Calorie counting for beginners

Calorie Counting for Beginners

This article looks at calorie counting for beginners. Do you need to do it? What are the best methods? How accurate is calorie counting? This article will address all of these questions and give you a better idea of how, why, and when to count calories.

Calorie counting can be beneficial in certain situations, but it does not suit all personality types. If you have a history of disordered eating, for example, then calorie counting can be problematic. But for many people, calorie counting can help you to make informed decisions about your diet and increase your nutritional knowledge. Calorie counting for beginners should be simple and non-stressful.

There has been a lot of debate surrounding calorie counting. In fact, I’ve recorded a podcast on the drama, which you can listen to here. But this article focuses more on HOW to count calories, with only a little bit about whether you should or not.

What is Calorie Counting?

Calorie counting is a way to measure the number of calories that you consume each day through the foods and drinks that you consume. But this information is only useful if you also know what your calorie expenditure is per day, and have a specific goal.

For example, most people who use calorie counting want to lose weight. So you would want to create a calorie deficit, where the number of calories that you consume is less than the number of calories you expend through exercise, NEAT, and your regular metabolism.

Once you have an idea of how many calories you expend each day, and how many calories you need to consume to create your deficit, you then need to count the number of calories in the food and drink that you consume.

Let’s say that you wake up and have an apple. With calorie counting, you would research how many calories are contained within a typical apple. You would then log this number in your food diary. Throughout the day, you would continue to log every item that you consume, keeping a running total. When you hit your desired target you would stop.

This method can be very effective, but many people take things a step further by also sticking to macronutrient targets. Macros include protein, fats, and carbohydrates. All food consists of at least one of these macros (but often all three). Generally, higher protein diets tend to be more effective than diets high in carbs, even if the overall calorie total is the same.

Does Calorie Counting Work?

There are a lot of articles online that will say that calorie counting works, and a lot that will say that calorie counting does not work. When performed correctly, calorie counting can certainly work, so if you are looking for a simple answer then yes, calorie counting works.

But as with all nutritional debates, the discussion surrounding calorie counting is nuanced. As a personal trainer, I found that calorie counting suited some personalities perfectly, while others struggled with it.

This means that depending on who you are talking to, calorie counting can be amazing or terrible. This is where the confusion comes from.

In an article in the Daily Mail in 2023, Professor Tim Spector claimed that “calorie counting does not work” as many people tend to regain weight in the long term. Personally, I have a few issues with this stance.

For starters, weight regain is an issue for almost all diets, and it is not necessarily the fault of the diet technique. There are a myriad of factors that can influence the success of a diet. Loss of motivation, unrealistic expectations, fluctuations in mood, lifestyle events etc …

He is also describing people who do not follow calorie counting properly. Because if you are following it correctly, then you won’t see weight regain, because you would adjust your calories to suit any new changes.

It is the equivalent of saying that cars don’t work because so many people have traffic collisions each year. Okay, that is oversimplifying things, but you get my drift.

What Does the Science Say?

Studies find that calorie counting works best when people consistently track, while those who intermittently track or rarely track are less likely to succeed [1]. As you would imagine, those who calorie count properly see the best results, while those who do not will experience a lack of progress.

A study in 2017 looked at the activities that were most helpful when trying to lose weight. It found that regular weighing, step-count targets, high-intensity exercise, and food logging (calorie-counting) were the most effective ways to lose weight over the long term [2].

But calorie counting will only work when you use it as a tool for changing your behaviours. Remember, you need to create a calorie deficit to lose body fat, and this requires you to make changes to what you are eating and how much.

Calorie counting can help you to identify what common foods you are eating that may be taking you away from your goals. It can also help you to find good replacements. For example, it can help you to swap out large pours of olive oil on your food for a cooking spray, which can save you 100-200 calories per meal!

How to Make Calorie Counting Work

  • Be consistent with your tracking, it needs to be done every day for a long period
  • Use the information gained to make changes to your diet
  • Combine calorie counting with other activities such as step-count targets, regular weighing, and frequent exercise sessions
  • Decide if this method is working for you or not. If it isn’t, then it may be best to walk away and find another method.

Finding Your Daily Calorie Expenditure

Your calorie expenditure is a measure of all the calories that you burn each day. You must understand that finding an exact measure of your calorie expenditure is close to impossible. There are too many variables, and how we measure calorie burning is not accurate enough.

