As outlined in a previous article, calorie counting is not for everyone. Calorie counting is simply a tool to increase awareness of how much you’re eating and can help to ensure that you’re getting enough of the good stuff your body needs.
For those who are looking to try calorie counting, here are a few tips to help you be a reasonable calorie counter.
1. Get a Scale.
The most important step to calorie counting is getting a food scale. Too many people think they are calorie counting when they are guessing their calories. Unless you have spent years calorie counting, I don’t trust your judgement to know how big a literal serving of peanut butter is (you’ll over estimate, trust me.) Scales are relatively cheap and can be bought on Amazon (this is the one I have) or any department store.
2. Get an App
There are a number of options for food tracking apps out there. I personally use the most popular one, MyFitnessPal. This is a great app because:
it has a large database of foods
You can scan barcodes for automatic entry
it will help calculate your calorie needs
3. Figure out Your Calorie Needs
There are a number of ways to figure out your calorie needs. Because we’re keeping things super simple, here are some numbers you can use:
If you want to
Lose some fat: Multiply your bodyweight by 12-13.
Maintain: your weight: bodyweight x14-15
Gain weight: bodyweight x16-17
For example, if you were 200lbs, you’d be eating:
2400-2600 to lose weight
2800-3000 to maintain your weight
3200-3400 to gain weight.
The great part of the range is it helps you to be reasonable with your tracking. If you’re a bit over or under, no big deal.
If this 200lb person is used to eating 3400 calories, 2400 is going to seem like a lot less. In this case, you don’t have to go straight to the 2400. Just drop it to 3000 to help stop gaining weight before you try to lose it.
If you are trying to gain weight, you may think 3400 calories is a lot to eat. Remember, you don’t have to jump up right away either.
If you'd like, you can also use this calculator to help you figure things out:
4. Determine Your Protein Needs.
To figure out your protein, multiply your bodyweight by .6-.8. For our 200 lb person, this would be 120-160g of protein. This will feel like a lot. Chances are, you’re eating far less than this right now. You could eat a little more, and you could eat a little less, but this number should be sufficient to meet your goals.
5. Split It Up Over a Number of Meals.
Now that you know how much you need to eat per day, try to figure out how often you’re going to eat. If you want to eat lots of meals, these are going to have to be smaller, less meals can mean bigger meals.
Let’s say that our 200lb person was trying to lose some weight and wanted to eat three meals and two snacks per day. They know they need to eat approximately 2500 calories per day. They could split their meals up into 600 calories each (1800 total) and each snack could be approximately 350 (700 total). If they had 30g of protein at each meal and 15-20g at their snack times, they would hit their protein and calorie goals.
6. Find Some Staples.
Variety is the enemy of consistency. If you can find a few staple meals and save them in your app you’ll save a lot of time down the road.
"What about carbs and fats?"
Carbs and fats are important, but as long as calories and protein goals are being met, you can go high carb/low-fat or low-carb/high-fat - it’s really up to you. Remember, calories are calories whether they come from protein, carbs or fat.
"What kinds of food should I eat?"
If you are hitting your calorie and protein goals, you have a lot of freedom as to what to eat. As we are always looking at health, there are certain foods you’ll want to eat more of, like fruits and veggies. However, if you want to give yourself 200-500 calories each day, or a couple of times a week, for “fun foods” that’s fine. This can be great for people who are afraid they’ll have to give up all of their favourite foods. You are simply creating room for them in your calorie budget.
"How do I do this with a family?"
Unlike a 20-something, fitness influencer who lives in their parent's basement, you've got responsibilities and dependents. I usually just put my plate on the scale and add things to my phone without making a big deal about it.
I'm very firm on this: kids should not count calories. You also want to be sure that your language around it isn’t setting them up for a poor relationship with food. When my kids ask my what I’m doing, my response is that I’m trying to make sure that I’m eating enough food to fuel my body. I let them know that I’m just keeping track to make sure I’m eating enough healthy food for my muscles. I try very hard to frame it as “eating enough” instead of “eating too much” because I want my kids to focus on eating enough nutritious food, not limiting food.
"What should I count?"
Everything. Seriously. If you’re going to put in the work of weighing and measuring, you might as well do it right. If you’re not counting certain foods because you feel guilty for eating them, you’re only setting yourself up for failure. Chances are your habit of sneaking food is keeping you from making positive changes.
Because I’m a reasonable calorie counter, I don’t count vegetables and only occasionally count fruit. While these do have calories, I’m convinced that some extra fruit and veggies won’t be the reason I don’t hit my goals. In fact, by eating those nutrient dense foods I’ll probably end up eating less throughout the rest of the day.
"What if I can’t count for certain meals?"
There will be times when you aren’t able to count, or at least count accurately. The amount of time it would take you to count the calories in a casserole at a church potluck would drive you batty. In these scenarios do the best you can. You aren’t going to be perfect all the time. Be mindful and receive it with thanksgiving. Get back to counting when you can.
"What if you go over my calories?"
Expect to go over occasionally. Going over your calories a few times a month, as long as it’s not by too much isn’t going to make or break your results.
"Do I have to do this forever?"
Absolutely not. But you may. I have found calorie counting to actually be quite enjoyable. I find that it gives me lots of freedom to eat the foods I want and helps me to make sure I’m including more nutrient dense foods and protein in my diet. However, I don’t count every day. I’ll often take Sundays off, and sometimes throughout the week I just don’t feel like it. Because I have a history of intuitive eating, I’m relatively aware of what I’ve been eating, so even on my days off it’s not way off my normal eating.
For most people interested in counting, spending a few months-to-a few years would be a great start. From there, you can try to go 6 days of the week. When you find you are able to do that you can go down to 5, then 4, and then off completely.
As calorie counting is a tool, I always keep it nearby, just in case. If I notice myself getting overly loose, I take out the scale and use it to help me be more mindful once again.
When counting calories, remember: it’s just data. For many people, the hang-up with calorie counting is not inconvenience, it’s emotions. Much like our relationship with the scale, we can begin to become obsessed with the numbers. If we’re over, we feel guilt, if we’re under our protein we feel guilt. If we sneak some food, we feel guilt. There is a lot of guilt for not hitting some arbitrary standard of “holiness”. Your calorie counting is just collecting data. It’s just calorie budgeting. It is not a measurement of your obedience to Christ.
Remember, calorie counting is not for everyone, nor is it sinful. Follow this reasonable approach if you think it will help steward your body and see how it goes.