Does calorie counting work? And does it really help wight weight loss? Yes, some say so.
But what’s really behind it?
Others say that calorie tracking doesn’t work, is outdated and counterproductive.
Both sides often argue with scientific studies.
Pretty confusing situation, isn’t it?
Let’s briefly go over the basics before we start to address the actual question.
What is a Calorie?
Imagine you heated a gram of water by 1°C. If you ask yourself how much energy you need, the answer is easy: exactly one calorie.
Calories are a measure of heat energy.
That’s why we also talk about the “calorific value”.
So calories are how much energy you supply to your body through eating and drinking.
When you move, you burn calories.
So calories are also the energy your body needs to do its work. Starting with the basic functions like breathing and thinking up to strength and endurance sports.
The energy content of food is usually expressed in kilocalories.
In the colloquial language, the more handy term “calories” has established itself – even among experts. Even if kilocalories are actually meant.
For the sake of better readability, I will do the same in this article. If you read “calories” from now on, in case of doubt kilocalories (kcal) are meant.
Key facts: What is a calorie?
Calories are a measure of the energy that you supply to your body through food and consume again through various activities.
How Does your Body Utilize Calories?
Some people may wonder why calories play a role at all.
This becomes clear when we consider how your body uses them.
It all starts with the food you eat.
They give your body the energy it needs to live. In the digestive process, your body divides the food into smaller units.
It can “burn” them to provide the energy it just needs. He can also use some of the puzzle pieces to build new textures.
The amount of energy they provide varies depending on what food they are made of:
- Carbohydrates: 4 kcal per gram.
- Protein: 4 kcal per gram.
- Fat: 9 kcal per gram.
- Alcohol: 7 kcal per gram.
The calories your body metabolizes from these nutrients it uses to fuel three major processes:
- Basal metabolic rate
What’s behind all this? Let’s go through the terms one after the other.
1. Basal Metabolic Rate
Even if you were in bed all day, you’d still burn a lot of calories. Consumers include your brain, muscles, kidneys and lungs, but also your nervous and circulatory systems.
By the way, your muscles are real energy guzzlers even when at rest.
The more muscle mass, the higher the basal metabolic rate.
The amount of energy needed to maintain the functions of your body is called the resting metabolic rate (RMR).
Your basal metabolic rate accounts for about 50-75% of the energy you consume every day.
When you eat something, your body needs to invest energy in digestion and the conversion of food components.
Digestion consumes calories.
The associated calorie consumption is called “Thermic Effect of Food” (TEF). It accounts for a good 10% of your calorie consumption.
The digestion of some foods costs more energy than the digestion of others. For example, the energy consumption of unprocessed foods is higher than that of highly processed foods. Protein needs more calories than fat.
Physical activity accounts for the rest of your daily calorie consumption. This includes:
Depending on how active you are, exercise can account for 10-30% of your daily calories burned.
Key facts: How does your body utilize calories?
Your body uses the calories from food to provide the energy needed for basal metabolic rate, digestion and physical activity.
The Fat Reduction Formula: How does Losing Weight and Counting Calories Work?
After the energy needs of your body are covered, it stores the excess energy for later. Part of it is stored as glycogen in muscles and liver. Most of the rest, however, is in the form of fat.
Therefore the simple formula applies:
If you eat more calories than you consume, you gain more weight.
You can get your body to invest part of the excess calories in building new muscle mass. And you can do so through proper strength training. That way there will be less left for the fat pads.
On the other hand, if your diet does not provide you with enough calories, your body will compensate the difference by plundering its calorie stores.
If you eat less calories than you consume, you lose weight.
And this is mainly body fat. At least if you continue to train your muscles in a calorie deficit.
If you lose weight without muscle training, you risk muscle loss. And thus a sinking basal metabolic rate.
The principle of the calorie balance, the fat reduction formula, has been confirmed by numerous studies. It applies regardless of whether you obtain your energy from carbohydrates, fats or protein.
Key facts: How does fat loss work?
If you want to break down fat, you need a calorie deficit.
Does it matter if you get your calories from fat, carbohydrates or protein? The answer to this simple question depends on how you look at it.
Calories are a measure. Like kilograms or meters.
