Losing body fat and gaining muscle and strength is all about calorie manipulation. If you want to loose body fat then you must take in fewer calories than your body consumes and if you want to develop more size and strength, then you must take in more calories than your body uses. Pretty standard stuff really! If you don’t manipulate this calories balance in your favour, then no matter how hard you try, foods you eat, genetics or the training program you undertake, you will never make progress. CALORIES IN/OUT is the number one principle you need to have locked in when it comes to losing fat and building size and strength.
Get that right, and you are almost there! Naturally then, if you want to make sure you’re on track with your daily calorie targets, the best thing to do is to measure out all your foods, and write up everything. No exceptions! Simply put, every time you eat something, you need to measure your food to the exact gram, to make sure your calories fit into your daily plan. For a competitor like a bodybuilder this is a MUST, but is this really feasible, day in and day out as part of a LONG-TERM plan for everyone else? Do you have to actually track your calories to ensure you keep making consistent progress? Well, it depends! If you ask me, it’s all about EXPERIENCE and how long you have been in the fitness game.
Tracking Provides Guidance And Deeper Insight
Tracking calories does have its advantages. The obvious one is that you know exactly what you are eating on a daily basis. If you know your daily calorie maintenance and how many calories you need to consume each day to reach your goals, then tracking is convenient. It just makes everything that much easier. For the new people to the fitness world, it’s a must! You know precisely how many calories you take in each day and you know whether or not your meeting your daily calorie targets. Another advantage of tracking calories is that you pay A LOT more attention to what you are eating in general and learn alot more about food, what is good and what is bad. You become more conscious of what you are eating and the food choices you make. In my experience, you actually start to become more aware of just how bad (or how good) certain foods are and how they can impact your goals.
“For the new people to the fitness world, it’s a must!”
Let’s take an example: say you have a daily calorie target of 3000 as part of your current weight loss journey. 3000 daily calories is the number of calories you need to maintain your CALORIE DEFICIT in order to loose weight. It’s now the end of your day and you have 500 calories left to consume. Now you know this number (through tracking!) you now really have to think carefully about your last meal: what foods to choose, how you are going to prepare you food, decisions all made so that you can stay within your 500 calorie target. Through tracking your calories you start to pay closer attention to what’s in food, what foods are high in calories, what foods are low in calories and, what foods you can have that will best fit into your last meal. Another important aspect of calorie tracking is AWARENESS for CLEAN FOOD.
“An important aspect of calorie tracking is AWARENESS for CLEAN FOOD.”
It’s not until you start paying attention to your daily calories and start playing the game of trying to fit everything into your daily calorie targets that you begin to realise just HOW HIGH some foods are in calories! If you have a daily calorie target to meet and your struggling to meet this, then you might be inclined to switch your food choices to healthier alternatives in order to reduce the calories and meet these targets. By tracking your calories and knowing exactly what you have to work with on a daily basis, you are more likely to be conscious about the type of foods you pick. You will also be more inclined to select cleaner food alternatives as these will generally give you a greater calorie buffer to work with (e.g. salads, green veg as opposed to chips, chocolate). In other words ‘food volume’. For instance, say you need 200 calories, then you could eat 1kg of lettuce as opposed to a 30g chocolate bar. Ok, a chocolate bar is much tastier, but if you are looking for something to munch on and give you that feeling of fullness (especially if you are wanting to lose weight), then a 1kg of lettuce might be a better alternative!
“Tracking calories is a great way to become more aware of food in general.”
Tracking calories is a great way to become more aware of food in general. It teaches you a great deal over the calorie content of different foods and the beneficial aspects of switching out dirty foods for cleaner alternatives (calorie sparing, more volume etc.). It can also teach you to become more CREATIVE with your food choices. Again, if you have calorie targets to meet then getting more creative with your nutrition can help save you a bunch of calories. Beats a pre-packed frozen dinner! Tracking calories teaches you to exercise some level of control of your eating habits. For instance, if you only have 500 calories left to fill, then you are aware of that number and you will consciously try to meet that through being a little more ‘choosey’ with your food choices. After all, no one wants to fail meeting a target! If you don’t track your calories and you try to guess, then it’s likely you will be a little less conscious of your food choices. Ultimately, tracking calories opens up a new dimension in the world of nutrition. You might have never tracked calories before and simply just picked something off the shelf without paying too much attention to the calorie content or making a decision to choose cleaner foods over their unhealthier alternatives. From experience, when you don’t track calories it’s easy just to pick anything to eat without caring too much about what’s on the label. Tracking calories just seems to make you alot more aware of the food choices you make and get’s you to question why you have made those choices.
The bottom line: calorie tracking can make it easier for you to meet you daily calorie targets, make you more aware of your food choices and can stimulate you to look to more cleaner food alternatives.
The Bad Side Of Tracking?
