3 downsides of tracking calories (+how to deal with each)
written by Philip Stefanov | JULY 19, 2022
As someone with years of experience tracking calories and teaching others how to do it, I love the approach. It ensures accuracy, delivers results, teaches you to eyeball foods, makes you better at estimating your intake, and more.
Still, tracking calories isn’t all good. There are some drawbacks to consider, so let’s discuss them and what you can do about each.
1. Determining Your Calorie Expenditure Can Be Tough
Between the one-shoe-fits-all recommendations, inaccurate TDEE calculators, and unreliable activity trackers, determining your calorie expenditure can be tricky. The problem is that we are all unique, and metabolic rates vary between people, even those of similar sizes and activity levels.
Unfortunately, not knowing your actual expenditure would render calorie-tracking useless because you have no real reference point. For instance, you might eat 2,800 calories daily but is that enough? Is it ideal for fat loss or muscle gain? That’s why knowing your TDEE matters. It allows you to adjust calories up or down based on your short-term goal.
I’ve recommended a specific method for calculating calories for years. It starts by calculating your basal metabolic rate (BMR; the number of calories you burn at rest each day) with this formula. You then use the multiplier to come up with a rough estimate of your calorie expenditure.
Once you’ve calculated your TDEE, track your body weight for at least two weeks to determine if your calorie intake is accurate. For instance, if you remove 500 calories from your TDEE and eat that way for a couple of weeks, you should lose two to three pounds.
2. Calorie Counting Can Turn Into An Obsession
Counting calories is much like keeping a budget and tracking your spending to improve your finances, overcome debt, etc. For more analytical people, it can even be a way to enjoy their nutrition more because it provides a sense of accuracy and predictability. Part of why I’ve been able to track my calories for years is my personality. I’m a detail-oriented person, and I enjoy learning about how things work.
The problem with counting calories, especially for people predisposed to obsessions, is that doing so can take over your life and cause you to lose the ability to enjoy food and eat out. As a result, you become a prisoner to the nutritional approach, skip social events because you can’t track your intake, and refuse to eat any food you haven’t weighed, written down, and calculated into your daily total.
Apart from being mindful of the possibility, one good way to prevent obsession is to keep enjoying the occasional meal without tracking. Enjoy a family dinner, go out for ice cream with friends, and have romantic dinners at restaurants with your significant other. Give yourself the liberty to enjoy meals where you don’t track calories but instead practice your ability to gauge how full you are.
Additionally, realize that what you do most of the time matters more than what you occasionally do. If you feel guilty for eating more than you should, let it go and move on. Go back on track as soon as possible and know that one day where your calories are ‘off’ isn’t the end of the world.
3. It’s Challenging to Determine When to Make Adjustments
The third problem with counting calories is that making adjustments can be challenging, but there is no way around them. For instance, the calories you should eat to lose fat during your first week will differ from your energy intake at weeks 10, 15, etc. There are three primary reasons for that:
- Weighing less means it takes your body less energy to move around and do things
- Prolonged dieting often leads to a drop in energy levels, causing you to move less
- Hormonal changes in response to dieting lead to a downregulation in metabolic rate (adaptation)
Similarly, gaining weight to build muscle requires gradual increases in calorie intake to support growth and prevent stagnation. The heavier you get, the more calories you burn. Plus, increases in leptin and other hormones cause your metabolic rate to increase, leading to greater energy demands.
An excellent way to understand if you’re eating the correct number of calories is to track your progress. Doing so provides the necessary data for adjusting your food intake. Good ways to track progress include:
- Weigh yourself at least four times per week, calculate the weekly average, and watch for a trend
- Take progress photos once a month, always using the same poses and in the same conditions
- Take circumference measurements of your chest, arms, waist, hips, and thighs to determine if these areas are growing or getting smaller
- Track your gym performance with an app or by logging workouts in a notebook
For instance, if you want to lose fat but the last three weeks show no decrease in body weight, you’re likely overeating food and aren’t in a calorie deficit. As such, you can reduce your intake by 100 to 300 calories, track for another couple of weeks, and determine if the new intake is accurate for your goal.
Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,
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