Calories in, calories out. Right?
Well, sort of.
It's more than a math problem. Despite the popular adage, fueling our bodies is not exactly like filling a gas tank. It's a little more complicated than that.
When you take in more calories/energy than you expend you gain weight and when you take in fewer calories/energy than you expend, you lose weight. This is the law of thermodynamics. We just don't always know exactly how much we are taking in and how much we are burning.
Are calories important? Yes. If you have never tracked your calories before, it can be helpful to track for a few days to get an estimate of what you are taking in. It's a good starting point. Do most people need to track every morsel they consume for the rest of their lives? I say no.
First of all, it is all a guessing game. Well, a guess-timate game.
HOW MANY CALORIES DO I NEED?
How many calories should you eat to lose weight? Again, it depends. There are formulas and online calculators that can help you get in the ballpark. This is a great weight loss calorie calculator from Precision Nutrition. It considers all the important factors like current weight, age, height, sex, activity level. It is still an estimate.
And if you tell the calculator you want to lose 40 pounds in 2 months it will probably give you some unrealistic number of calories to consume, because it is an internet calculator and not a real coach. An online calculator doesn't know what a realistic, sustainable weight loss goal looks like, it just calculates the numbers. Numbers in, numbers out.
Let's assume you have a realistic, sustainable weight loss goal to lose two pounds a week over the next 15 weeks. You want to lose 30-40 pounds over the next four to five months. You plug in your numbers and get a calorie goal for each day. Great, you're on the right track.
DO I NEED TO WEIGH AND MEASURE FOOD?
You open up a MyFitnessPal account and start entering in the foods you eat. There is another issue. Are you weighing everything? Are you measuring out the serving sizes? Was that banana a small banana or a medium banana? How many ounces of chicken was in that salad? Was it cooked in oil or butter? How much? Did you enter that coffee creamer? What were the ingredients in that 1/2 cupcake you ate at your co-worker's party?
Now, you can get close if you weigh and measure, which I think is a fine solution for a short-term. Is it sustainable to weigh and measure everything you eat for the rest of your life? Probably not. You might just drive yourself crazy first.
Once you weigh and measure for a few days you might start to get an idea what a 1/2 cup looks like, what 4 oz of chicken is and what a tablespoon of peanut butter look like (Wait? It's not a heaping oversized spoon? Darn it.). This is great. You are starting to educate yourself on what proper portions look like and it can be a long term tool that will serve you for years to come.
AM I CALCULATING AN EXACT CALORIE COUNT?
Unfortunately, still no. The calories listed on packages can legally be up to 20% inaccurate. So even if the package says 100 calories, it may be 120. Why is that? Well it is hard for food producers and restaurants to know the exact calorie count in foods. There are so many factors that can affect it: soil and growing conditions, ripeness at time of harvest, animals' diets and storage length. Different batches of of both natural and processed foods can vary in their exact contents. One test can't accurately predict all future lots. Calories for natural foods listed in databases are averages.
So, in short, it's complicated. But wait...there's more.
DO I ABSORB ALL THE CALORIES I EAT?
We don't necessarily absorb all the calories we consume. Preparation and cooking time can change the nutrient content and individuals absorb calories uniquely and not necessarily the same each time.
And the metabolism is adaptive. Your body adapts and your calorie needs change.
We haven't even talked about calories out. Again, a giant guessing game. That calories burned number on your treadmill or your FitBit? Even when heart-rate is factored in it is a big fat guess that may be over-estimated.
So calories in, calories out as a long term sustainable game plan may be an exercise in futility.
DO I NEED TO TRACK CALORIES?
Am I telling you all of this to frustrate you? Should you throw your MyFitnessPal against the wall? We often want to try to control something that is simply out of our control. You can drive yourself crazy and still not get the results you want. The good news is that we don't have enter every calorie consumed into an app for the rest of our lives.
Calorie counting, weighing and measuring at the beginning of your journey or when you want to get back on track can be a tool to give you an estimate of where you are starting. That can be beneficial.
Some people like tracking because it gives them accountability. They know that if they eat something they have to enter it in a food journal or app, so it helps them stop and consider what they are eating. Great. A food log can be a good thing when used properly, as a journal to review your daily food choices and how they make you feel.
Other people get obsessive about tracking and it takes over their lives (raises hand). Not great. Find the middle ground that works for you.
If counting calories is not the solution, what is? How can I be mindful of what I eat? How can I make sure I am in a calorie deficit when trying to lose weight? Or get enough calories when I am trying to put on muscle?
- 2 palms of protein dense foods with each meal
- 2 fists of vegetables with each meal
- 2 cupped hands of carb dense foods with most meals
- 2 entire thumbs of fat dense foods with most meals
- 1 palm of protein dense foods with each meal
- 1 fist of vegetables with each meal;
- 1 cupped hand of carb dense foods with most meals
- 1 entire thumb of fat dense foods with most meals
It's a great starting point, but It's just that, a starting point. If you start to incorporate the hand method of portion sizes, you may need to adjust. If you find that you are very hungry 30 minutes after eating or if you are extremely active, you may need a little more. If you feel stuffed and haven't been as active, maybe a little less. Your needs will always be individual. Pay attention to results and adjust as needed. It's a common sense system that works and doesn't feel like punishment.
When you eat a casserole, obviously, the hand method doesn't work. You can easily eat a thumb-size portion of avocado or almonds (fats), but how do you eat two thumbs of eggs? Does bacon count as a protein or a fat? All good questions. Just remember that it is not meant to be another strict rule to follow, but a general guideline to give you an idea of where to start. You adjust in a way that makes sense to you, then monitor results. If you are lost, consider hiring a nutrition coach to help you on your path.
Eat slowly and pay attention to your your body's hunger and fullness cues. I wrote a post on mindful eating that may be helpful. (Spoiler alert: for one, put away your cell phone at the dinner table.) Keep a food journal if it helps you better evaluate what you are eating and how certain foods make you feel.
We sometimes over complicate things. As a starting point, let's work to eat mostly whole, minimally processed foods from nature, while maintaining proper portions. Over time, once this becomes part of your daily habits, along with regular exercise and movement, your weight will most likely reflect your healthy lifestyle.
I don't mean to oversimplify things either. Our bodies are complicated and each of us is different. We all have individual needs, preferences and lifestyles. Aim to find that sweet spot of sanity and sustainability. What habits can you sustain for the rest of your life? You can start by keeping paying attention to food quality, portion sizes and hunger cues and adjust as needed.
If you love counting calories and it works for you and your lifestyle, then great. I would not advise you to stop doing anything that benefits you as an individual.
It's just that if you are pulling out your hair counting calories, and you're not seeing the results you desire, just know it doesn't have to be that way. You can live a healthy, balanced life and never count a calorie again.
Need help with your nutrition strategy? Tired of dieting? Want help developing healthy habits while staying sane and balanced? My nutrition and lifestyle coaching program begins in June, get on the list for a big pre-sale discount.
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I am a NASM personal trainer and RRCA adult distance running coach that specializes in strength training for runners. I offer in-person training in the Shredshed, online training and Fit to Run bootcamps. If you are interested in a more in-depth running or strength training plan, please contact me. Have questions? I'd love to help.
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While I am a certified personal trainer, I am not your personal trainer. Since I don't know your exercise abilities, injury background or medical history, please see your doctor before beginning any new exercise program. This is an opinion blog. No information in this blog is intended to be taken as medical advice or prescription. Please see your doctor and/or registered dietitian for any health concerns.