short-term effects.
Peanuts provide health benefits over the long term, such as regulation of blood sugar and lower cholesterol levels. Many of the ingredients in Twinkies— sugar, high fructose corn syrup and, to name a few, hydrogenated oils— were associated with an increased risk of chronic disease.
You can eat far more fruits and vegetables for the same amount of calories in a candy bar. But the great thing is that filling your diet with fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats should naturally curb your calorie intake. You will get full on fewer calories as nutritious foods appear to be less calorie-dense than foods that are sugar, fat or refined.
If you’re interested in pursuing health, wanting to fend off chronic diseases, maintaining healthy fitness and age, your best bet is to pay close attention to both your calorie intake and the quality of the food you eat.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.