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What You Need to Know About Counting Calories

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Fitness Editor
Julia is a qualified fitness trainer. She writes our articles about nutrition and fitness. She also makes free workout plans for our site.

If you listen to the diet industry, you’ve surely heard that counting calories is critical for hitting your muscle building and weight loss goals. But the truth is that it isn’t so cut and dry. We break down what the science says about the pros and cons of calorie counting in this article. 

What are calories?

Calories are the unit of measurement for thermal energy. Our bodies need 1 calorie to heat 1 liter of water by 1° C. It’s this process that provides our bodies with energy.

Basically, the calorie content of a food is the amount of energy it will give you. The calories we consume are converted into energy and used for vital organic processes, like breathing or keeping our hearts running. We need calories to do everything from working out to making coffee.

While excess calories are stored as fat, not eating enough calories will cause the body to draw on its energy reserves from carbohydrates. If you don’t eat enough regularly, your body will eventually begin breaking down the protein in your muscles for energy.

How Many Calories Do We Need?

The answer to this question varies from person to person and depends on factors like age, height, body weight, and gender. The amount you eat will depend on your individual metabolism and the goals you’re trying to reach.

Your caloric needs are based on basal metabolic rate (BMR), energy expenditure, and dietary thermogenesis. In order to lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories than you burn. This is called a calorie deficit. On the other hand, you need to consume more calories to build muscle mass.

That’s not a free pass to cut or add as many calories as you like. In fact, it can be dangerous to cut more than 300 to 500 calories per day. Doing so can destabilize your metabolism and make you more likely to experience the yo-yo effect.

On top of that, not all calories are the same. Some contain a wide array of macro- and micronutrients, while others may be little more than lots of added sugar. You’ll feel better after eating 1,000 calories of veggies and nuts than you will after 1,000 calories of potato chips because they contain the fiber, protein, and complex carbs you need to feel satisfied.

Fortunately, you don’t have to give anything up to reach your goals. It’s all about balance and moderation. Our Shape Guide and Muscle Guide provide you with all the tools you need to get started, including a 12-week workout and meal plan and plenty of tips to help you reach your goals.

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The Different Methods of Counting Calories

In principle, counting calories can be a useful way to reach your physical goals. Before we get into the advantages and disadvantages, keep reading to find out exactly how these calculations work.

No. 1: Counting Calories with an App

By far the easiest way to figure out your calorie needs is with a specially designed app. Nowadays, it’s not hard to find one. Many rely on a food database to supply you with the necessary info. That way it knows exactly how many calories are in your chocolate peanut butter shake or spaghetti dinner.

All you have to do is enter everything that you eat or drink into the app and it will do the calculating for you. Most apps also tell you how many carbs, proteins, and fats you need to consume to feel your best. Some premium apps will even supply you with micronutrient information.

No. 2: Counting Calories with a Food Journal

If you prefer to do things the old fashioned way, whip out a journal and start keeping track of what you eat. On the downside you’ll have to calculate everything on your own, but it’ll keep you off your phone and in the present moment.

No. 3: Calorie Contents Vary from Product to Product

Two different brands of the same type of cheese can have slightly different caloric contents. This is because of the different processes and additives that are used in the manufacturing process. While there will never be a huge gap, always double check to see that what you’re buying has what you expect. If your goal is weight loss, these little variables can make all the difference.

Additionally, the caloric content of a food can vary depending on how it’s prepared. Something that’s fried will be more calorically dense than something that’s steamed because of the oil used in the process.

No. 4: Accuracy is key

The biggest mistake you can make when calculating your calories for the purpose of losing weight or building muscle is not being accurate. In order for your tracking efforts to be effective, you need to be accurate and honest. Don’t hesitate to keep track of absolutely everything you eat, even the smallest snacks and drinks (With the exception of zero-calorie beverages like water or unsweetened teas.)

No. 5: Don’t Get Discouraged

Being too fixated on calories can be more harmful than helpful. The goal is to feel your best, not feel guilty for accidentally eating 100 calories more than you were supposed to. If you slip up, know that it won’t have much of an impact on your overall goals. And give yourself a break from time to time! You deserve it.

