Counting calories makes sense for those who are trying to shed excess body fat and reach their ideal racing weight. Losing weight requires that you eat fewer calories than your body uses. Counting calories helps you determine if you are in fact using more calories than you eat. Pretty simple.
But what’s simple in principle can be difficult in practice. Counting calories is challenging for two reasons. First, it’s a pain in the butt, requiring more time and effort than most people feel it is worth. Second, the do-it-yourself methods of calorie counting are not very accurate. Recently my wife and I made a jambalaya with a million different ingredients in it. Calculating how many calories were in a serving would have taken longer than making it, and it would have had a large margin of error.
But do-it-yourself calorie counting does not have to be 100 percent accurate, or even 95 percent accurate, to be helpful. That’s because counting calories increases dietary awareness, and when people are more conscious of what they are eating they automatically eat better, even when they don’t make a conscious effort to act on their awareness, but especially when they do.
Studies have shown that keeping a food journal and weighing oneself frequently promote weight loss through increased awareness. For example, in a 2008 study by researchers at Minneapolis Heart Research Institute, 100 overweight individuals enrolled in a 12-month weight-loss program were encouraged to weigh themselves frequently at home. The study’s authors found that frequency of self-weighing was significantly correlated with weight loss and weight-loss maintenance. Subjects lost approximately one extra pound for every 11 days they weighed themselves. And in a study conducted at the Kaiser Permanente Health Research Center, researchers found that overweight individuals participating in an eight-month weight-loss program lost twice as much weight when they kept a daily food diary than when they logged their food intake irregularly or not at all.
Earlier research has shown that calorie counting has a similar effect. Independently of any effort to reduce caloric intake, individuals who keep track of how many calories they consume actually do eat less. The key difference between calorie counting on the one hand and food journaling and self-weighing on the other is that counting calories is more difficult and time consuming.
While counting calories is a hassle, it’s not a hassle you have to put up with often to get something out of it. Very few people, even among those who succeed in losing excess body fat and keeping it off, count every calorie they consume every day of their lives. It simply isn’t necessary. Most people naturally maintain fairly consistent eating habits. Once you find eating habits that create a slight caloric deficit and move you closer to your optimal weight, it will be easy to stay close to your optimal weight simply by being consistent with those habits.
Counting calories can help you discover the eating habits that are most effective in moving you closer to your optimal weight. These habits will consist of certain types of foods you eat regularly and others you eat minimally or not at all, particular portion sizes, and a schedule of meal and snack times. Such habits are very easy to recreate from one day to the next without calorie counting. With such habits in place, you can leave calorie counting behind until your eating habits change, for whatever reason. Then it’s a good idea to perform a brief “diet audit” to make sure you calorie intake is still in line with your needs.
Think of calorie counting as a set of training wheels—a tool to get you started in the right direction and to be used only until you can balance on your own.
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of “Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance” (VeloPress, 2009, Velopress.com).