Does calorie counting work and should you worry about it?

Does calorie counting work when trying to lose or maintain – or even gain – weight?

The answer to that is: it depends.

Firstly, what is calorie counting? Let’s say you are trying to lose weight. Each person – depending on current weight, age, height, and level of daily physical activity – needs a certain amount of calories per day to fuel their bodies and provide energy. Each person is different, and if you want some help with calculating your daily caloric needs, simply contact me.

There are some generally-accepted averages, though remember that these are simply averages and yours would differ up or down according to various circumstances:

AgeMalesFemales
4 to 6 years old16301630
7 to 10 years old18551855
11 to 14 years old20302030
15 to 18 years old27552100
Adults25501940

Calories are “counted” by weighing the food you are eating, and calculating based on the number of KiloCalories per macronutrient contained in that food.

Your proteins, for example, contain 4 KiloCalories per gram, and carbohydrates are the same (4kC/g). Fats, on the other hand, contain 9 KiloCalories per gram. So, let’s say an item of food contains 6g of protein, 9g of carbs and 2g of fat. We could say that the total calories would = (6g*4) + (9g*4) + (2g*9). The total Calories would, therefore, be 78 Calories. This sounds simple.

Why would you want to count calories?

Do I advocate counting calories for weightloss? Yes and no. Let’s deal with the ‘yes’ first.

When you are starting out, it is useful to know how many calories your body requires on a daily basis, and then consume less. It is generally accepted that – if you consume fewer calories than you need – you lose weight. Taking in more Calories than you burn leads to weight gain. This is an oversimplification but its a good place to start.

And knowing whether or not you are consuming Calories at below that threshold can be a very useful thing. There are plenty of apps that will calculate this for you; you do not need to run a formula for everything you eat. One such app is Fat Secret (badly named, but exceptionally good for meal tracking, and it works on South African foods).

The problem is that most of us eat on auto-pilot, and keeping a diary or journal of what we eat – and the corresponding calories – can be super useful in the early stages. Not only do you get a solid idea of where you are in terms of your energy intake, it will also quickly point out those areas you need to work on.

Here are some pitfalls, though.

Firstly, counting calories can be amazingly inaccurate. It is estimated that most calorie estimates are as much as 20% out. I don’t know the truth of this, but consider the following:

It is easy to know the calorie rating for an apple, or another whole food. This is an established fact. The molecules have been isolated and measured, and we know what a red apple contains, and what a green one contains.

But spaghetti bolognaise? How do we do this? We can weigh the spaghetti and note the calories. We can do the same with the mince. But what about the sauce? How about the oil? What else went into this, which veggies did you use? The same applies to a salad. Are you going to weigh each individual set of ingredients?

The net result is that we often get it wrong, and getting it wrong – especially when you have a margin of error of 20% – can mean you are taking in more energy then you originally thought.

A second reason is that we humans are inclined towards underreporting. Often, we don’t want to admit the truth of something and downplay it even to ourselves. Only after the fact do we report correctly.

Here’s an example: say I weigh 84kgs. I might be inclined to record this as 82kgs. This is normal. We all do it. Only when I reach 74kgs will I say: I was once 84kgs. I have lost 10. So…we tend to report correctly only after the fact. When we count calories, we do the same. We don’t mean to, but we will often record a 400g portion as 300g because…well, it looks better on paper.

So should you count calories? Yes and no. Yes because it is an excellent way to start getting an idea of your daily caloric needs and what you need to consume to come in under that. Then, moving onwards, you can count calories to see how you are staying on track, and to see your progress on paper.

Should you continue indefinitely? No, probably not. Once you have established a baseline and know where you stand with your chosen diet, that should be sufficient. Because, haha, it is not an exact science and we tend to underreport and so…

Don’t hold calorie counting as a gold standard. It’s just a tool. And like any tool, when it has run its course on its own effectiveness, discard it.