But, most people do not need to know their exact calorie expenditure, they just need a rough estimate to work with. You can then use trial and error to gain weight, lose weight, or maintain weight. Even the most successful bodybuilders, who use calorie counting to get their body fat levels insanely low, will not know their exact calorie expenditure. So don’t stress about this.

Most people think that calorie expenditure only applies to the calories burned during exercise. This is not helped by fitness influencers who say things like “It would take 5 hours of walking to burn off the calories from one KitKat.

Your calorie expenditure is a measure of:

  1. The calories you burn performing structured exercise (gym sessions, sports, jogs etc.)
  2. The calories that you burn performing conscious non-exercise activities (walking the dog, washing the car, mowing the lawn, vacuuming the carpet)
  3. The calories that you burn performing semi-unconscious micro-movements such as fidgeting while you sit, lifting your phone to read this article etc.
  4. The calories that your body burns to keep you alive (digestion, thermogenesis, fueling your brain etc.)

It is possible to measure the calories that you burn through exercise, but it would require a lot of high-quality scientific equipment to do so. It is also possible to measure the calories that your body burns via metabolism.

Again though, you would need a lot of equipment, time, and expertise. It is harder still to measure the calories burned mowing the lawn, and it is almost impossible to measure the calories that you burn performing unconscious micro-movements such as playing with a pen while you read an article.

That’s why we use estimates, and this provides some problems.

The Problems With Calorie Expenditure Estimates

Say that you wanted to find out how many calories you had burned the last time you ran a mile. You might start by typing “calories burned in one mile run” into Google. The top result (and several subsequent results) says 100 calories.

Now, that is a fairly understandable estimate, but do you think that an Olympic Marathon runner would burn the same number of calories running a mile as a 52-year-old dad who is borderline obese and hasn’t run in 20 years?

Probably not, right?

Other variables can affect that run. The speed at which it is performed, the experience of the runner, the weather conditions (running during a windy day is harder than a calm day), and most importantly the size of the runner.

Larger people burn more calories performing the same tasks (if the intensity is also the same). This means that the number of calories burned during a one-mile run could range from 50 to 250 calories—possibly more.

Again, it is important to stress that this isn’t too big of a deal, but we cannot discuss calorie counting without highlighting both the pros and the cons. There are ways around this issue. Here is how to measure your calorie expenditure properly:

Step #1 Measure Yourself Regularly

To get a more accurate idea of how many calories you are burning, you need to know how much you weigh, how tall you are, your age, your gender, and you need to have a fairly good idea of how active you are. A measure of your heart rate, step count, and other forms of exercise can also be very useful.

Purchase a decent set of weighing scales, and I would also recommend a good fitness tracker such as a FitBit, Garmin watch, or something similar. Even your Smartphone can provide you with a lot of these measurements if you are on a budget.

You then want to take these measurements regularly and record them somehow. Many calorie-tracking apps will allow you to keep your data with them, or you can use a simple Excel spreadsheet. All of this information will be needed for step #3.

Step #2 Be Honest With Yourself

While most of the stats that are required for calorie calculators are straightforward, there is one section that trips a lot of people up. This is the part where you have to estimate your activity levels. Your activity level is a rough measure of how often you exercise each week, and how many steps you take.

There are different methods of getting this information, but they all require you to look at how you have been living and estimate whether you will continue to do this, or whether you plan on increasing your activity levels.

Most people tend to put a higher level than they are currently doing, and this can lead to problems. Because it will cause your calorie expenditure equation to be too high. This will make weight loss a lot more challenging.

Your best bet is to be honest about your current activity levels and enter that into the calculator. Then you can reassess things after 3-4 weeks. If your new workout program has proven effective, and you are walking more steps each day, then you can adjust the activity level to reflect the extra calories you are burning.

Step #3 Use a Calorie Burning Calculator or Use an Equation

Now you have all the data you need, both subjective and objective, you can finally enter it into a calorie calculator, or you can use an equation (see below). There are several excellent calorie estimators out there, and I will link to three of them:

  1. TDEE Calculator by Expert Fitness
  2. Precision Nutrition’s Weight Loss Calculator
  3. Health-Calc Total Energy Expenditure Calculator

All three calculators are superb, and you can use any of them to get a decent estimate of the number of calories that you burn each day. Alternatively, you can use an equation to work it out for yourself. The Harris-Benedict equation has been the standard method for working out your basal metabolic rate for a century, but it was updated in the 90s to the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation, which is slightly more accurate.


  • BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5


  • BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161

This gives you an idea of how many calories you would burn in a day if you did not perform any exercise or non-exercise activity. Basically, it is the calories you would burn if you lay down doing nothing for 24 hours.

This is not that helpful, so people use the Physical Activity Level (PAL) score to get more specific results. PAL is split into five categories:

  1. Sedentary – You do not exercise at all, don’t walk much, and have a low-activity job (multiply your BMI by 1.2 to get your calorie expenditure total)
  2. Slightly Active – You don’t exercise, you walk a bit and/or you have a medium-activity job (multiply your BMI by 1.375 to get your calorie expenditure total)
  3. Moderately Active – You exercise a bit, you walk a bit, and/or you have a medium-activity job (multiply your BMI by 1.55 to get your calorie expenditure total)
  4. Very Active – You exercise regularly, walk a lot, and/or have a high-activity job (multiply your BMI by 1.725 to get your calorie expenditure total)
  5. Extra Active – You are an athlete/bodybuilder/extreme gym-goer, or you have an incredibly active job (multiply your BMI by 1.9 to get your calorie expenditure total)

A Smartwatch or SmartPhone can help with this. Or you can just think hard about how active you are day-in day-out. Remember, this should be a measure of how you currently are, not what you aspire to be. Unless you can guarantee that your next few weeks will be consistently more active.

Finding Your Daily Calorie Intake Target

Once you have your daily calorie expenditure, you will know how many calories you need to maintain your current weight. You can then set yourself targets to gain weight or lose weight.

  • If you are looking to gain weight, then you need to consume more calories than you burn each day. So, if you burn 2,000 calories per day and want to gain weight, you must consume more than 2,000 calories per day. This is called a calorie surplus.
  • If you are looking to lose weight, then you need to consume fewer calories than you burn each day. So, if you burn 2,000 calories per day and want to lose weight, you must consume fewer than 2,000 calories daily. This is called a calorie deficit.

Make sense?

The tricky part is deciding on how big of a surplus or deficit you want. The larger the surplus/deficit, the faster and/or greater the results. However, larger surpluses and deficits also come with an increased risk of failure and bigger potential downsides. It’s about finding the right balance for you.

A good rule of thumb is that the heavier the person, the larger the deficit they can handle. For example, a 120 kg man can handle a larger calorie deficit than a 60 kg man. However, there is a lot of variance between people.

Most experts recommend around 500 calories per day to be a decent calorie deficit, but for a lot of people, this may be a little on the high side. Starting at 300-400 per day and then slowly increasing the deficit over time may be better.

If you are obese, a 500+ calorie deficit should be perfectly safe and will lead to rapid weight loss. Remember to reduce the deficit after you have lost some weight though.

When I was personal training, I would usually start my clients off by just tracking their calories and boosting their protein intake. I’d keep them on this for a few weeks so that I could get some baseline scores for their calorie intake.

After that, I would create a calorie deficit of 200-300, and slowly increase this week on week. You may find that this works for you, alternatively, you may prefer to dive into the deep end with a 500-calorie deficit.

Daily Calorie Intake for Weight Loss = Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) minus 200-500 calories

How to Count Calories

Now that we know how to set calorie targets, it is important to learn how to count calories correctly. Luckily, this is a fairly easy thing to learn. There are two options. You can do so manually using your own research, or you can use a calorie-counting app such as My Fitness Pal.

  • The manual method involves writing all the foods you eat into a notebook, weighing food (where possible), and using the nutrition label or research on Google to provide calorie information.
  • The calorie-counting app method is to download something like My Fitness Pal (other apps exist) and use it to log your calories.

To be honest, the second method (app) makes a lot more sense. It can take away a lot of hard work, and you can still double-check things on Google or the nutrition label. It’s best to double-check because sometimes the information provided can be wildly inaccurate.

What I like about apps is that they can save your frequent foods in a database, meaning that you don’t have to continually search for them. The bigger ones are also great for eating out, as either the app contains the calorie information itself, or another user has done the hard work and you can use their numbers.

One thing that you should always stay aware of is not falling into a common trap. This is where you do the work, but don’t learn from it. Look through your data, and identify foods that are suboptimal or foods that you overconsume. Use this data to improve your diet. Don’t just track the calories and forget about them.


