“Calculating your daily calorie intake is more necessary today than ever before.”
Should you count calories? Well, I’m usually NOT a supporter of it. Why? Because people often get way too hung up on the numbers. And calories are just one small piece of the nutrition puzzle.
Instead I’m all about intuitive eating, which is eating foods that sound good when you’re hungry. Though I do still suggest reaching for nutritious foods first and making them the majority of what you eat. Intuitive eating allows you to be more mindful of how you’re feeling and what you’re craving, and discourages the intensive tracking that comes with dieting.
But sometimes it’s good to have a check-in and make sure your habits are on the right track. Because you may eat healthy the majority of the time, but your intuitively eaten half pint of ice cream every night could be sabotaging your health goals.
Balance is great, and I think we should all strive for it. But the balance still needs to reflect caloric maintenance or you’ll soon find yourself part of the obesity epidemic. And your health will suffer as a result.
Counting calories is the best way to quickly assess your eating. And calculating your daily calorie intake is more necessary today than ever before. Due to unhealthy restaurant options and packaged foods, many of us consume way too much. You must do an occasional check-in to be sure you’re eating healthy in today’s society.
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So let’s dive into it.
The first time I ever did a calorie count was in college. It was actually an assignment for my nutrition class. We were supposed to enter everything we ate and drank over two days into the choosemyplate.gov food SuperTracker, trying to keep it as close to “real” as possible.
Side note: the SuperTracker was discontinued in 2018, but there are many other trackers you can use nowadays. The myfitnesspal website and app are great options.
Tracking your calories (and macros/nutrients, as this tracker did) was super eye-opening. I really enjoyed the exercise.
But before we go into the benefits, I want to caution you. I don’t think it’s healthy for the majority of us to track our calories every day. Tracking your food that closely can easily lead to an obsession with hitting your “ideal” numbers. We’re humans, not pinball machines that need a specific amount of quarters to run. Our activity fluctuates, our metabolisms fluctuate, and our eating should too. I think it’s good to know how many calories you tend to eat on a normal day, but knowing how many you eat every single day? The average person just doesn’t need to. Psychologically, it could be more harmful than helpful.
Every once in a while is the key!
Let’s get into why you should count your calories (every once in a while):
1. It gives you a baseline of your daily calorie intake
First and foremost, counting your calories provides you with a baseline for a typical day. This is extremely valuable information.
Everyone has a different “ideal” amount of calories to consume every day. This amount is calculated based on your height, weight, age, and daily activity level.
When you count your calories, you can see how close you come to your recommended amount of daily calories.
Here’s a link to a calorie calculator I like and trust from the Mayo Clinic.
2. Counting calories shows if you’re on the right track
By getting a baseline, you can also see if you’re on the right track for your goals. If you’re trying to make physiological changes such as gaining muscle or losing weight, your calorie intake will make all the difference.
Goal: Building muscle
For gaining muscle, you generally need to eat more calories. After all, you’re trying to put on body mass.
Let’s say that based on your height, weight, age, and activity level, you should be eating around 2000 calories per day. When you perform a calorie count, you note that on a typical day you eat about 1800 calories. Now you know that you’ve been under-eating for muscle growth. In general, you should be aiming to eat 200-400 calories more than your “ideal” daily calorie intake to put on muscle mass.
What if you’re trying to put on muscle AND lose fat? It is possible, though tricky. If this is your goal, research shows that eating at a slight caloric deficit is best in this case – so the 1800 calories would be spot on. However, you must eat plenty of protein, or generally 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. This is a slow and steady process. You may not even notice your weight change at all, although the components of your body are changing.
Goal: Weight loss
Let’s say your goal is weight loss. The calorie calculator says you should be eating 2000 calories per day for maintenance, however your calorie count reveals you’ve been eating 2500 calories per day. You now know you’ll need to make some pretty big changes to see the results you desire.
The recommended healthy rate of weight loss is 0.5 – 2 lbs per week. Considering that losing 1 pound is the equivalent of cutting 3,500 calories from your diet, 2 pounds is a pretty challenging goal.
Using the example above, if your maintenance goal is 2000 but you want to lose 1 pound per week, you’ll need to eat 1500 calories per day. This eliminates 3500 calories from your weekly total, meaning you should lose about 1 pound. Since you’ve conducted a calorie count and now know you’ve been eating 2500, you can look at your day of eating and figure out where to cut calories from.
Is changing your eating the only way?
This is also where exercise comes in. By adding 10 minutes (which burns approximately 100 calories) onto your regular daily exercise, you could aim for 1600 calories instead of 1500.
The important thing? Find what works for you! But knowing your typical calorie intake will only help you start the process!
Of course, not everyone’s trying to build or cut. Many people simply want to maintain their weight. By counting your calories every once in a while, you can ensure that you’re on target too.
3. Looking at your calories per day forces you to assess what you’re eating
When you count your calories, you have to record what you’re eating during the day. This means that whether it’s whole foods, processed/packaged foods, or restaurant foods, you need to assess what’s in it. And what you find can be unpleasantly surprising.
Let’s take The Cheesecake Factory, for example. I just went online to their site and scrolled to the middle of their pasta menu. Spaghetti and meatballs – that can’t be too harmful, right? It’s not like fettuccine alfredo with a creamy, heavy sauce.
Spaghetti and meatballs from The Cheesecake Factory: 1650 calories
Yep. Eating that whole dish would put many trying to lose weight over their calorie limit for the day. From ONE meal. Heck, even eating just half of the dish is 825 calories which is a ton. When you spend a day counting calories, you get to see things like this, and it can be a real eye-opener.
When I’ve counted my calories in the past, I’ve had a few times I’ve debated whether to eat something or not. This was because I knew it wasn’t healthy, and I didn’t want to write it down.
If you count your calories every once in a while, it can force you to assess what you’re eating. You’ll become more mindful of the foods you typically put in your body, and whether or not you should be eating those foods.
4. Counting calories let’s you see when you eat
Recording your food intake also let’s you see your eating triggers. Do you go for the ice cream at the end of the day when you’re alone and lonely? Do you get so hungry by the end of the work day that when you get home you grab whatever’s available?
By assessing your eating triggers, you’re able to make adjustments as needed.
If you eat most of your calories when you’re feeling lonely, try making some tea and calling a parent, sibling, or friend. Likewise, if the end of the work day leaves you starving, bring a healthy protein bar like an Rx Bar to work with you, and eat it when those hunger pangs strike (that’s what I used to do!).
Looking at what you eat and when can help you create new healthy habits.
General rules for how to count calories
Sold? Great! Counting your calories every once in a while is such a helpful tool, as you can see above. There’s just a few rules you should follow to make it as beneficial as possible:
– Choose a typical day, no holidays or vacations
– You’re tracking your daily calorie intake, so be absolutely honest with your food tracking (include everything: butter, oils, dressings, drinks, etc.)
– Write down what you consume when you consume it so you don’t forget anything
– Get organized! Personally, I like writing things down. If you do too, get yourself a calorie tracker like this one from Etsy!
– Be kind to yourself! This is a learning activity, not a time to beat yourself up. You’re doing a self-assessment to benefit your body. Take the information in stride and begin making healthy changes as needed to help nourish and care for yourself.
That’s all! If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below. Counting your calories can be such a valuable practice. Just be sure to only do it every once in a while!
Have you ever counted your calories before? Did you learn anything from it? Any tips for others? Please share in the comments!