Counting Calories: How to, How Long, and Should You

To count or not to count, that is the question.  Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to track the Calories and Macros of outrageous Fortune... Pretty snazzy opening, huh?  To be honest, I know little about Shakespearian prose so please don't be impressed, I had to Google what comes after the opening line.  What I do know, however, is that fat loss is a fairly simple thing that too many "professionals" (*cough* Dr. Oz.) make quite complicated.

So today what I am going to do is make it ridiculously simple for you to decide whether or not tracking calories is for you.  Before I get started I do want to make it crystal clear that when it comes to fat loss and body composition goals the most important and fundamental rule is that you can't out train a poor diet.  You just can't.  Calories will ALWAYS count and if you aren't eating below you're maintenance level you are doomed to fail.

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That said, let's go ahead and find out whether tracking calories is right for YOU.  I'm going to ask some simple 'yes or no' questions and give you some feedback whether you should track or not.

1. Do you have a fat loss or body composition goal?

YES - This may seem a bit obvious but this is the best place to start.  Be honest with yourself and if you are serious about losing fat for any reason then tracking calories/macros may be a good option for some people.  Keep reading to find out if that's you...

NO - There is no need to track.

2. Is what you are currently doing working for you?

YES - If what you are doing is working then there is no need to track.  Keep doin' whatcha coin' and gettin' sexy!

NO - If what you're doing isn't quite working it may be time for a change.  The insane thing to do would be to keep doing what your doing and expecting something different to happen.  There is a quote in there somewhere.  Onward!

3. Do you feel you need a complete nutritional makeover?

YES - If you feel like you need to overhaul everything from the ground up you may find better success making some simple changes to WHAT you are eating first.  An AMP rule of thumb is you should focus each meal around protein, vegetables and water.  Yup, that simple.

NO - If you are mainly eating whole, unprocessed foods on the regular and not seeing results, you may be a good candidate to track your calories.  Eating healthy foods will keep you, well, healthy.... but you still must eat below maintenance to lose fat.

4. Do you know how many calories you consume on a regular basis?

YES - Are you sure?  If you are tracking and not losing it is imperative that you watch the video at the bottom of the post.  It may help you bust through that plateau!

NO - If you are not quite sure what your target is or what your consuming it may be time to do some math and count calories for a few days to get a grasp on where you are at.  Always start with where you are at.

A general target for someone who is overweight and moderately active looking to lose fat is bodyweight multiplied by 12.  This is your maintenance level (roughly) and to decrease fat you will want to eat below that number.  How much below depends on activity level, lean muscle mass, stress, and fitness level.  Somewhere between a 100 and 400 calorie deficit should be enough to make steady progress!

5. Are you an average person looking to just make simple healthy changes in your life?

YES - Counting calories/macros works great but if you already have a busy life it may be a challenge.  You must put in great effort to see great results and if you just want to stay a little healthy and fit just making better choices and eating whole, unprocessed foods is a GREAT approach!

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NO - I am an average person looking to make significant changes to my appearance and look amazing!  <- You can track

6. I have been tracking for a couple weeks/months and have a solid grasp on what and how much I am eating.

STOP - Once you have reached your goal, have a good idea of daily caloric/macro intake, and/or find yourself making steady progess you should be able to stop tracking.  At this point you have changed your habits and can relax a bit.  Congrats!  This is no easy feat!

In the long run, the goal shouldn't be to track forever as this can be very stressful and lead to disordered eating patterns.  This is bad as we all know all the nasty things stress can do to your body.  Take a break and enjoy your success and continue to make good choices.

If you ever find yourself slipping back to old habits/patterns or going in the opposite direction, counting calories/macros for just a short period can always be a good tactic to get you back on track!

One EPIC potential pitfall of calorie tracking....

I'll always be the first to admit that human error will always be present in anything that humans, well, do.  Tracking calories, however, takes the cake.  Pun intended.

It has been calculated that on average those who track calories underreport by as much as 30 percent.  On average!  30 percent!  No wonder it is becomes a challenge to drop those last excruciating pounds of body fat!  30 percent!

I'm not just pointing this out for dramatic effect (maybe I am) but also to illuminate the fact that it is SUPER easy to overestimate how many calories your taking in even if you are tracking!

Here is a great spectacular video by Leigh Peele that will show you how easy it actually is to over measure and sabotage even the best of intentions.  This is the BEST free advice you will ever get regarding fat loss (watch): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVjWPclrWVY

How to track...

This is highly individualized and there are many ways to track including but not limited to pencil and paper, excel spreadsheet, rune stones, abacus, etc. but the easiest way nowadays is to use an APP.  And there are many.  Probably dozens of decent ones at this point.

To ease confusion I will give you the two that people tend to use the most which are MyFitnessPal and Lose It.  The all have free apps and do the same thing, it is just a matter of preference.