Strictly speaking, there are four macronutrients: Protein, Fat, Carbohydrates, and Alcohol. But when we talk about macronutrients we tend to focus more on the first three. That’s not because alcohol doesn’t count, it’s just not particularly necessary to set yourself alcohol targets. So long as you are tracking the calories of alcohol, you don’t need to be concerned with its macronutrient profile!

In this section, we will briefly discuss the main macronutrients so that you understand their importance and how they affect the body.

Protein (4 calories per gram)

Proteins are long chains of amino acids, they are often described as the building blocks of muscle, but protein can be found in any tissue in your body. Your body needs 20 amino acids to function properly, but only 11 amino acids can be formed in the body. The others must come from your diet.

All protein-containing foods will have most of these nine amino acids, but some foods will contain more of one amino acid than others. For example, pea protein contains a lot of leucine but is very low in cysteine.

This isn’t that big of a deal, because you will probably be getting your protein from multiple sources, some of which may be low in leucine and high in cysteine. But it is for this reason that eating a diet that is high in protein and varied in its protein sources is a good idea.

Protein contains 4 calories per gram, so 20 grams of protein equals 80 calories.

Carbohydrates (4 calories per gram)

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, when you eat carbs your body will break them down into glucose which is then used for energy. While it is possible to survive on a diet that avoids carbs (Ketogenic), most nutritionists would recommend that you consume carbohydrates regularly.

There are three main types of carbohydrates:

  1. Sugars (simple carbohydrates)
  2. Starches (complex carbohydrates)
  3. Fibres (complex carbohydrates)

Standard advice is to try and consume more complex carbohydrates while limiting simple carbohydrates. But, this is not clear-cut. Fruit, for example, is a healthy source of simple carbohydrates, and the benefits massively outweigh any downsides.

The important thing to consider from a calorie counting perspective is that not all carbohydrates are healthy, and if you have macronutrient targets it is a good idea to promote healthier carbs such as whole grains, vegetables, and high-fibre foods, over unhealthy refined carbohydrates such as chocolate bars, pastries, etc.

Carbohydrates contain roughly 4 calories per gram, so 20 grams of carbohydrates equals 80 calories.

Fat (9 calories per gram)

Fats are essentially a collection of fatty acids, these can be split into saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. A food that contains more saturated fatty acids than unsaturated fatty acids is described as saturated fat, but there are few foods that are 100% one or the other.

We are advised to keep saturated fats to a minimum as they can be unhealthy and raise bad cholesterol levels. However, you don’t want to avoid them completely. Also, it is too simplistic to describe saturated fats as unhealthy, coconut oil has many health properties but is a fat that is incredibly saturated.

As you can see, fats contain significantly more calories per gram (9) than proteins or carbohydrates (4). This is important to note because it means you have to be much more careful when measuring fats than you would with other macronutrients.

If a recipe says to use 2 tablespoons of olive oil (238 calories) and you just turn the bottle upside down and pour, you could be increasing the calorie count massively (half a cup of olive oil is around 1,000 calories).

Macronutrient Ratios

Macronutrient ratios may sound quite confusing or even intimidating. But chances are you have followed a diet based on macronutrient ratios before, even if you weren’t aware of it. As stated above, there are three main macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbs.

Every food you eat, and every meal, is made up of these three macronutrients. Say you had a bowl of Greek yoghurt and honey for breakfast, then you would have consumed protein, carbs, and fats from the yoghurt, and carbohydrates from the honey.

If you followed a ketogenic diet, then you would not have eaten this breakfast, as it contains too many carbohydrates for your goals. If you followed a low-fat diet then you would not have used Greek Yoghurt which is quite high in fat. Instead, you may have swapped out the regular yoghurt for the 0% fat version.

This is an example of examining the macronutrient ratios of the foods that you eat and adjusting them to fit your dietary goals. People can take this very seriously using calorie counting apps and trying to hit specific targets.

Or, they can be more casual, and just follow a couple of guidelines. For example, “I want to follow a high protein diet, so I will seek out higher protein foods to add to my regular diet”.

Whatever your goals, you can use macronutrient ratios to better achieve them. This can mean following a diet that is higher in protein, or one that is higher in fats than carbs, or one that looks to balance all three. I’ve picked three examples below, but remember, provided you stick to your calorie goal, you will succeed. Macro counting can just make things easier or provide faster/better results.

Best Macronutrient Ratio for Natural Bodybuilding

In 2014 Eric Helms, Alan Aragon, and Peter Fitschen published an article titled “Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation”. I’ve always recommended that clients follow it when trying to become natural bodybuilders.

