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Counting Calories: Is it really necessary for weight loss?

The debate around the effectiveness of counting calories for weight loss can be perplexing, with loud and insistent voices emerging on both sides of the ring. Some advocate for its importance, emphasizing the fundamental concept of calories in versus calories out. On the flip side, detractors argue that it's outdated, ineffective, and may even lead to weight gain. In this blog, I delve into the scientific evidence to decipher whether counting calories truly works. As always, I intend to build my conclusion on a foundation of scientifically sound data, and then layer in personal and professional experience.

Please note that this blog does not address the importance of the quality or content of calories. The purpose of this particular blog is to address total calorie consumption only.

Calories as Fuel for the Body

To understand the role of calories in the body, let’s first recognize that humans must consume calories to survive. In other words, calories aren’t the enemy. On the contrary, calories provide our bodies with the fuel that we need for our brains, organs, and muscles to function.

Think of your body as a car with a gas tank. Want the car to keep going down the road? Put more gas in the tank. Easy, right? Conceptually it is, but the problem is that we are consistently over-filling the tank, and that extra fuel gets turned into fat that is stored for later use. Imagine if your car had all these extra overflow compartments for gas that allowed you to just keep putting more and more fuel in because those compartments have an endless capacity to keep getting bigger. Your car is getting heavier and heavier. It’s slowing down, it struggles to drive uphill, the tires are stressed. How did this happen?!

Woman looking at broken down car

Now imagine that the meter on the gas pump is broken and so is the gas needle inside the car. How are you supposed to know what is the correct amount of gas to put in? There is only one option: you must measure the gas before you put it into the car.

Why Guessing about Calories Doesn’t Work

Here is a hard truth: many of us have no idea how many calories we’re actually consuming. In fact, studies have shown that when asked to estimate daily caloric intake, Americans underestimate by 500-2,000 calories a day. Let’s look at how significant that is from a mathematical perspective:

Estimated intake by average American = 2,000

Actual intake = 2,500-4,000

This is where the numbers really add up. One pound is equal to 3,500 calories. For every 3,500 calories extra that you consume and don’t burn off, your body will gain one pound of fat. If you’re consuming just 100 calories more per day than you burn, that will add up to 10 POUNDS OF FAT PER YEAR!

A person checking their weight on a scale

Unfortunately, it is extremely easy to consume just 100 extra calories per day. Here is a list of common foods that contain 100 calories:

¼ of plain bagel (no spreads)

8 Doritos

1/3 McDonald’s Cheeseburger

3 small cubes of cheese

23 M&Ms (less than half a regular bag)

8 ounces orange juice (no sugar added)

The solution to this is to arm yourself with the power of knowledge. In other words, get an accurate and honest assessment of how many calories you are consuming on a daily basis. If you’ve been frustrated with weight gain, getting a handle on your calories will give you the information you need to make adjustments and start seeing results.

If you bite it, write it.

Assessing your caloric intake relies on accuracy and honesty. I recommend that you spend one week keeping a very detailed food journal so you can see patterns. Try to remain objective in this week-long assignment. No judgement, no berating yourself, just observation

A person using a nutrition tracking app

with the goal of obtaining an accurate reflection of where you’re currently at with calories. Remember that your body is a machine that needs to be fueled. In today’s app-filled world, countless free apps can assist in tracking your calories. Just enter the food and the quantity (this is important! Be accurate with the amount) and the app will count calories for you.

If you’re feeling defeated at the prospect of trying to cut a massive amount of calories from your diet, remember that small changes make a big impact over time. Fad diets and rapid weight loss have never worked in the long run and they never will. Just as 100 calories extra can result in 10 pounds of weight gain in a year, 100 calories FEWER than what your body needs will result in 10 pounds of weight loss. Stay focused on making small, sustainable changes. When I work with clients on changing their habits around food, I ask this question: Can you see yourself making this change and sticking with it for the next year? Here are some examples of real, effective changes that save 100 calories:

*Reduce amount of mayo on turkey sandwich from 2 tablespoons to 1

*Switch morning breakfast bagel to two slices of wholegrain bread

*Reduce daily soda from 20 ounce bottle to 12 ounce can

*Switch from regular latte to coffee with a splash of milk

Takeaways from Calorie Counting

Mathematically speaking, creating and sustaining a calorie deficit is imperative to weight loss. Is it possible to achieve this without counting calories? Yes, but most likely it is because you’re following a calorie-reduced diet plan that did the counting for you. Which, by the way, is a nice option if you don’t want to be bothered with measuring. Many excellent programs provide pre-made meals where the portions are already determined for you. This can be a great place to start, though eventually you will probably want the flexibility to prepare your own meals.

What if you spend a week counting calories and determine that your daily intake is truly below what is recommended, yet you continue to gain weight? In this instance, there is the possibility of a sub-clinical condition that is preventing your metabolism from efficiently utilizing calories and the advice of a healthcare professional should be sought.

Finally, if calorie counting triggers negative emotions, alternative practices like intuitive eating may be more suitable. Consulting a healthcare professional can aid in determining the approach that aligns with your individual needs and goals.

If you’re interested in determining how many calories your body needs on a daily basis, please visit the MyPlatePlan provided by the USDA. I am also here to provide 1:1 coaching and customized nutrition plans. You can reach me at to schedule an appointment.

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