Calorie Counting and Why You Should Do it

Posted on 14. Jan, 2009 by in Nutrition

Calorie counting is probably one of the most overlooked weight loss secrets. Yes, it can be a tedious task but its benefits can blow you away. I know that when I first started, I was too stubborn to log or write my food down. I always thought that I can simply reduce the amount of food that I eat (i.e. eat smaller portions) and I will start to lose some weight. While this can be true during the early stages of weight loss, you may find that you will reach plateau really fast. Here are some reasons why calorie counting or keeping a food log is a must in any diet program:

Portion sizes can be misleading

Many of the foods available today are what nutritionists call “calorie densed.” This means that a 2-inch square brownie that is high in fat and sugar content has a higher calorie content (about 150 calories) when compared to say a medium sized apple (about 80 calories). This is because 1 gram of fat has 9 calories compared to only 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates. At the same time, an apple has insoluble fiber which your body can not digest and absorb. Also, a lot of desserts and cereals are packed with lots of sugar in order for it to taste good (maybe this is why I like them so much?). This means that even though sugar is a carbohydrate which contains less calories per gram compared to fat), you are eating a lot of it in that one small piece of brownie.

From my experience, I have learned to judge the amount of calories in foods after I have logged them in an online food journal such as Sparkpeople for a few months. Having this knowledge helps me stay away from calorie densed foods while eating out or on the run.

Knowing how many calories each portion size has also helps during unplanned, busy days. This happened to me the other day when I got busy over the weekend and was not able to prepare anything for lunch on Monday. I head out to my work cafeteria and knew exactly how much I should eat because I already know how much they are worth after logging my food for awhile. In other words, you don’t have to do it forever. Just like anything you do in life repeatedly, it becomes second nature.

This big bowl of Mexican salad is 300 calories - not bad for a lot of food

This big bowl of Mexican salad is 300 calories - not bad for a lot of food

Food Awareness

Having a food log and seeing the calories add up as I enter my meals also has a psychological effect. To me, once I see that I’m getting close to my caloric requirements for the day, I tend to not eat unplanned snacks or desserts. When I look at that dessert, I say to myself, “if I eat this brownie/cake/cookie (choose your poison), I would have to work extra hard at the gym to get a calorie deficit (more on calorie deficit on a future post). Don’t get me wrong, working out is something that I already enjoy doing after months of getting it into my routine. But, I wouldn’t want to spend extra hours in the gym unless I have to.

Nutrient breakdowns

This is another area where calorie counting really helps. If you’re trying to follow a certain type of diet such as a low fat diet as prescribed by your doctor or for a specific purpose such as weight loss, your macronutrient (carbohydrates, protein, fat) ratios are very important. A free web site service such as Sparkpeople does a great job at doing this for you. Once you enter your foods, they have a summary of your macronutrient ratios at the bottom of your nutrition profile. Click here to see an example of my food log.

I try to follow mostly a 50/30/20 diet which means I eat 50% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 20% fat. These ratios will depend on whatever I’m trying to achieve. This is a big topic altogether but if you need more help in this area, here is a great resource – Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle (BFFM). This book covers a lot of basic and advanced nutrition principles which is helpful at any point in your weight/fat loss journey.

It changes the way you think about food

Ok, this was such a long process for me because I used to eat a lot of junk foods when I was in college. When I see how many calories each food is costing me (yes, it’s almost like money), I start to think, is it worth it? I used to answer yes to this a lot especially if you’re starving and your stomach pretty much dictates your taste buds – i.e. everything tastes good. With that said, planning is key. If you have your meals planned out and logged in for the day,chances are you will eat those planned meals. At the same time, you’re reducing your chances of getting hungry and snacking on candy on whatever is available in the office/school vending machine. Once your stomach is satisfied, your will power is stronger because you can actually think straight. If you do this, you also won’t feel deprived and you’ll feel less likely to fantasize about junk food.

Have you ever heard of the the phrase, “slowly but surely”? I adapt it a lot of areas in my life especially my health and fitness. I did not change my diet drastically overnight. My changes came in small steps and I believe that anyone can do it too if I was able to do it. All it takes is some will power, motivation, and a burning desire to achieve your goals (whatever those may be).

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