  • 15-30% of calories from fat
  • 2.3-3.1 grams of protein per kg of lean body mass (LBM)
  • The rest from carbohydrates

Fats are easy to work out, just find your total calorie target (see above), and then pick a percentage (say 20%). If your target is 2,000 calories, then 400 calories come from fats. Divide that by 9 (as there are 9 calories in a gram of fat) and that leaves you with 45 grams of fat.

Protein requires a little more thought. Unless you are a bodybuilder, you should probably stick to the lower target of 2.3 grams per kg of lean muscle mass. But you now have to estimate how much lean body mass (LBM) you have.

Your LBM is your body weight minus your body fat. If you are 25% body fat and weigh 100 kg, then your LBM will be 75 kg. To find your protein target you would multiply your LBM by 2.3. So, for that 100 kg person, their protein target would be 172.5 grams of protein.

To find your carbohydrate target, you would just see how many calories are left after totalling up your protein and fats, then divide that number by 4 (4 calories per gram of carbohydrate).

While this was aimed at natural bodybuilders rather than average gym goers, it is a great way to walk you through how to implement macronutrient ratios into your calorie-counting diet.

Best Macronutrient Ratio for Weight Loss

If we’ve learned one thing from the study mentioned in the previous section, it’s that there is a degree of flexibility with the macro ratios. For example, Helms et al state that 15-30% fats is desirable. That’s actually a huge difference.

If you are following a 2,500-calorie diet then that is the difference between 375 calories of fat and 750 calories of fat. How much fat you pick directly affects how many carbohydrates you can have too! The same can be said for protein, which has a target of either 2.3 grams or 3.1 grams of protein per kg of LBM.

The common ratio used for weight loss (for regular people) is 50% carbohydrates, 35% protein, and 15% fat, and this is going to suit most people very well. But before going down this path, ask yourself what type of foods you prefer.

If you love yourself some higher-fat foods, then you may want to adjust your fat percentage to 20% and lower your carbs accordingly. So long as the diet contains 35% protein, and you stick to your calorie target it won’t matter.

Best Macronutrient Ratio for Building Muscle

You could use the same macronutrient ratio for building muscle as you would for weight loss, it’s just about changing the calorie targets. However, there is an argument for increasing the amount of protein that you consume, as this can be used to build more muscle tissue.

At 15%, fat intake is quite low, so you’d want to drop some carbohydrates, but not too many as you need that extra energy that carbohydrates provide. A ratio of 45% carbohydrates, 40% protein, and 15% fat would work quite nicely.

Best Macronutrient Ratio for Health

Again, there is no reason why you can’t have a healthy diet using either of the above macro ratios, it’s all about what you are eating and what you are avoiding. But if a client came to me and said they wanted to improve their macro split I might recommend increasing their intake of healthy fats slightly and lowering protein.

Something like 50% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 20% fats. Or you could do 45% carbohydrates, 35% protein, and 20% fats. Just make sure that the majority of fats that you are adding are from healthy sources.

Setting Macronutrient Ratios

Remember, protein and carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram, fats are 9 calories per gram. Here is a quick step-by-step guide to setting your macro targets. I will use an example of a 100 kg man who has a calorie target of 3,000 calories. This is a completely made-up scenario, just used for illustrative purposes.

  1. Set your calorie target, for our example, it is 3,000 calories
  2. Choose your macro ratio. For example, 50% carbs, 35% protein, 15% fat
  3. Work out your carbs in grams: 50% of 3,000 calories is 1,500. Divide that by 4 to get your carbohydrate gram total, 375 grams
  4. Work out your protein in grams: 35% of 3,000 calories is 1,050. Divide by 4 to get your protein gram total, 263 grams
  5. Work out your fat in grams: 15% of 3,000 calories is 450. Divide by 9 to get your fats gram total, 50 grams

Please note that this would not apply to the natural bodybuilder macros split that I first mentioned. This requires you to know your body fat percentage, and you would then work out your protein target based off of that.

Five Steps to Calorie Counting for Beginners

If you have read all the way down to here, then you should have a very good idea of exactly what to do. But here is a quick step-by-step guide. If you are only interested in calorie counting then you can follow it exactly. If you are also interested in macronutrient ratios then read the previous section and apply it to steps two and three.

Step One: Set Your Goal

What is it that you wish to achieve? Weight loss, weight maintenance, or weight gain? Decide this before going further. You also want to create a time-based target. If you are looking to lose weight then decide how much you need to lose and create a sensible target.