So 100 calories are 100 calories. No matter whether you eat an apple or a scoop of ice cream.
However not all calories are the same.
When we talk about calories in connection with fat loss or gaining strength, we have to distinguish between quality and quantity.
Even if two foods contain exactly the same number of calories, they can provide different nutritional values – and have a completely different effect on your fitness and health.
Different foods have different effects on your metabolism, appetite, muscle building, immune system or hormones.
100 calories from potatoes satiate better than 100 calories from ice cream.
This is why most people eat more calories later in the day if they have eaten highly processed foods with a high energy density. This makes it harder to maintain a calorie deficit.
Key facts: Are all calories equal?
Calories are the energy quantity of food. But they do not say anything about how much essential nutrients such as amino acids, fats, vitamins, protein or minerals are contained.
Why does Losing Weight often Work Without Counting Calories?
Why does it seem that calories sometimes don’t play a role in weight loss?
Fat loss requires a calorie deficit. This is a scientific principle that cannot be ignored.
And there are people who claim the following:
“As long as you eat the right thing, it doesn’t matter how much you eat.”
As “proof,” they often cite studies in which the subjects could eat as much as they wanted. Some study participants seem to have lost more weight, although they say they ate more calories.
At first glance, these studies suggest that no calorie deficit is necessary to lose weight. In addition, they are often cited as “proof” that counting calories is unnecessary.
But if we take a closer look, the picture changes. For three reasons.
1. Very few People Indicate Exactly What They have Eaten
How many calories a test person has eaten or burned through activity is usually not measured directly in studies.
Instead, scientists ask their subjects to record their diet and exercise on their own. The researchers then evaluate these diaries.
Nutrition diaries are usually kept rather inaccurately.
There are studies on this as well. Thus scientists determined that participants in nourishing studies:
- underestimate the amount of food consumed by up to 45% or 2,000 calories a day.
- overestimate their activity by up to 51%.
And that regardless of whether the test persons were paid to participate in the study or not.
2. Low-Carb Diets Contain more Protein and Fat
Test persons who eat low-carbohydrate diets often eat fewer calories a day because they are less hungry and have less appetite.
3. Usually the Weight is Measured, not the Body Fat Percentage
Most studies dealing with weight loss only measure the development of body weight.
Whether the subjects really lost fat, or whether it was water or muscle loss, was not determined.
Most people want to lose body fat.
Not water or muscles.
Low-carb diets are a good example. If you eat little carbohydrates, your body’s carbohydrate stores will empty naturally. Especially when you are exercising.
On the one hand, this is advantageous because your body now has to increasingly use fat as an energy source.
On the other hand, carbohydrates in the body are normally bound to water. As soon as the carbohydrates are used up, the water is released again. Your body weight drops.
You don’t just lose fat. But also water.
That is not bad and it is also not an argument against low carb diets. But it makes one clear: body weight ≠ body fat.
Therefore I understand, why some humans say: “The scales lies.” But what it usually means by this is that it doesn’t tell you whether you really break down fat:
The scales don’t tell you the whole truth.
That’s why I recommend not to shoot yourself too hard on your body weight. Instead, you should measure your physique.
Some Studies take into Account all Three Factors – and Bury the Myth
In order to really be able to judge whether calories play a role in weight loss, we need studies that take all three of these factors into account.
In fact, there are a number of such studies. And they come to the same result:
People who eat fewer calories than they consume lose weight.
Key facts: Why calories (seemingly) do not play a role
Due to some influencing factors, it may look as if calories do not play a role in weight loss. However, studies that include these factors show that losing weight requires a calorie deficit.
Why does Calorie Counting Work? And how Does it Help You Lose Weight?
Does Calorie counting work? It is a proven method of reducing fat. Most fitness models and athletes I know use it to prepare for competition.
Scientific research confirms this.
A recent study came to the following conclusion:
People who follow a fat loss program AND count calories lose an average of 3.3 kg more than those who do not count calories.
The more carefully you track, the greater the effect seems to be.
In one study, the researchers observed subjects participating in a fat loss program for 12 weeks. Those who kept a diet diary and continuously counted calories had lost twice as much weight at the end of the period as those who tracked less accurately.
Those who did not follow their diet even gained weight.
Why does calorie counting work so effective?
