There are few topics in fitness more divisive than the concept of tracking calories.
Some people would go so far as to send you hate mail if you even mention the words ‘calories’ and ‘tracking’ in the same breath. They believe that the practice is a colossal waste of time. And that it’s a slippery slope to disordered eating.
While others? They’re all about it. They see value in recording the foods they’ve eaten; it helps them make progress toward their goals (e.g. losing weight, building muscle).
So, who’s right? Should you be tracking your calories – or not?
As you’ll come to see, the answer to this is a little more nuanced than you’d expect. But you should be able to come to a well-informed decision after reading this article.
What is tracking calories?
Tracking calories is simply the process of logging down the calories consumed over a day..
These calories come from everything you eat and drink.
Here’s a guide on how to count calories that shows you how it’s done and how you can get started.
Now, you might be asking, “But why?” Well, here’s a quick refresher on just what calories are to help you understand that.
A calorie is the unit of measurement used to indicate the amount of energy in our foods (1, 2, 3). Some foods are more calorie-dense than others – for example, a slice of watermelon compared to a slab of steak.
And that matters because calories count.
The whole concept of ‘calories in, calories out’ is based on the scientific law of thermodynamics. Your energy balance determines your weight. Eat in a calorie surplus, and you’d put on weight; eat in a calorie deficit, and you’d lose weight (4, 5).
This is why it’s so helpful to know just how many calories you need daily. This allows you to adjust your intake based on your goals.
Since energy balance is the deciding factor for weight management, the value of counting calories should now be clear to you.
Tracking calories is simply the process of logging down all the foods and drinks consumed over a day – and their respective calorie counts. Doing this allows you to see where you stand on the calorie balance equation: whether you’re eating in a surplus or deficit. And if that’s aligned with your specific fitness goal.
Advantages of tracking calories
Tracking calories is the only way you know – with utmost certainty – where you stand on the energy balance scale.
But it doesn’t just stop there – there are many other awesome reasons for tracking your calories.
Tells you how many calories you actually need
Let’s say you’ve calculated your daily TDEE, and it stands at 2,000 calories.
You want to lose weight – so you consistently stick to a daily deficit of 200 calories a day for 3 months. But after 3 months, you notice that your weight is holding steady.
What does that tell you? Your true TDEE is 1,800 calories.
The truth is that all the different equations for calculating your calorie needs can only provide you with an estimate.
A starting point.
It’s up to you to figure out your true TDEE by monitoring how your body changes at different levels of calorie intake.
Going back to the example, now that you know your true TDEE is 1,800 calories, you can (almost be sure) that eating fewer calories than that would yield weight loss results.
Note: this applies to all goals, too.
Say you’re looking to bulk. That means you’ll have to eat more calories than you’re currently consuming (i.e. more than 1,800 calories) for optimal muscle-building.
Often associated with tracking macronutrients
If you’re logging all the foods you’re eating on a calorie counting app – like MyFitnessPal, Noom, and Lose it! – then, you’re also going to get a breakdown of the amount of fat, carbs, and protein you’re consuming.
In other words: your macronutrient split.
Now, you want that data because your macronutrient split is a (rough) indicator of whether you’re fueling your body right.
Here’s a comprehensive guide on macronutrients and micronutrients if you’re interested to learn more.
Also, let me highlight the role that protein – arguably the most important macronutrient – plays in your fitness goals:
- Building muscle: Amino acids (i.e. tiny compounds that combine to make up protein) are the building blocks of your muscles. You can see them as the ‘raw construction materials’ that your muscles need to repair and grow, especially after a grueling workout (6, 7).
- Losing fat: Hitting your daily protein intake requirement can make it easier for you to stick to a calorie deficit. In addition, consuming sufficient protein while you’re in a calorie deficit can also help prevent excessive muscle loss. Why’s that important? Research shows losing muscle mass while dieting is associated with an increased appetite and weight regain post-diet (8). As such, muscle mass maintenance while dieting is vital for long-term success.
- Recovering well from your workouts: Training hard in the gym is only part of the equation. You need to ensure good recovery after your workouts. That’s only possible when you rest sufficiently and consume enough protein. This gives your muscles what they need to heal – and get ready for your next workout.
This is why it’s always important to find out just how much protein you need for your fitness goals.
Prevents overeating after exercise
Do you know the adage, “Move more, eat less”, when it comes to losing weight?
Yeah … it’s (unfortunately) not as simple as that. Find that hard to believe? Think back to the last time you did an intense workout.
Were you extra hungry after? Did you polish everything off your plate at record-breaking speed and justify reaching for an extra portion because you ‘must have burned a ton of calories today’ (9)?
If yes, you’re not alone. Research finds that it’s common for us to eat many calories after exercising (in particular, after performing cardio) (10).
Meaning? Moving more can make you eat more after – likely bringing you out of a calorie deficit. Or, maybe, going as far as to put you firmly in a calorie surplus. As you can see, this just highlights the importance of tracking your calories.
It helps you hold one part of the energy balance equation constant (i.e. calories in).