Healthy weight loss is around 0.5 kg per week, which requires a calorie deficit of 500 calories. The opposite is true for weight gain. With this information, you can create a time-sensitive goal to lose the weight you need to.

If you need to lose 5kg, then a 10-week target is realistic. Or you could follow a 20-week target and have a smaller calorie deficit of 250 calories per day.

Step Two: Creating a Calorie Target

For this step, you are going to need to take measurements. You will need to know your height, your weight (in kg preferably), and your activity level. We covered how to do this earlier in the article.

Use a calorie calculator to find out how many calories you need to maintain your current weight, and then reduce or increase the calories to fit into your time-based goals. If you are interested in following macronutrient targets then this would be the time to pick the ratio that suits your needs.

Step Three: Using Calorie Counting Apps

Once you have your goals set up, and have a calorie target to follow, you need to start tracking your calories using either a calorie counting app, or your own calculations (not what I recommend, but still an option). Find a good quality calorie counting app, and be consistent with your food tracking. Everything that you eat needs to go into this. But always remember that it is only semi-accurate. Err on the side of caution if you are trying to lose weight but can’t seem to do so, your calorie tracking may be at fault.

Step Four: Adjusting Your Calories

After your 10-week calorie deficit, you will hopefully have lost the weight you wanted to. The important thing here is to re-assess what your goals are, re-assess your activity levels, and then adjust your calories to match.

A common issue that people have is that they create a calorie deficit for their original weight (i.e. 100 kg), lose 10% of their weight, and forget to readjust their calories. Suddenly, you are a 90 kg person following the calorie target of a 100 kg person, and that deficit has vanished!

Adjust your calories every 10-12 weeks to reflect your progress.

Step Five: Reviewing Progress

This last step is connected to step four. You need to keep measuring and reflecting upon your progress. If after 8 weeks you haven’t lost any weight, but have been trying to stay in a 500 calorie deficit, then something is wrong with your tracking.

Or, you may find that you are losing weight easily, but mentally you are really struggling. Perhaps the deficit is too high, and you are trying too hard to stick to the diet. Adjust your calories and reset your goals.

Reviewing your progress is one of the best things that you can do when calorie counting and it can go a long way to helping reduce the risk of negative health or mental health effects.

Biggest Mistakes When Counting Calories for Beginners

Many people have struggled with calorie counting, and there can be a number of reasons for this. 1) Not doing it properly, 2) the methods not aligning with desire, and 3) outside influences. If your reason for not continuing with calorie counting is that it doesn’t suit your lifestyle or trying it stresses you out, then that’s fine. There are other ways to diet.

People who are affected by outside influences (i.e. you start doing it, and then break your leg) also can/should stop calorie counting without worrying about it. There are other times or other ways to diet.

However, if you have stopped because you weren’t getting results, or because you found it too difficult, then it may be due to making one of the following mistakes. Here is how to avoid them:

Mistake #1 Creating too Large a Deficit

The larger the deficit, the faster and more dramatic the results. This is a scientific fact, and many beginners are attracted to this. Creating massive deficits in a bid to burn as much fat as possible. But the problem with huge deficits is that they are really difficult to maintain for a long period of time.

It is for this reason that so many diets fail within the first two weeks. For a complete beginner, a 500-calorie deficit is already challenging, so don’t try and increase it even further. The downsides will be so large, that you are unlikely to succeed.

In fact, starting with a smaller deficit (200-300) and working your way up to 500 calories may be an even better option, particularly for beginners. Your timeframe will increase, but your likelihood of success will double or even triple.

Mistake #2 Extreme Macro Ratios

It may come across that I am not a fan of ketogenic diets. While that is true, that doesn’t mean that they don’t work. But they are harder to follow for most people and are not a great idea for beginners.

A common calorie-counting mistake for beginners is to follow an extreme diet. One that involves zero carbs, or very low fat, or very high fat etc. Provided you stick to your calorie target, you will still achieve your aims. But you are making your diet much harder than it needs to be.

Following a diet that allows you a decent amount of fat, protein, and carbs means that you have a large variety of foods available to you. The more foods that you have to choose from, the more enjoyable the diet can be.

Following a zero-carb diet, for example, means that you cannot eat bread. Nor can you eat most vegetables, fruits, and many of your favourite foods. So why do that? The argument is that by limiting your choice, you have fewer options to snack. But the reality is that you become hyper-fixated on those foods and then fail your diet.

