Pros and Cons to Using Calories for Nutrition Management
Counting calories is often portrayed as either a horrible idea or the only idea. As I’ve posted about before, everyone is out to sell their way of doing things. In an attempt to consider both sides of this somewhat complicated picture, I’m going to lay out some pros and cons to help explain why calorie counting can be a very effective tool despite it's flaws.
Con #1: You are a unique individual with a very different metabolic equation than anyone else. Even if you’re the exact same weight, body composition, and move around the exact same way as someone else, you will burn through more or less calories in the day than that person. So the idea that if you’re 150 pounds and define yourself as moderately active, you should eat “x” amount of calories is crazy. Consider the idea that even if you’re just 10% off, and you’re told you should eat a 200 calorie diet, that you could be over or under eating by 200 calories (or 1 Krispy Creme glazed donut per day).
Con #2: A calorie does not equal a calorie. This is discussed a lot these days in regards to macronutrients, etc, but it should still be mentioned that eating 2000 calories of lean, unprocessed meat and vegetables will not have the same reaction on your body as 2000 calories of donuts and skittles.
Con #3: You can’t measure your calories like you think you can. Humans are just prone to miscalculation. There’s no reasonable way that you’re going to be able to accurately weigh and measure all of the things that you intake in your daily diet. Even if you use the most accurate food scale you can buy, you just won’t get it 100% right.
Con #4: Calorie numbers on Nutrition Labels are inaccurate. Even within the standards of FDA regulation, nutrition labels can be off by as much as 20%. Taking the example we have been using; if you’re supposed to be eating 2000 calories, but you’re over or under-eating by 20%, that’s a difference of 400 daily calories.
Con #5: The caloric estimates of your daily activities, exercise, etc are grossly inaccurate. This is especially true if you’re doing anything more complicated than running. Anything mixed, like CrossFit or weights and conditioning will completely ruin any chance you have at getting anything accurate.
Con #6: Calorie counting can lead to major bargaining with your food intake. When people get too attached to their calories in/calories out, it often leads to a habit of bargaining with your intake, which is neither healthy, productive or feasible long term. It leads to thoughts like, “well, I had 1000 calories too many yesterday, so I’ll have 1000 too few today”, or “I’ll exercise really, really hard tomorrow to earn off that brownie”, or “I had a crappy breakfast and lunch, so I don’t have any calories left for dinner…” In extreme examples, this can lead to major eating disorders.
Ok, ok, we get it. There’s a lot of flaws in the Calories In vs. Calories Out method. Are there any positives to this? Yep, as a matter of fact, there are:
Pro #1: You’ll learn a lot. I have never sat down with a client after a two week food log and had them answer, “no”, when I asked them if they learned anything. There is always something that you’re doing that will be exposed by doing a food log that involves calories and macronutrients that you didn’t know was there. Some common ones are, “holy shit there’s a lot of sugar in Orange Juice!”, or “I had no idea I was eating 1000 calories of almonds!”, or “ummmm, so I think that my 1 drink a night is slightly more than 1 drink…” These things are not life or death revelations, nor are they bad necessarily, they are good to know though!
Pro #2: It provides structure and guidelines. We like to pretend otherwise, but we humans love to be told what to do. If I tell you to eat a well rounded diet of mostly meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds, I’m giving you decent advice, but most people need more structure. They want to know how much, how often and the specific amounts of each. Even knowing all of the flaws and errors mentioned above, most people are at least consistent in their inconsistencies, so they can effectively use the tool even if they’re not even close on the correct numbers.
Pro #3: It’s a great tool. As long as you can recognize the flaws, using a method of calorie counting is a great tool to figure out what you should or could be doing. If, according to your calculations, are eating 2000 calories and are gaining weight, you should probably reduce your portion sizes, or find the thing that’s pushing you over that edge and get rid of it. Or, if you’re losing weight, but have no energy to sustain your normal existence and you find yourself hating everything you once loved, you might want to bump your numbers up a little. If you sleep like shit once in a while, and you figure out that it’s on nights that you jack yourself up with a bunch of refined sugar and carbohydrates before you go to sleep, using a calorie counting app will allow you to see that in pretty clear form.
Pro #4: Accountability. Related to Pro #2 and #3, if used correctly, using a method of calorie counting will provide you with some accountability. If you’re supposed to be eating a certain amount, but you’re way over, or way under that, you’ll have someone or something to answer to in regards to where you’re supposed to be instead of just saying “I ate too much or too little yesterday”.
Pro #5: Macronutrient Manipulation. As you get more advanced in your nutritional knowledge and training habits, a calorie counting approach allows you to better track and control the things you eat on training days vs. non-training days. Most people generally respond well to a lower carbohydrate diet, but will need more carbohydrates on days they do any sort of intense training. Counting calories and macros will allow you to do this much better than just guessing or estimating.