Calorie tracking is great for those starting off and just getting used to the whole balancing act of calories in/out for weight loss and size and strength goals. If you are new to this, then learning to track your calories is a MUST. Tracking calories will open up a whole new world of nutrition to you, get you to become more conscious and aware over the food choices you make and teach you the value of clean foods vs. dirty foods (especially when you are trying to find ways to SAVE calories!). In my opinion, tracking calories is not only invaluable if you need to achieve specific goals, but also as a learning tool into nutrition.
“Tracking calories will open up a whole new world of nutrition to you.”
The bad side however is the tracking itself. Is it necessary to track everything you eat, every day for the rest of your life, regardless of whether you want to lose weight or gain size and strength? Beginners, yes! More advanced fitness peeps, maybe there is another way! The good thing about calorie tracking is that it teaches you alot about nutrition, food choices and foods themselves. Which leads me to believe, after you have learnt all this, is tracking necessary? For me, I don’t track so much, unless I have a specific goal I need to achieve in a specific time period. But for general fat loss and size and strength development, I don’t do much hardcore tracking anymore. But this is really all due to EXPERIENCE. Experience which you gain AFTER you have learnt to track calories. After a while, you simply become familiar with the foods you eat, the portion sizes you normally have when you are following a particular goal (and their calorie contents), when you are hungry and when you are full. What I am talking about here is INTUITIVE EATING. That is, no longer tracking your nutrition through numbers but through 1) manipulating portion sizes 2) basing the need to eat on your hunger levels 3) learning to stop eating when you are FULL. Yes, it seems like alot of guess work, but most of this stuff you learn after a few years anyways. I would not do this if I was just starting out, simply because you have no previous data/experience to base these decision on.
The problem with tracking calories is that it can make people a little too obsessed with their nutrition. If they are one calorie under or one calorie over their daily targets, what feelings are going through their head? Do they feel like they have failed, messed up, or cheated on themselves? Have they abolished all their progress up until now? It can also make people obsessed with eating ALL clean foods. One thing that calorie tracking teaches you is just how calorie dense certain foods are. This is a real eye opener for new people over dirty foods. This can make some people avoid the foods they love all together simply because they have now become HYPER-AWARE of what’s in them. Some people might fall into the trap of avoiding ANYTHING that is not clean, natural or healthy simply out of fear of eating too many calories. This can lead to social issues, bad relationships with food, and also a very boring nutrition plan. I mean, even if you are losing weight or gaining size and strength, you are still allowed the foods you love! Heck, even competitive bodybuilding have the occasional things they love! It’s great to be aware of your nutrition and food choices, but becoming too aware can lead to obsession. That’s not good!
This is why intuitive eating seems like a good idea for the more experienced people, those that have spent a few years tracking calories, and have a pretty good idea of judging hunger levels, feelings of fullness and portion control. Having alot of experience takes alot of the potential guesswork out of intuitive eating, away. If you are someone who follows a clean diet (and knows how to work in the occasional treats), can judge true hunger from simply boredom and, knows when to stop eating, I think intuitive eating is a great way to make nutrition less stressful, less obsessive and, more flexible. You don’t really want to have to weigh your food every meal, every day, for the rest of your life? I don’t think so, and you don’t! But you do need to have the experience first before engaging in intuitive eating. With intuitive eating, whether you are loosing weight or gaining size and strength, it’s going to be alot about portion size control and continuous monitoring through performance, how you are feeling on a daily basis, hunger levels and what you see in the mirror. But take note, intuitive eating is not code to simply eat what you want, or to neglect careful consideration and planning to what you include in your nutrition plan. You still need to base your nutrition around mainly clean foods (to help keep your calories in macros in track) and work in the foods you like in moderation.
The bottom line: If you are just beginning in the world of fitness, then calorie tracking is a MUST. It will help keep you on the right track but also, teach you everything you need to know about calories and nutrition. It will help you become more AWARE of what you eat on a daily basis. When you have built up experience regarding portion size control, judging of TRUE hunger levels, knowing when your full, learning to stick to a clean nutrition plan, then, you can begin to slowly transition into intuitive eating.
Less Counting, More Flexibility
I really like the idea of intuitive eating, not needing to record every gram of what you eat, every time you head to the kitchen. But, it’s something that has to be done with alot of prior nutrition experience and not be mis-interpreted. Intuitive eating has the potential to be very misused which is why I would never recommend it to people who are still learning about the concept of calories and nutrition. If am honest, it can only truly work the way it’s meant to if you have a good idea on portion size control, you can judge your TRUE hunger levels, you actually know when to stop eating, you know the benefits of eating clean (rather than a diet filled with predominately junk) and, you know what clean foods are. Without this knowledge behind you, intuitive eating just becomes GUESS EATING based on no previous data to go off. If you can transition into intuitive eating successfully, then it really will bring alot more flexibility into your life. It will also reduce the likelihood of you becoming permanently obsessed over what you eat!
Any questions, ask away!