Saturday, 14 February 2015

Calorie Counting – The Good the Bad and the Ugly

Today I want to talk about calorie counting.  It’s on every food packet and is the back bone of a lot of diets.  I am going to cover the benefits of knowing your caloric intake, but also how it can become an obsessive and potentially negative practice.  Bear in mind this is my opinion, I’m talking about what works for me and what I have heard/seen work for others.  When it comes to diet, health and fitness it’s all about finding what works for you.  So give it a read, consider what I am saying and look to figure out what elements if any you can apply to yourself as an individual.

What is a calorie?
So before we get onto counting them it is important we know what a calorie actually is, and how they apply to our body.  Some people say........

Really a calorie is a unit of measurement for energy, often abbreviated to kcal (kilocalorie) not to be confused with the other form of energy measurement on food, the kilojoule (kj).  1 calorie is equal to 4.17 kilojoules.

BMR stands for basal metabolic rate, which is essentially the amount of energy your body requires just to keep ticking over at complete rest.  There are a few different equations for calculating this, each will spit out a slightly different number, but they are generally in the same ball park.  The one I use is the Schofield equation, I believe this is the one used by today’s dieticians.  Your energy needs don’t stop there though, you need to factor in a physical activity level or PAL.  I have inserted a table below that will help you estimate your individual PAL.  Along the top is occupational activity split into light (e.g. sedentary office work), moderate (e.g. waiter/tress) and heavy (e.g. builder).  Down the left hand side is your non occupational activity so training or sport.  Non active is pretty self-explanatory, moderate would be a 1-3 training sessions a week and very active would be in the 3-5 fairly intense training sessions per week.

non occupational


Light (Male)
Light (Female)
Moderate (Male)
Moderate (Female)
Heavy (Male)
Heavy (Female)
Non Active
Very Active

For me I probably have a PAL of 1.7.  I generally sit on my arse all day as far as work goes, but I have some more active days working part time in a café.  I train quite regularly usually Muay Thai or weights.  This gives me an estimate of what I roughly need to consume each day to maintain my weight. 


I do think it’s important to play around with your caloric intake to find out what works best for you.  This brings me quite nicely into…..

The Good
So we now have our starting point: BMR X PAL.  I think in the beginning it can be very useful to count calories for a number of reasons.  1. To find out a bit more about food and how calorically dense some foods can be.  For example you normally grab a muffin at your local coffee shop at lunch time.  It doesn’t seem like much but a chocolate muffin could be as much as 530kcal. That's easily the equivalent of a healthy balanced meal for some people. 2. To figure out how many calories you actually need as an individual.  The previous calculations give you a ball park figure you now need to test that.  It is a case of tracking your intake, whilst monitoring your weight and energy levels.  3. I think it’s useful to be able to know roughly how many calories is in a plate of food, this can really help with portion sizes/control.  

The best way for me to explain all this is perhaps to write down what I have done/am currently doing.
So I got my estimated daily energy requirement – 3281kcal

From studying nutrition and being “that guy” who always looks at food labels, I kind of already know roughly how many calories is in a lot of foods/food groups.  So I started consuming around 3300kcal per day.  What I found was on some days I felt a little tired, I lost a small amount of weight and appeared slightly leaner.  So I have gradually upped my daily intake to around 3500kcal per day and this feels comfortable.  My weight is pretty consistent, and I feel like I have energy throughout the day and during most training sessions.  Now all I have to do if I want to get leaner or gain weight is add or subtract calories.

The Bad
Food is awesome! We shouldn’t just think of it as fuel.  It brings people together socially, it can be fun to prepare and cook, certain tastes can bring back positive memories and a whole host of other positive things come from food. 

Breaking down food just into its caloric or macronutrient value kind of takes the fun out of it.  This can build up an unhealthy relationship with food, something I definitely do not want to promote.  What I do now is estimate how many calories I have at each meal, and just add that up on the calculator on my phone.  I’m not tracking each individual item on an app and obsessing over it.  I am also very safe in the knowledge that as long as I primarily stick to whole foods as the bulk of my diet, I am rarely in danger of massively over consuming.  In fact on most days my last two meals are usually slightly larger than I perhaps planned, due to being under my requirements.  Occasionally I may be 100-200 calories above or below my target, but in the grand scheme of things one day where I am a little out won’t make a monumental difference.

The Ugly

Calories and energy intake are just one of several measurable factors in nutrition.  Each calorie is not created equally.

If I were to eat 1000kcal of table sugar, it would have a completely different effect to consuming 1000kcal of lard.  It’s important not to think of calorie counting as the holy grail of diet and nutrition, we need to think about how specific foods and nutrients react in our body hormonally.   We also need to consider nutrient density.  I have illustrated this below by analysing two very different meals.

  Nutritional density simply refers the amount of macro and micronutrients a food or meal has gram for gram
  Meal 1 – 240grams chips and 60 grams cheddar cheese
  Meal 2 – 300g chicken breast, 350g sweet potato, 100g spinach, an apple and 30g almonds.

Meal 1
Meal 2
Vitamin C

As you can see the two meals have a very similar caloric content, but the nutrients are completely different.  I personally know how much better I would feel consuming meal 2 versus meal 1.  Also look just how food you get to eat in meal 2 compared to meal 1.  You can see how by eating nutrient dense whole foods you are more likely to be struggling to meet your caloric requirements, than surpassing them.   

To really illustrate how different the meals are, I thought I would recreate them.  So here they are....

I have spoken to a number of people, whilst working in a health food shop, who maintain that no matter what they eat as long as they are below their caloric needs they will lose weight.   They eat fry ups, processed cakes and pastries and other junk foods, but as long as they aren’t over consuming calories they will lose weight. They aren’t wrong they will lose weight, but how will their health be?  How are they going to feel day to day?  The answer is probably pretty terrible.  They will feel hungry, tired, lethargic etc. as their body cries out for all the micro and macronutrients it’s missing out on by eating energy dense, nutrient sparse food.

So the morale of the story……yes it’s good to know how many calories are in food, and to track how much you’re consuming especially in the beginning.   Don’t let calorie counting define your diet or become an obsession.  Generally speaking, stick to whole foods at a portion size suitable for you, and you will be well on your way to a healthier fitter you!

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