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What Are the Benefits of Calorie Counting?

Being aware of the calories you’re consuming will make it easier to reach your weight loss and fitness goals. These five benefits explain why it can be so helpful.

Benefit #1: You’re More Aware of What You’re Eating

You can’t always tell how many calories are in something just by looking at it. For example, a frozen pizza may seem rich in calories, but many options contain as little as 250 per serving. On the other hand, a bean- and veggie-filled minestrone may seem low in calories, but will actually have around 500 per serving.

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Additionally, calculating calories makes us more aware of what we’re eating in general. It’ll help you pay more attention to the macro and micronutrients of a dish, so that you’re always getting the most bang for your buck.

Our tip: Our nutrition coach will tell you everything you need to know about healthy eating.

Benefit #2: Calculating Calories Can Help You Lose Weight

Weight loss is one of the main reasons many start tracking their calories. Eating within a specific calorie deficit can expedite the weight loss process and help you reach your goals more effectively.

But you also need to exercise to lose weight sustainably. In addition to cardio and strength training, regular physical activity, like walking, is of the utmost importance.

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Benefit #3: Counting Calories Can Help Build Muscle Mass

While a calorie deficit is necessary for weight loss, a higher calorie intake is essential for muscle gains. But not just any calories: Stocking up on protein will ensure your body has all the muscle-building amino acids it needs to progress. Not sure how much protein you need to eat? Most calorie tracking apps will tell you how much of each macronutrient you need to stay on track.

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Benefit #4: You Won’t Snack as Much

When you’re tracking everything that you eat, you’ll notice how much the little things add up. Snacking isn’t a bad thing, but knowing how much you’re consuming will make you less likely to snack mindlessly. And you’ll get more enjoyment out of the snacks that you do have because they won’t occur so often.

If you don’t have anything fresh to snack on, our fitness snacks have just what you need. We prepare our products according to strict quality standards. Instead of added sugar and empty carbs, the focus is all on quality protein and healthy fats. Take a look at our selection to find what you’re looking for.

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Benefit #5: Calculating Calories Can Help You Identify Unhealthy Foods

If you think that the calories from your cappuccino don’t count, tracking your calories will help you realize that they do. Once you get used to the practice, you’ll start to intuitively know what’s nutritious and what isn’t.

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The Disadvantages of Counting Calories

Calorie counting can be as harmful to some as it is helpful to others. Keep reading to find out about the possible disadvantages of this practice and whether or not it’s right for you.

Disadvantage #1: Quantity Doesn’t Equal Quality

Most apps will tell you exactly how many calories, carbs, proteins, and fats you need to consume. Many can even be connected to fitness tracking apps so they count the amount of calories you burn in real time.

While this may seem like a huge advantage, it can be a disadvantage to those that hyperfocus on calorie intake and don’t pay any attention to macros. Even though you might still lose weight, odds are you won’t feel as healthy doing it, neither physically nor mentally.

It’s also important to think about the foods you like and what makes you feel good. Just because drinking protein shakes works for some doesn’t mean it will necessarily work for you. Every body is different and will respond differently to what’s put in it.

Rather than going on a diet, try instead to listen to your body and what it needs. For example, if you’re still hungry after your carefully portioned serving, you should go ahead and eat a bit more. The goal is to walk away feeling satisfied — not stuffed, but also not still hungry.

Disadvantage #2: Calculating Calories Is Time Consuming

All the steps that go into calorie counting can take up a lot of time. From researching the calorie content of different products to finding out what you need to eat, it’s a highly involved process that you need to be ready to take on.

Disadvantage #3: Calculating Calories May Make It Easier to Eat Highly Processed Foods

Counting calories on packaged food with a nutrition barcode is much easier to do than figuring out exactly what’s in a vegetable. All you have to do is scan it into the app and then you’re done! While it may seem easier, it may work against your goals. These types of products don’t always have the vitamins and macronutrients you need. Remember, the label doesn’t show everything!

