Should I count my daily calories or not?
This question is one I often get asked, and often ask myself. There are several possible answers, each depending on your own personal objectives.
If your goal is to acquire new eating habits, and/or to maintain or lose weight, it could be quite interesting for you to log your calories for a couple of weeks. This could give you some valuable insight on whether you are eating too much or too little on average. Often, after keeping track of everything eaten during the day, people find that they have eaten much more than they originally thought!
Let’s take a look at a possible “typical” day for a person.
- A substantial breakfast: 500/600 calories
- Mindless snacking during the day: 400/500 calories
- Lunch at a restaurant: 1200/1300 calories
- Dinner: 500/600 calories
Total: 2600/3000 calories
As you can see, it’s easy to eat a non-negligible amount of calories, and for many this amount is higher than their daily needs. The result? Over the years, the pounds start slowly adding up, and before you know it you find yourself in front of the mirror wondering what happened 🙂
For the beginning athlete, however, I often notice the opposite trend: a caloric consumption inferior to the person’s needs. Often, this leads to a plateau in their progress, and the person ends up giving up.
Whereas the “typical” day presented above is often too high in calories for a sedentary person, it can be insufficient for an athlete who trains 3-5 times a week. Furthermore, these individuals tend to be more active in general (leading to an even greater energy expenditure throughout the day)
For the athlete who wishes to better his/her performance, or further develop his/her physique, I thus strongly recommend not only counting calories (something a coach often does anyways) but also paying attention to the breakdown of macro-nutriments. Once good habits are established, enough information will have been acquired for further calorie-counting to become unnecessary. Nutrition is fundamental for an athlete; he/she should assure that enough proteins, lipids and carbohydrates are being consumed throughout the day, and that the breakdown of these nutriments matches his/her training.
For bodybuilders wishing to develop their muscles, or lose fat for a competition, it is crucial to count calories. To be admitted into a competition, a bodybuilder needs to have an extremely low body fat percentage; male competitors typically have body fat between 4 and 5 %, and females between 13 and 16 % – these results are simply impossible to reach without paying close attention to caloric consumption.
How to estimate your caloric needs?
- They are estimations, nothing more
- The calculation depends on your level of activity during the day- something many people overestimate!
Using these tools, you will obtain a decent estimation of the amount you should consume a day. A good way to verify if this estimation is correct is to carefully observe any changes in weight, or variations in physical appearance. You will then be able to deduce whether or not you are consuming enough or too little/too much. With time, you will be able to estimate without any help your caloric needs (remember to stay objective!)
How to count calories?
There are several ways to do so. You can use applications or online tools; these often have a large database, allowing you to find almost all foods and drinks.
The advantage of this method is that you can quickly have the caloric total, as well as the nutriment breakdown of food. Once you have this information, you can adjust the amounts you eat (for example, eating slightly less cereal for breakfast) so that your food intake matches your caloric needs.
The disadvantage of this method is that it can lead to the development of obsessive tendencies regarding food. A person may, for example, find themselves so inflexible in terms of calories that their social life may suffer (no, this is not a joke).
Another way to count calories is more old-school, and consists of simply remembering these 4 key values regarding the number of calories per gram of nutriment:
- 1 gram of carbs: 4 Kcal.
- 1 gram of lipids (fats): 9 Kcal.
- 1 gram of protein: 4 Kcal (recently discovered to actually be 3,2 but this is not important).
- 1 gram of alcohol: 7 Kcal.
Keeping these numbers in mind, it will be easy for you to estimate caloric totals.
Example of caloric breakdown for lunch at a restaurant:
- 1 soup (Carbs +Lipids)/ 100 grams: 70 calories.
- 1 vegetable dish (Carbs)/ 100 grams: 70 calories.
- 1 dish of rice and sauce (Carbs + Lipids)/ 200 grams: 400 calories.
- 1 piece of meat (Lipids + Proteins)/ 100 grams: 250 calories.
- 1 piece of chocolate cake (Carbs + Lipids)/ 150 grams: 400/ 500 calories.
Total : 1190/ 1290 calories.
The advantage of this method is that it will allow you to acquire information and reflexes regarding food intake that you will keep for life- this in turn will keep you healthy for life. (Studies have shown that people conscientious of what they eat will establish healthy habits regarding food- for example, if they eat more than usual at lunch they will eat slightly less for dinner to compensate)
The inconvenience is that this technique requires a relatively precise estimation capacity (being able to glance at a plate of rice and know it is around 200 grams, for example) without which it can be easy to end up over or under-estimating caloric totals.
Another interesting approach; rather than basing your counting on the number of calories; is to track your macronutrients (proteins, carbs, and fats), because they matter most when it comes to reaching your goals. Hitting your macronutrients will yield more results in term of fat loss, muscle gains or body composition. For instance, rather than focusing on 2500 calories; you may focus on eating your daily amount of lipids, your daily amount of proteins and complete with your dietary carbohydrates in order to reach your goals.
Conclusion: so, do I count my calories?
To conclude, counting calories can be beneficial for many reasons, notably to become more conscious of what you are eating, become aware of whether you have good or bad eating habits, and/or to see if your intakes match your fitness goals.
If you take your workouts and training seriously, then you should be able to make the connection between performance and eating habits, a connection without which it will be hard for you to progress and push your potential to the max, as poor eating habits can lead to your performance suffering (loss of strength, fatigue, etc…).
After a few years, you will notice that you no longer need to count calories, for it will be something you will know how to do instinctively.
For the long term, you can also consider counting calories as a similar practice to keeping up with the money in your bank accounts. In the end, however, it all comes down to what your priorities and personal objectives are.