Choose a macro ratio that suits your likes and your lifestyle and you will see great success.

Mistake #3 Poor Estimation of Food Size

If you are logging in your calories each day, staying in a deficit, and yet after 8 weeks you haven’t lost any weight, then you are probably not measuring your food properly. Humans are terrible at estimating food sizes.

We drizzle our oil and then log that we’ve only added a teaspoon when the reality could be 10-20x higher. Our portion sizes for rice and pasta are almost always wrong, and the same goes for bowls of cereal.

I’m not saying that you have to weigh and measure absolutely everything, but at least do it a few times, so that you have a visual memory of what a proper food portion looks like. If you can, weigh your pasta and rice before cooking, as this is easy to do, and makes a big difference to your calorie intake.

Mistake #4 Overanalysing Your Diet

Unless you are training for Mr Olympia, there is no reason to stress out about your calorie intake. We are looking for a rough guide that allows you to get closer to your aims. We are not looking for perfection, nor do you need to second-guess every meal you eat.

Overanalysing your diet could be one of the signs of an eating disorder. Particularly orthorexia, which is an obsession with eating foods that are considered healthy, and avoiding all other foods. I did a podcast on this a while back which I think covers the topic well.

If you find that you are getting upset or stressed out, or that it is affecting your mental health, then calorie counting is not for you. Luckily, there are many alternatives that can help you to get healthy without affecting your mental or physical health.

Mistake #5 Counting Rather than Adjusting

A few years ago I had a friend who messaged me after they had been calorie-counting without getting any results. They recorded their calories, week-in, week-out for eight weeks but their weight had pretty much stayed the same.

I took a look at their calorie logs and immediately identified the problem. While they were superb at logging their calories, they were not adjusting their diet in any way. This is a common mistake. Instead of using the data, people get into the habit of recording and then forgetting.

This isn’t the end of the world, because you end up with a hyper-realistic portrayal of your current diet. Any personal trainer or diet coach would KILL for that data. But unless you give it to them or start analysing it yourself, you won’t make any progress. Because you are still eating the same number of calories as you were when you started.

Should You Count Calories?

I think that calorie counting is a great tool for many people. However, I rarely use it myself, as I find it time-consuming and annoying. If I needed to lose a lot of weight fast and safely, then it would be my go-to move.

Ultimately, it is up to the individual. If you want to do it, then give it a go. If the idea sounds terrible, then there are other ways to improve your diet. Calorie counting is excellent for safe weight loss, but it is no better than intuitive dieting (eating more fruit and veg, skipping junk food etc) when it comes to improving your health.

Reasons FOR Counting Calories

  • Highly effective when performed correctly
  • Gives you excellent insight into your daily nutrition
  • Can help with discipline
  • Can educate you on what foods to eat, and what foods to avoid
  • Gives you a good idea of the correct portion sizes

Reasons AGAINST Counting Calories

  • Some people find that calorie counting can exacerbate eating disorders
  • It can be time-consuming
  • It is often inaccurate, though long-term use can help with this
  • This may cause an unhealthy relationship with food in some people

A Sensible Approach to Counting Calories for Beginners

Calorie counting is at its best when it becomes a routine. So why not start small? Pick a breakfast that you are happy to eat each morning. Find the calorie total for it, and the macros, add them into a calorie counting app, and that’s it.

After a week or so, you can start adding in snacks, then you can progress to logging in other meals in your day. Eventually, you will find it easy to log in your calories each day. Then you can start to manipulate the calories to achieve your goals. Want to lose weight? Create a small deficit. Want to gain weight? Create a small surplus. Then slowly increase that deficit/surplus each week, until it is 500 calories.

Final Thoughts

Calorie counting, particularly calorie counting for beginners, gained an unfair reputation from certain voices in the fitness world. The way some people spoke of it, you’d think that it was a main cause of eating disorders. This is not the case. There are many causes of disordered eating, and calorie counting will only affect some of them. Even if it does, it is rarely the cause, but rather something that can exacerbate pre-existing conditions.

Those without eating disorders may still not suit calorie counting, and in those cases, it is best avoided. But most people will benefit from using it, provided they use it properly. I am not pro or anti-calorie counting, I have given it to some clients in the past, and for many others, I’ve felt that there are better options out there. You need to decide whether it works for you.

About the Author Matt Smith

Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.

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