Imagine trying to figure out your best approach when both calories in and calories out fluctuate constantly. Pure chaos.
The advantages associated with tracking your calories are:
- Tells you your actual energy needs (i.e. true TDEE figure)
- Gives a better idea of how you’re fuelling your body
- Prevents overeating after an intense workout session
Disadvantages of tracking calories
Of course, while calorie tracking is a useful tool, it isn’t suited for everyone.
Could be psychologically stressful
Logging everything you eat and drink every day, every week, and every month can be time-consuming and overwhelming. Sure, meal-prepping gives you a clear idea of just how many calories your lunch contains … but what about dinner with friends?
Not all food chains and/or restaurants will provide calorie counts for their dishes. And even if they do, they may be inaccurate (11).
There’s a lot of uncertainty involved – and that can be hard to deal with sometimes.
Let’s not forget: there’s also the social aspect of tracking calories. Chances are, you’re going to have to delve into a conversation on why you’re recording every food that passes into your mouth with every new meal partner.
Encourages the misguided ‘calories-above-all’ mindset
If you’re counting calories, you might end up excluding certain nutrient-dense foods from your diet just because they’re higher in calories. For example, foods high in unsaturated fats. Think nuts, fatty fish, avocados, and chia seeds.
Instead, you may go for something with less nutritional value – say, 100 calories of crackers – just because it ‘contains fewer calories’.
That’s misguided. Yes, calorie balance determines your weight. But that’s all.
From a health perspective, you also need to focus on your diet’s quality (e.g. vitamins, minerals, fiber).
In general, the bulk of your calories should still come from:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Lean meat sources
- Unsaturated fats
The disadvantages associated with tracking your calories are:
- The process can be psychologically stressful
- It can cause a misguided focus on calories at the expense of your diet’s quality
When you should track calories and when you shouldn’t
With all this information in mind, deciding if you should track your calories – or not – should be pretty straightforward. But in case you need a clearer picture, here’s a cheat sheet on tracking calories.
When you should track calories
- You aim to master your nutrition: Right now, you probably have no clue just how many calories you’re eating in a day. For example, maybe your goal is to build muscle. But how do you know if you’re eating sufficient calories for that? Tracking your calories lets you know – for sure. It also gives you insights into what foods make you feel good and what fills you up for fewer calories.
- You have a tight timeline: Let’s say you’re pursuing a goal where time is a constraint (e.g. losing weight before your wedding photoshoot). In such cases, tracking your calories would make the most sense. That’s because it gives you the quickest results possible. And once the event has passed, you can back off tracking your calories. With the bonus of having a clearer idea of just what sort of diet works for you.
- You enjoy rigidity and structure: We’re all different. If you’re someone who enjoys rigidity and craves structure, tracking calories can be a handy tool for you. Just be mindful about how you approach calorie tracking. Make it a point to evaluate how you feel about the practice and whether it’s doing more harm than good (e.g. making you obsessive).
Oh, and here’s a disclaimer on tracking calories: it’s not something you have to do forever.
There are plenty of ways to approach it.
For example, you can track for anywhere between 30 to 90 days, just so you know how much you’re eating, then ‘intuitively’ eat based on this base level of knowledge. Or, you could also choose to count just 1 or 2 select meals a day – or on certain days of the week.
The beauty in calorie tracking: it’s all up to you!
You should track calories you:
- Are looking for a way to understand your nutrition
- Want results quick (i.e. you’re working with a tight timeline)
- Enjoy rigidity and structure
When you shouldn’t track calories
- You have a history of eating disorders: If you’ve struggled with any form of eating disorders (e.g. anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating), then calorie counting is not advisable. Studies have found that the use of calorie counter apps could be linked to disordered eating. In other words: counting calories may increase the likelihood of relapse for you.
- You’re not too keen on the idea: You need to recognize the value of tracking your calories and be convinced that it’s suitable for you. You shouldn’t put yourself through the process just because your coach asked you to do it, or because your friends are doing it. If you’re not entirely committed to tracking- then chances are, you’ll soon find it a drag. And that could damage your relationship with food. Here’s where having strong self-awareness really helps.
- Already have a lot on your plate: Calorie tracking is a time-consuming and frustrating endeavor, especially in the beginning stages – when you’re still trying to figure out just how many calories your ‘staple foods’ contain. Depending on how you’re getting the figures, there can also be a lot of math involved. It’s honestly not for the faint-hearted. So, if you already have a lot on your plate (not literally), you might want to put the practice off for a little while.
Avoid tracking your calories if you:
- Have a history of eating disorders (e.g. anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating)
- Fail to see the value of the practice yourself
- Already have a lot on your plate
Tracking calories is helpful, but optional
Calorie tracking can be an effective tool for learning about nutrition and finding what works best for you. It empowers you with better control over your ‘calories in’ – minimizing uncertainty of your calorie intake.
But at the same time, tracking calories could also be a stressful affair that leads to issues like disordered eating.
That’s why it’s smart to limit its use to a level that works for you – if you even practice it in the first place. With tracking, finding the right balance for you is really the key to success.