Calorie counting helps you establish an effective feedback system.
Because it gives you three benefits at once:
- Recognize patterns. Calorie counting helps you to identify your dietary patterns and – if necessary – to change them so that you can successfully break down fat.
- Determine the current condition. In spite of the inaccuracies that calorie counting entails, you can determine your personal actual condition. On this basis you can adjust your calorie target downwards (fat loss) or upwards (muscle build-up) and plan your diet accordingly.
- Recognize and correct course deviations. If you track your diet, you will recognize deviations quickly and can readjust immediately. You take control of your progress and stay in control.
One or the other might wonder whether counting calories is really necessary to lose weight.
The clear answer is no.
You can also lose weight without counting calories.
If you want to lose weight, you need a calorie deficit. As long as you find a way that works and that makes you feel good, it doesn’t matter if you count calories or not.
A feedback system is the most important requirement if you want to change your body successfully.
Calorie Counting is a powerful tool in your toolbox that you CAN use. But is not a MUST.
Key facts: Why does calories counting work and help you lose weight?
Does calorie counting work? Counting calories can accelerate fat loss because it makes you aware of your eating habits and gives you continuous feedback. This allows you to recognize and change unconscious patterns earlier in order to reach your goal.
Calories Count Made Easy – Even If You Hate to Count Calories
There are several ways to enjoy the benefits that calorie counting brings with it.
All of them are about the following:
You observe your eating habits.
You can keep a nutrition diary online, via app or with pen and paper.
It is best to choose a method that is easy for YOU.
With a little practice, counting calories will cost you less than 3 minutes a day.
Once you have established a routine, you can – if you wish – increase the accuracy by using simple scales and measurement methods to your advantage.
Here are a few visual guidelines to help you estimate your portions when you don’t have a scale to hand:
- 1 cup: A tennis ball or your closed fist.
- 150 grams: The size and thickness of your open, flat hand.
- 100 grams: The thickness and size of your palm (without fingers).
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml): your fingertip.
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml): Three fingertips.
I have made the best experiences with Cronometer to count calories. Of course, other apps are also suitable.
Key facts: Does counting calories work – that’s how it works
A nutrition diary helps you to benefit from the advantages of calorie counting. It is most accurate in combination with a digital kitchen scale.
Are Calories Really Everything?
The point is important to me:
Calorie counting is a useful tool in your fitness toolbox.
If you want to lose weight, you get the feedback you need to stay in a calorie deficit. If you want to build muscles, you’ll get the necessary extra calories.
It’s all about the QUANTITY of what you eat. But counting calories tells you little about the QUALITY of your food.
You are not only HOW MY you eat. But also WHAT you eat.
If you want to look good, then 100 calories from a chocolate croissant have a different effect on your body than 100 calories from an egg or a potato.
When I first started to deal with fat loss, I had half a dozen kilos too much on my ribs. Tendency rising. That was the moment I decided:
“Now is the end. Now you’re changing something!”
I started counting calories. It worked: I lost weight. But I felt miserable.
I made the mistake of only looking at the calories.
After all, I can now help you not to make the same mistake. Balanced nutrition is so much more than calories.
Your body needs essential nutrients such as proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals.
The best way to get them is to buy natural, unprocessed food.
Exactly, without the nutrition label.
Key facts: Does calories really matter everything?
Counting calories is one way to measure the quantity of your energy intake. You should also consider the quality of your diet – what you eat.
Summary – Does Calorie Counting Work
In that sense, losing weight is pretty simple: you need an energy deficit. So you want to refill less calories than you burn.
But counting calories is a CAN, but definitely not a MUST.
Some people make good progress WITHOUT counting calories. Others find it WITH easier to make continuous progress.
What I recommend to each of you is:
Establish a feedback system.
This is the only way to determine whether what you are doing brings you closer to your goal.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution in my world: not all, but many roads lead to Rome.
If you haven’t had any experience with calorie counting yet and I could arouse your interest, I recommend that you give this tool a chance and try your own experiments.
You should consider one point: Calories are not everything.
If you want to look good, you want quality.
So minimally processed food with a high nutrient density.
Question: What experiences have you had with counting calories? Did it help you to make progress or did you find another way? Write a comment.