Disadvantage #4: Eating Out Might Become Tricky

Eating out while you’re on a strict diet can be overwhelming. It may seem like the restaurant has nothing that you can eat. If you’re overly stressed about a dinner date with friends because of the calories involved, take a step back and breathe. One meal won’t ruin all the hard work you’re done. And you deserve to kick back and enjoy a delicious meal. In fact, it will probably make it easier to keep going on your weight loss journey.

Disadvantage #5: Calorie Counting Can Be Stressful

Tracking your calories requires discipline, and it can be stressful to do it round the clock. While some people may be able to do it without becoming stressed, others—especially those with a history of disordered eating—may find it extremely difficult. In the end, the goal is to feel healthier. And if counting calories makes you feel overwhelmed, then it might not be the best option for you.

Disadvantage #6: Counting Calories Can Have a Negative Impact on Your Diet

If eating becomes a source of stress rather than pleasure, continuing to count calories may not be in the best interest of your mental health. Feeling healthy and happy is the most important thing of all. The less comfortable you are around food, the more likely you are to make bad food choices. In fact, one study found that people who focus too much on calories when trying to lose weight turn away from certain foods, including things like healthy fats and whole grains1.

Skipping these foods for a long period of time may lead to deficiencies. Plus, not having them in your meals will make the eating experience far less enjoyable. Think about eating a plate of pasta without any sauce, or a plain piece of whole-wheat bread. Sure, it may seem healthier, but that doesn’t mean it is. You need those healthy fats and protein sources to feel your best.

Disadvantage #7: Counting Calories Can Be Addictive

Earlier we mentioned that being more aware of what you eat can be an advantage to calorie counting. However, this can turn into a disadvantage when you can’t stop thinking about the caloric content of your food. Sometimes it’s good to enjoy something without knowing exactly what’s in it, and you may have a hard time doing that if you’re hyper-fixated on counting calories. You may be losing weight, but your quality of life may diminish, too.

In general, try to avoid strict diets and instead focus on eating in a balanced way. Include your favorite foods—yes, even cookies—and keep in mind that one little thing won’t be enough to derail your plan.

Disadvantage #8: Calorie Counting May Make It More Difficult to Perceive Hunger Cues

If you’re paying too much attention to the amount of calories you think you’re supposed to eat, you may not realize when your body is crying out for food. As you eat, pay attention to how you feel rather than the quantity of food on your plate. What might be enough for someone else might not be for you, and paying attention to your hunger cues is the best way to ensure you’re always satisfied.

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So, What Now? Should You Count Calories or Not?

Whether or not you choose to count calories is entirely up to you. If you’re not sure, always check in with your doctor before making any major changes to the way you eat.

One thing is for sure: Knowing what it takes to reach your goal will give you the tools to achieve it whether your goal is weight loss or muscle development.

Learn about your caloric needs

Because tracking calories can quickly turn into an obsession, try to only do it for short periods of time. When that time is over, don’t think about calories at all for a while.

Whether you choose to keep track of calories or not, staying in tune with your body is of the utmost importance. Learn about the food that makes you feel the best, both physically and emotionally. Check in with yourself after each meal.

As you start to figure out what works best for you, try to eat more of the foods that make you feel good and cut back on the ones that don’t. Combine this with regular physical activity and you’ll lose weight without needing to count calories. Over time, you’ll know what’s best for your body without having to make any calculations.

Summary

  • Counting calories can help with both weight loss and fitness goals.
  • You need to eat fewer calories for weight loss and more calories for muscle development.
  • Tracking calories will help you understand exactly what’s in different foods.
  • Calorie counting can become an obsession for some.
  • Track calories for only short periods of time and always listen to your body.
Article sources
We at foodspring use only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • 1Lucan, S. & DiNicolantonio, J. (2015). How calorie-focused thinking about obesity and related diseases may mislead and harm public health. An alternative. Public Health Nutrition, 18(4), 571-581. doi:10.1017/S1368980014002559

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