To count or not to count calories?


If you listen to some experts, they’ll tell you that weight loss is simple:


Control calories in vs. calories out.


They say calorie counting is the best option. Other experts disagree, and say a more intuitive method works better.


So… who is right? My take is that both arguments are right.


Calories do matter. Even if you’re eating 100% organic, grass fed, local produce, if you are consuming too much food then weight gain is going to occur.


There’s no denying this fact. Even those on the intuitive-eating-bandwagon will agree that the calorie balance has to be met for weight loss to occur.


However, I’m not saying you need to immediately go and buy a food scale, start weighing your food and turn every mealtime into a mathematical equation.


In my experience, there’s a time and a place to count calories. And there’s a time and a place to relax and eat intuitively.


Which method is best?

As I’ve said before, there’s not a perfect diet [link] for everybody.


So where to begin? Should you be counting calories?


Imagine a client; let’s call her Susie, on a twelve-month transformation. Susie’s goals are to lose 25kg, and to make healthier habits for her and her young family.


Susie’s current diet is best described as inconsistent. Some days her meals include home cooked meals, with lots of fruit and vegetables and protein serves.


Other days are the opposite – they involve zero preparation at home, sugary snacks, she eats our and on the run for breakfast and lunch, and then she over eats at dinner time because she is starving.


For Susie, the first steps I’d be recommending would be the following:

  • Aim for 3-4 meals daily [depending on her typical day]
  • Pre cook meals in bulk to help with consistency
  • Exercise 3 days per week, for 45 minutes.
  • Record exactly what you’re eating in a journal or a notebook to increase awareness and to look for any trends


It seems overly obvious, but Susie will see results quite easily due to the lifestyle changes. She would then check in regularly to see if she is progressing, and make any tweaks she needs as she goes.


For example, if weight loss stalls, she could look at slightly increasing her exercise, slightly reducing portion sizes, or a combination of the two.


Susie will probably lose several kilograms per month, and within the first six weeks will be looking and feeling remarkably different than when she began.


For Susie, I wouldn’t recommend counting calories at this stage of her journey.


When to count calories

Let’s fast-forward. Susie is now at the 8-month mark. She has lost 18 kg, and has dropped 12% body fat. She looks much younger and says her energy is through the roof. She can now sprint up the stairs at work and has the energy to keep up with her kids on the weekend.


However she wanted more. Susie not only wanted to look and feel good, she wanted to look great.


Over the past few weeks, Susie’s weight hadn’t changed. She was becoming frustrated and for the first time in her journey she had lost motivation to train and eat healthy foods.


This example is the perfect time to begin calorie counting.


Very often, athletes will struggle to drop body fat due to either over eating, or under recording / estimating what they’re eating. In both cases, calorie counting may help.


As with any diet, calorie counting is not an exact science. It’s an educated guess.  Every 1-2 weeks, you would need to check in to see if body fat levels have dropped. If they haven’t, you can adjust accordingly the same way we did previously be either increasing exercise or slightly decreasing calories.


Unfortunately, it’s hard to adjust a “Clean diet” if you are not measuring or controlling portions.


To Wrap Up

It is not unrealistic to get in “good” shape without every counting a calorie. I’ve witnessed both men and women achieve their goal body, some even lean enough to have visible abs, without counting calories. You can eat mindfully, stop at 70% full, and avoid big blowouts on weekends or social events.


However to go from good to great, calorie counting plays a role. And it’s what I recommend as you get closer to your goal.


In part II of this article, I’ll explain where to begin with a calorie-controlled diet.