The Pros & Cons of Counting Calories

In Blog Posts by Danny Lennon Comments

The Pros & Cons of Counting Calories

Tech is changing the way we do everything.

For nutrition, one of the most basic tech interventions is still one of the most valuable: something to track/log food intake.

This is super helpful from a coaching point of view too. I’ll often start people with tracking intake so I can get an idea where they are starting at.

My app of choice thus far has been My Fitness Pal, as it’s free and very easy to use. Although there are a number of great options available.
MyFitnessPal allows me to track food intake and gives a breakdown of calories’ and macros (carbs/protein/fat).

Why might this be interesting to some? Well I’ve often told people that they don’t need to track calories but instead focus on building better habits and consistency with eating good quality food.

So if I believe that counting calories isn’t necessary or the ideal long-term plan then why do I use an app on my phone that allows me to do exactly that? Let me explain.


Do Calories Matter?  

Before answering the question of whether you should track calories or not first it’s important to clarify something that can be misunderstood or sometimes just explained inaccurately: the answer to the question “do calories matter?”

I mean, when we hear about not having to track calories, or not to worry about reading calorie counts of foods, instead just focus on their quality then it is a logical step to some to conclude that calories just don’t matter.

Unfortunately they do. Especially when we are talking about body composition. Not only do they matter, they are actually the main determinant of body composition changes.

But please do not fall into the trap of thinking that I’m saying they are the only thing that matters. I’m not. Here is a very important distinction:

Calories do matter but that doesn’t mean calorie-counting is the best way to control them.

You see, saying that calories matter and the practice of calorie-counting are two completely different things.

“So you’re saying don’t count calories then?”

Well, as I say pretty much all the time… it depends. Let’s try put some context on this thing.


Should I Count Calories? 

There are so many nuances and caveats to this question that to best answer it I think providing some pros and cons of counting calories will hopefully allow you to determine if you should be doing it. You individual circumstances will determine whether the pros or cons carry more weight.


Pro #1: Provide a measurable metric

Tracking calories over a set period of time allows you to work out a metric that you can relate back to your progress. Sure, exact numbers are not necessary but some people have literally no clue where their intake lies. Tracking just to get an idea of where you are is a useful thing to do from time to time. How frequently you do it is dependent on your goal.

Pro #2: Quantify how much you’re consuming

One common thing I see are people massively OVERestimating how much protein they are eating. Many guys say they’re eating a high-protein diet, only for them to see they are barely reaching 1g PRO/ kg bodyweight (I’d prefer to see close to 2g/kg).

Another is calorie intake. Some undersestimate how much they eat and soon realise that’s why they’re not dropping bodyfat. While others can overestimate and end up eating virtually nothing.

Another is for the low-carbers out there. Carbohydrate restriction can be a good strategy for many but is your low-carb diet becoming a zero-carb one? Track and make sure that’s not the case. Unless of course you have a good reason for going so low (e.g. ketogenic diet for therapeutic reasons).

Pro #3: Increase mindfulness

By simply asking someone to log their food into a tracking app like My Fitness Pal can make them more aware of their food intake, often leading to better food choices and reducing the liklihood of over-eating. Psychological factors like this can be huge determinants of success.

Pro #4: Provide something to stick to

While some people thrive on randomness and enjoy a take-it-as-it -comes approach to life, others prefer set routines. For those who like structure and set routines/plans, having to log their meals and track intake each day can provide something they can “stick to”. This is where evaluation of the person’s personality and preferences is key.

Pro #5: Necessary to optimise body composition

I know some will argue this and there is certainly anecdotes to say that, I think those are the exception to the rule. To get to the extremes of body composition, I think tracking macros consistently and closely is necessary for virtually most people. There is just too much going on acting against you getting shredded that simply eating “good food” is unlikely to get someone near their potential for body composition manipulation. Obviously this is all relative, depending on what we define as optimised body composition.


Con #1: Unnecessary stress/hassle for some

Let’s face it, tracking food consistenly and accurately is pain in the balls. Especially when you don’t have control over the cooking of the food. Social situations become stressful. And often times the hassle that comes with tracking calories is unnessary. Unless it’s in the case of someone that fit’s into the profile of Pro #5.

Con #2: Loss of focus on food quality

When the sole focus jumps to hitting calorie and macro targets, some peeps forget just how important their veggies are! The principles should remain the same; get plenty of nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods in the diet. Focus on food quality and caloric intake, not just one.

Con #3: Can be used as a justification for eating crap

Related to the point above, if something fits into your calorie and macronutrient targets it might be seen as fine to include. And at a small scale this is fine. But having the vast majority of your diet look like you shop exclusively at the local petrol station is not cool. Please don’t use calories tracking as an excuse to eat crap.

Con #4: Can make some neurotic

In a previous post I talked about the problems of restrictive dietary rules, one being the developing of food neurosis. Well the same can be said for calorie counting. If you become a stressed mess because you have to base every food decision on a maths calculation then you’re doing it wrong.

Either abandon this strategy or chill the fuck out.

Con #5: Temptation to turn into an annoying social media muppet

This is the most critical point to remember, simply because you’ll piss me off.  This one is an out-growth of number 3. Now even if you want to eat tons of crap and your making progress body composition wise then cool, your choice bro. But please don’t become that muppet that has to tell the world of all the processed junk their enjoying and still getting ripped. Nobody cares.

Not all of these point will apply to everyone but these are just things that I’ve seen happen.

Personally, I think that calorie tracking can have a lot of value when used in the right way. I think for long-term, sustainable, stress-free eating then not actively tracking calorie/macro intake is a cool way to go. Again… IT. DEPENDS.

Do what’s best for your life and goals.

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