calories, diet, nutrition, personal trainer harrow

Calories – Counting for Beginners

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Counting calories has been one of the most controversial methods of dieting in the fitness industry for the last decade, with public opinion shifting between both extremes. For every trainer who tells you that it is dangerous and wrong there is another trainer who swears by it.

I hate to sit on the fence when it comes to subjects as divisive as this, but in my opinion both sets of trainers have a point. Calorie counting is definitely not for everyone, and as Dr John Berardi pointed out in his fantastic article on the subject there are a number of limitations, such as:

  • Imprecise measurements from food manufacturers
  • The amount of calories in food, and the amount we absorb don’t always add up
  • The way in which you prepare food can affect the amount of calories in it
  • There are variations in how calories are absorbed between individuals
  • People are not great at estimating portion sizes

So what are the benefits? Well as awesome as Dr John is, I feel that he might be missing the point here slightly. Most people don’t need to calorie count too accurately, because they don’t have specific enough goals for accuracy to be an issue.

If you are trying to lower your body fat from 7% to 6% then being 100% accurate on your calories is probably going to be more important than if you are trying to drop a dress size in 6 months and are concerned about how many biscuits you are currently eating!

What calorie counting offers is a way for your average Joe to discover where his current diet might be going wrong. If you are 20kg heavier than your doctor says you should be then your absorption rate isn’t going to be an issue for you. Some accountability and knowledge is what you need.

People are less likely to eat high calorie snacks if they are logging them in to a calorie counting app that tells them that they are now 200+ calories over for the day.

The argument here is not whether calorie counting always works, but whether it can work. And it absolutely does, I used to get my clients to fill out hand-written food diaries which was labour intensive and frequently left unfinished. When I started to use the calorie counting app MyFitnessPal instead I noticed that not only were clients more likely to persevere they were also learning more about calories and macronutrient ratios on their own.

There is nothing better than having a client learn the benefits of doing something that you have recommended, because they will have more motivation to keep doing it.

Who is calorie counting not for?

Any client of mine who has had a history of disordered eating does not count calories, that is my policy and it has served me well over the years. For anyone who has had an unhealthy fixation on gaining/losing weight, this approach to dieting is just not for you. Having targets to hit will be stressful and in the past I have had clients who were aiming to hit the lowest calorie target possible, rather than hitting their actual target (naturally I immediately changed their strategy). If you have had or are worried you will have an unhealthy fixation on weight loss, I would recommend seeing a registered dietician or therapist. They can give you useful advice and help, more-so than any trainer like myself can!

How do I start counting calories?

Before you do anything you will need to take a couple photos of yourself, one from the side and one from in-front. Then you are going to weigh yourself, and using a tape measure you will find measurements for the following areas:

  • Neck
  • Abdomen (where your belly button is)
  • Waist (where you wear your trousers)
  • Bum
  • Right Arm (middle of bicep)
  • Right Leg (6 inches up from your knee)
  • Chest (hold arms out at 45 degree angle)

Now you have your before measurements, you can proceed to the next step.

You are going to have to download a calorie counting app for your phone or sign up to one on your computer. I use myfitnesspal.com but there are plenty of options and they all produce the same results. The benefits of myfitnesspal are that it is free, is really popular (which means it has a huge database of foods), and the app has the ability to scan barcodes so that you can get the calorie and macronutrient information immediately.

Whichever company you choose doesn’t really matter though, the first thing you need to do is work out how to use it properly. I have written a pdf on how to use myfitnesspal.com which you can download here:

Getting to grips with My Fitness Pal (free pdf.)

Which will show you exactly how to use it.

First thing I want you to do is to consistently log your daily calories for 2 weeks (4 weeks if you have the patience). Don’t worry about calorie targets or macro-nutrient ratios, just log in your calories every day until you  have at least 14-28 days worth. Then I want you to write down the calorie totals for each day and put them in an excel spreadsheet. Add them all together and then divide by the number of days to get yourself an average. As with anything to do with statistics, the more data you have the better.

If you have had a day where you went completely off the rails (like an extra 2,000 calories compared to normal), or you had a day where you were ill and only consumed a fraction of your normal diet you can count those as outliers and remove them from the database. This prevents your average from being affected.

So once you have your average calories, you can compare them to your recommended calorie target which you can work out for yourself using the following websites:

Precision Nutrition: http://www.precisionnutrition.com/weight-loss-calculator

Health-calc: http://www.health-calc.com/diet/energy-expenditure-advanced

Either one of these websites will calculate your calorie target for you, but here’s the trick that will get you better results than 90% of calorie counters …..

You are not going to use their target! You are going to look at their target, and look at your own and work out a way to bring your target down to theirs.

Now in some cases the target that you have been set may actually be higher than your current totals. If this is the case then either you have not been completely honest about what you’ve entered into your app. Or the added pressure of logging your calories has altered your diet (which is a good thing). If this has happened then I would recommend staying at your current calories for another 4 weeks and see what happens.

 

Re-take your measurements

If there has been an improvement then you are on the right track. If the measurements are the same or have slightly increased then lower the calories by 50 and continue for another fortnight. Depending on how seriously you want to take this, you should be measuring yourself pretty regularly and looking for changes.

  1. in the photos you take
  2. the tape measurements
  3. and the scales (in that order)

If you see small changes each week you are making good progress, if you see big changes then you are probably lowering your calories too much. If you aren’t seeing any changes then there could be a whole host of reasons.

  • You might still be over-consuming calories
  • You might have lowered your calories too much which leads to less energy, which leads to you burning less calories throughout the day
  • You might have exercised less than usual which has tipped the energy balance to neutral or even positive (you want a negative energy balance for fat-loss)

It is important that you understand that just lowering calories will not result in healthy and sustainable fat-loss. You need to be measuring your progress, exercising regularly and keeping your calories in check without becoming too restrictive.

 

Further Reading

I already discussed how to work out your macro-nutrient ratios in a previous article it’ll take about 2 minutes max to read through so I won’t go into it here

You can also read up on everything you needed to know about protein in this article

 

Finally ….

The best option to take is of course to get yourself a coach who can guide you through exactly what calories to be hitting each week. If you’re interested then fill out the form below

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