Do We Need to Count Calories to Lose Weight?

Let’s face it counting calories is a bit of a pain in the butt. On the surface, it can seem time consuming; endless searching on the back of packets that you buy, looking up items online and weighing all the ingredients you cook with and adding them up. On top of that there’s also the consideration of how accurate the measurements are on foods and how accurate portion sizes are, Sometimes, you look at a packet and the kcals are a little too much of a round number for my liking.

The simple fact is; that if you want to lose weight you need to operate in a kcal deficit. Plain and simple. No amount of “clean eating” will make you lose weight if you’re not consuming less energy than you’re using. Calories in must equal less that calories out. But doesn’t eating less mean you have to count kcal to do it? It depends on how accurately you’re looking to track.

Nutritious food Vs. less food

Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out the difference between eating nutritious food to be healthy and eating less food to lose weight. Much of the fitness industry is obsessed with weight loss, irrespective of nutrient content and this is often perpetuated in the media. Look at the cover of any fitness magazine, especially those targeted at women, look at how nutrition products are marketed. We see it in the labelling of our food too; diet, low fat, reduced fat, low carb etc.

The issue here is that it creates this environment where people obsess about weight management and forget about the importance of actual nutrition, that is; getting the correct amount of macro and micronutrients from food to ensure the correct functioning of our bodies to perform every day as well as in a sporting environment. To learn more about macronutrients and micronutrients, simple click on the highlighted words.

Learning about eating the right kinds of foods to make sure you’re healthy and ready to train effectively is probably the most important step with developing a good relationship with food. This way you can learn about foods supply you with good energy, protein for recovery as well as vitamins and minerals. When we look at weight loss before good food, it can often scare people away from high calorie foods because they’re worried about weight gain when the foods they’re cutting out are amazing for fuelling training and staying healthy. Prime examples are high fat foods like; nuts and nut butters, seeds and avocados as well as some higher sugar foods like dried fruit and pasta.

While counting kcal may not be essential for losing weight, you must have some system of monitoring what your intake is so that you can reduce it in a controlled fashion. Simply trying to ‘eat less’ without any system of measurement will see a more erratic energy intake, which if you’re also training could mean large discrepancies between the intake on some days compared to others. This would likely cause massive spikes and dips in energy levels, mood and cravings not to mention training performance and recovery.

The simplest form of tracking is to keep a photo food diary, taking pictures of everything you eat over a 5 day period. Looking back over the pictures you can compare from day to day how much meat and fish you’re eating, see if you’re getting a good variety and quantity of fruit and vegetables as well as getting an idea of your portion sizes from day to day. From here you can then make small changes over the course of each day to reduce your total energy intake by taking around 10% off each meal.

Food quality

Food quality and awareness of quantity is a good first step to taking control of your diet and it can get you pretty far. The other thing any kind of tracking system does is create a sense of accountability. When we over eat or binge on things we shouldn’t, it’s easy to take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. But when you see it in writing or in a picture, it can make a difference to how you view the food you’re eating.

Tracking the numbers

Triathletes are some of the most technology keen athletes around, sniffing out the latest gadgets to make their training better, to make them more aero, lighter, faster and stronger. Sure, just getting out there and going for a swim, bike ride or a run will get you fitter, and the more you do or the faster you go the better you’ll get. But to see real performance changes and reach your full potential we know that we must have structure to our training. Structure allows us to monitor training volume so that we don’t over train, it allows us to use different types of training like endurance or intervals, use different environments, hills, tracks, pools, lakes, roads, trails.

How we measure this training is also important for athletic performance. Most athletes will train with some kind of GPS device, even if it’s just through an app on their phone. We then also have heart rate monitor and power meters. Any athlete serious about making progress in their training will likely be implementing some or all of the above into their training. Training completely blind, means that changes you make to a training plan are complete guess work. And as obvious as this might seem, by not tracking your kcal intake you’re effectively doing the same with your nutrition.

If you want to make more specific changes, see more results and ultimately fuel your body to perform well at sport, then it makes sense to use a more accurate tracking system. The good news is that you can simplify it. Smartphone apps like MyFitnessPal allow you to save favourite meals, create and save recipes that you cook regularly and there’s a barcode scanner for anything you buy when you’re out, or for adding in ingredients when cooking. There’s also a pretty extensive library for most mainstream restaurants too. Foods that you eat regularly are easily added from frequent or favourite tabs. And while weighing food when you cook is more accurate, over time you’ll begin to judge pretty well what your usual portion size is and just enter it manually. Once you’re into a good habit of tracking, you can then go through phases of no tracking, to see how you get on ‘freestyle’ and then return to tracking every now and then when you need to steer yourself back on course.

So, do you have to track kcal to lose weight?

No, but like anything; if you want to do it better then you need some kind of system and the more accurate that system, the easier it is to target results. That said, the best system is the one that you can maintain. Find out what works for you, make small changes and try and stick to them.

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