If you’re going somewhere new, do you HAVE to use a map? No – but it helps. The same applies with calorie tracking. You can probably get to where you want to be without it, but it is undoubtedly the best and most efficient way of getting you there.
Before we delve into why you should track your calories, let’s begin with a quick definition of what we actually mean by the term “calorie”. In a nutrition setting, it’s an abbreviation for kilocalories, the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. When referring to food, it measures the amount of energy contained in the food and drink we consume. Everything we do relies on the energy that we consume in the form of calories. Ever heard of the saying, “food is fuel”? It is exactly that.
If we eat exactly the amount of calories we need to fuel our body’s metabolism, digestion and movement throughout the day, then we will maintain our weight. Once our body’s immediate energy needs are met, any excess is stored for future use – some as glycogen in our muscles, but some as body fat. Conversely, if we consume too few calories, then our body will lose weight as it turns to other sources of energy, including fat. However, to know what is “too much” or “too little” requires us to actually monitor our intake.
Disclaimer – if you have a history of disordered eating and the prospect of tracking your calories is something you know is a trigger for unhealthy behaviour and anxiety, calorie tracking may not be for you right now. At the very least, please make sure that your coach is aware and can support you in the process.
Calorie tracking is most commonly associated with weight loss, however it can help with a wide variety of goals, including weight gain and body recomposition. In this blog, we will be focusing mainly on calorie tracking from a weight loss perspective – a process that people tend to overcomplicate. There is a mind-boggling number of different diets, each with its own tribe of loyal supporters fiercely proclaiming it to be the best way to lose weight. Keto, paleo, 5:2, IF, raw, high carb, low carb… However, if you look closely at the food diaries of people who have successfully lost weight by adhering to these diets, you’ll see that despite being vastly different, they have one crucial thing in common: they help the dieter to achieve a calorie deficit.
Which brings us to reason number 1 to track your calorie intake…
Understanding where you’re at is key to getting where you want to be. As a general rule, most of us tend to underestimate the amount of calories we consume and overestimate the amount of activity that we do. Without a baseline, you have no idea what target to set yourself.
For example. You plug in your height, weight, activity level and so on into a calorie-tracking app. It suggests that you should aim for 1,500 calories per day. Sounds reasonable. However, if you have inadvertently been consuming in excess of 2,500 calories every day, then this diet will feel very restrictive and hard to stick to from the beginning. Instead, work out your current daily average, then start slow with a deficit that is more easily manageable. Once you have adjusted, you can bring your calorie intake down again. It’s all about steady, sustainable progress.
P.S. We recommend this site for working out your calorie goals
Tracking your calories can highlight some habits that you might not realise are hindering your progress. Grabbing a coffee in the morning, for example – you might not think this would have a big impact on your calorie intake for the day. However, depending on what you go for, this could actually make a huge difference. Some lattes pack upwards of 350 calories per serving, whereas an Americano has just 15 calories.
You may unconsciously reach for biscuits at work, thinking “Ah, one or two won’t hurt”. Two chocolate digestives, however, can add 200 calories to your day – without offering you many nutrients in return. And sometimes, the healthy options can be deceptively high in calories. Having a salad for dinner may seem like a great choice, for example, but if you’re liberally drizzling olive oil all over it, you may unwittingly be eating far more calories than you intend to. Just one tablespoon contains about 120 calories, but it’s easy to accidentally double this if you’re not using a measuring spoon. Similarly, nuts are often touted as a great healthy snack (and they are!) but be wary that they are high in fat, and not sticking to the prescribed portion sizes can cost you hundreds of calories.
“Eyeballing” your calories can often lead to you unwittingly adding on 200-300 unnoticed calories throughout the day, especially when it comes to calorie dense foods like peanut butter, oils and nuts.
For sustainable weight loss, we’re looking to create a moderate deficit of no more than 20% of your daily intake, often considerably less than this – so you can see how adopting just small changes like swapping the coffee you have in the morning and opting for a healthier snack option in the office can make a huge difference.
It is very, very common for people to stick to a calorie deficit during the week and then land themselves in a surplus at the weekend – the net result being that across the week, they average out at maintenance and therefore do not see any progress.
Why does this happen? Well, there may be a wide range of causes, but there are two situations that we see quite a lot as trainers.
Scenario 1 – moderate weekly calorie deficit undone by mild overindulgence at the weekend
Throughout the week, you adhere to a fairly moderate deficit of 200 calories per day. Despite being a small deficit, this would still generate weight loss if committed to for the whole week, seven days. However, at the weekend, the deficit of 1,000 calories (200 daily for 5 days) is almost immediately undone with a few untracked treats that tip the balance of the scale back to “maintenance” when you average out calories across the week.
A few drinks and handfuls of bar snacks may be enough to land you in maintenance or an overall surplus. And actually, it is incredibly easy to accidentally land yourself in a massive calorie surplus when you go out for dinner and don’t track your meal. Many high street restaurant chains have main meals on their menu that add up to 800, 900 even in excess of 1,000 calories. This isn’t always obvious, as portions might not look unreasonably huge, but the sauces and oils are rich and can really stack up the calories. And that’s before you take into account the bread you eat before your meal, the wine you drink alongside it, or the dessert you may decide to treat yourself too (another easy 600 calories).
A great illustration of this is shown in the below infographic from @cartergood
Scenario 2 – extremely restrictive calories in the week leads to binge-eating at the weekend
You plug in your height, weight and activity level into your calorie tracker. Next it asks you what your desired speed of weight loss is. Well, duh… ASAP, right? That’s what you click and, ouch – it gives you a startlingly low figure of 1,200 calories. Never mind, it is Monday and you are 100% motivated and committed to your weight loss target so you resolve to stick to it.
Monday to Friday crawl by and you’ve managed to stick to your stingy calorie target. Same breakfast, lunch and dinner, no thank you to the office cookies and you skipped work drinks on Friday. The problem is, you are now craving all your favourite foods that you have told yourself are “forbidden”. And now that it’s the weekend… An “all-or-nothing” mentality is triggered, causing you to binge out and savour your treats “while you can” in anticipation of another miserable, restrictive week ahead. Not only is the calorie deficit wiped out, you’re also cementing yourself in a vicious restrict-binge cycle that is detrimental to not only your physical health but also your mental well-being.
The bingeing at the weekend is not the real problem. This overeating at the weekend is a response to drastic undereating for the previous five days. So, the restrictive food habits taking place during the week that need addressing as a priority – this will then prevent you from overeating at the weekend. A good trainer will help you to put together a sustainable food plan that keeps you in a moderate, manageable calorie deficit, while still allowing you the flexibility and freedom to include your favourite treats, in reasonable amounts. Calorie-tracking will be key to achieving this.
Eating more during the week will leave you feeling more energised, which will have a direct impact on the quality of your training, your stress levels and your relationship with food. It will also prevent overeating at the weekend, helping you to create a more balanced calorie intake throughout the week – staying in a calorie deficit without depriving yourself and feeling unbearably hungry.
So, you’ve looked at your current intake and addressed where you need to improve. The next step is simply to implement the changes, for the long-term. Tracking your calories and sending the screenshots to your trainer is a fantastic way to help you stay on top of your plan. You’re less likely to reach for an extra cookie if you’re committed to tracking your calories and know that this will tip you over and impact your progress for the week. And you’re less likely still to give in to temptation if you’re sharing every bite with your trainer!
Key takeaways: our top tips for tracking your calorie intake
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