The "Why" and "How" of Counting Calories

Somewhere along the way, how we consume food has become a polarizing topic.  We are surrounded by experts.  If person X lost 15lbs on a new fad diet, it must be the secret that is holding person Y back from strolling to the pool looking like Brad Pitt in Fight Club.  Also, according to person X, if person Y decides they like a different fad diet, not only will they fail, but something they read online said they will die from a flesh-eating virus due to lack of bacteria in the small intestine, or something like that.  As soon as someone has the slightest amount of success on a specific diet, they earn an honorary PHD in the intricacies of said diet and proceed to spread the gospel to everyone within earshot or on their newsfeed.  Listening to a discussion between person X and a carbon copy of person X who happens to have had success on a different diet is pure torture. A conversation between the Kardashian sisters regarding which NBA player is better between the sheets would be more tolerable.

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When comparing different diets with regards to fat/weight loss, there is one common thread: structure.  Whether it’s low fat, low carb, intermittent fasting, keto, etc. there is a form of structure that restricts your calories.  Take a person who has gotten fat due to overeating and put them on any type of reasonably structured eating plan and you WILL get weight loss.  Is it the magic of the specific diet? Probably not, most often it’s due to the structure that keeps them from overeating.  This basic concept is why it would behoove anyone interested in body composition to be aware of not only what they are consuming but how much.

During my initial consultation with a potential client, nutrition is a primary topic of discussion.  At some point during the interaction, regardless of the current shape of this prospective client, it never fails that they tell me they “eat healthy”.  However, when I ask for a ballpark of how many calories they are eating daily, they shoot me a look like I just asked them to find the square root of pi.  You can “eat healthy” all you want, if you are throwing down 4000 calories of oats, sweet potatoes, kale, nuts, avocados, chicken and bananas, you are going to get fat, regardless of what time of day you decide to eat.  In a recent position statement based on a critical analysis of the literature by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (1) (click here for study), no specific diet outperformed using a caloric deficit in terms of fat loss.  While keto, low-carb, and IF compared similarly to a caloric deficit, the differences between them were insignificant, pointing to the common thread of calorie restriction.    

 While fruit can be a good option, an entire basket of fruit may not be.

While fruit can be a good option, an entire basket of fruit may not be.

The Power of Protein

Now that we know calorie restriction is your best bet for weight/fat loss, the next thing to make sure of is muscle retention.  The last thing anyone wants to do is torch a bunch of weight and wind up looking like a smaller yet just-as-fat version of their previous self.  This is where strength training and protein consumption come to the rescue.  While most people trying to drop weight focus on hours of cardio, it’s the power of the deficit that will drop the weight.  However, to improve your aesthetic look and focus on fat loss, strength training and protein intake are essential to retain or build new lean muscle mass.  Most research points to approx. 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight as a guideline to maintain lean mass during a fat loss phase.  As far as strength training, click here to head to my Get a Program page and fill out the application to get started on a custom training program crafted by yours truly.     

Where to Go from Here

It’s early January and you came out of December looking like Santa after he ate a billion cookies on Christmas eve, no worries, you got time before the pool opens, but you better get in gear ASAP.  To demonstrate an effective caloric deficit let’s use “Joe” as an example:

Joe’s Fat Loss Diet

Weight: 190

Total Calories: 2400 calories (BW x 16) -20%

Macros: 200g of protein-200g carbs-89 g fat

There are tons of different variables to consider when calculating a caloric deficit (male/female, % body fat, activity level, etc.) however a terrific way to start is to use the above equation for total calories, shoot for protein intake just above 1g per pound of body weight, and fill the rest of your total calories with quality sources of carbs and fats.  If you aren’t dropping weight at a rate of 1lb per week, then decrease the total number of calories by 100 per day (without decreasing protein) until you start losing weight at a rate of at least 1lb per week.   

 Wait, this probably doesn't work

Wait, this probably doesn't work

How Do I Track My Calories?

Tracking calories is a pain in the ass, it sucks, there is no way around it.  You know what else sucks? High intensity intervals and high rep squats, but the fact is they work.  When trying to make a body transformation, it is required to do stuff that sucks to get the results you want.  Download “MyFitnessPal” from the app store and get tracking, it’s easy to use, free, and has a massive data base of foods from most grocery stores and restaurants. Once you become efficient with the app and get the hang of portion sizes and the overall nutrition content of your go-to foods, you can ballpark the total number of calories.  This doesn’t need to be a lifelong habit unless you are prepping for a figure competition or just a weirdo (like me), look at it as a learning tool for the short term.  When I first started tracking, even though I felt as though I had a firm grasp on the calorie content of my favorite foods, I learned a ton about portion sizes and mistakes I was making with my nutrition.

Tracking a turkey and cheese sandwich takes under a minute. (Probably less than that if you aren't holding a camera in your off hand)

Hopefully these tools can help you with your body composition goals, feel free to leave a comment or question in the comment section or on my Facebook (click here) or Instagram (click here) pages. 

1: Arganon, Alan (2017) International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 14:1