Calorie counting is usually associated with some of the worst aspects of diet culture, but it can also be an incredibly useful tool. Many people use it to help them lose weight or even to gain weight. But what about bodybuilders? Do bodybuilders count calories?
Elite level bodybuilders do tend to count calories and have done since the 1980s. But bodybuilders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger crafted magnificent physiques in the 1960s and 70s without calorie counting. When used correctly, calorie counting can be an important tool for bodybuilders trying to prep for a competition.
This article will explore the history of calorie counting in bodybuilding, explain why there has been a backlash against calorie counting in the fitness world, and hopefully put this into a bodybuilding context.
There are hundreds of pro bodybuilders, so it is safe to say that there are at least a few pro bodybuilders who do not count calories, but the majority do. Why? Because this is the most effective way to control weight loss and weight maintenance. Counting calories will give you a tactical edge over bodybuilders who are not counting calories, and in pro bodybuilding, every advantage needs to be taken.
Natural bodybuilders are even more likely to count calories because without the use of steroids your metabolism will be lower and you won’t be able to get away with eating badly. So the use of calorie counting in both natural and pro bodybuilding is incredibly common.
There are certainly amateur bodybuilders who have built great physiques without calorie counting, and it is perfectly possible to get very decent results this way. As I mentioned in the introduction, before the 1980s almost all bodybuilders used non-calorie-counting methods to build competition-winning physiques.
But modern bodybuilding is all about pushing your body to its limitations. Whether you see this as a good thing or a bad thing, it is certainly the case. Calorie counting is an integral part of that. While it may have bad press in some circles (more on that later), it can be a tool for good when used correctly.
Many people talk about calories when discussing dieting or exercise, but few appear to know exactly what a calorie is. So let’s talk about that for a second.
A calorie is a unit of energy, in the same way, that a mile is a unit of distance and a second is a unit of time. It is a measure of the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1kg of water by 1-degree celsius. One Calorie is actually made up of 1,000 small calories, and in nutrition, the terms Calorie and kilocalorie (kilo meaning thousand) are used interchangeably.
You may also see the term kilojoules, which is an alternative way to measure the calories in food and drink. One calorie/kilocalorie is the equivalent of 4.18 kilojoules (which is 4,180 joules).
But all of these terms basically relate to energy. You consume food and drink to extract the energy, and you use that energy to perform tasks such as breathing, studying, exercising, sleeping, and all of the things that allow you to live. Without food or drink, you would die as your body would not have enough energy to function. All of the above terms are used to help you measure how many calories are being consumed each day, and how many are being expended.
It is a lot easier to estimate the number of calories that you consume than you expend. But neither measurement is anywhere near as accurate as people assume. This isn’t too much of a problem, because 99% of the time, people just need a rough guess.
But it is important to keep this in mind. When someone tells you that they just ate a 323 calorie meal or that they burned 405 calories on the treadmill, keep in mind that neither of these estimates is completely accurate, and in some cases may be completely inaccurate.
The scientific community has known about calories since the early 19th century and first started to apply them to nutrition in the 1850s and 60s. A lot of time and effort was spent on learning the caloric values of foods and how they were absorbed into the body during the latter parts of the 19th century.
But these numbers had no context as there was no data on how many calories were burned by humans. Wilbur Olin Atwater is largely responsible for the measurement of calories in food and for working out the caloric needs of different people.
The goal for Atwater, was not to help with weight loss or even weight gain, but to create greater efficiency. Workers would burn lots of calories performing their work, and Atwater believed that finding out exactly how many calories they required to work optimally would help them to work harder and provide greater profits/yield. He was more concerned with feeding large populations efficiently than he was with the individual needs of each person.
I am perhaps doing Atwater a bit of a disservice here, the late 19th century and early 20th century was a period of time where nations were trying to find every single advantage possible. There was no scientific approach to nutrition, and famine was common. A lot of his work was performed during times of militarization and war.
Looking at things from Atwater’s perspective makes his work sound a lot more humane. Whatever his intentions, Wilbur Olin Atwater revolutionised nutritional science and is seen by many as the father of sports/performance nutrition.
Max Rubner is another highly influential scientist, who is credited with the statement “A calorie is a calorie”. Meaning that 500 calories of junk food and 500 calories of organic carrots are identical when it comes to energy balance and weight loss/weight gain.
It is very important that anyone involved in calorie counting understands the strengths and the limitations of this argument. Many people tend to overconsume healthy foods because they think that a healthier calorie will not lead to weight gain. Whereas it doesn’t matter what you are eating if the total calories consumed outweighs the total calories burned.
On the other hand, a calorie is a unit of measurement for energy, and does not go far enough in assessing the worth of a food. A 500 calorie meal that contains lots of vegetables, fibre, and protein, is going to offer many more benefits than 500 calories of Pringles. You will be more satiated, meaning you are less likely to eat more food in an hour. Your body will digest the food better, you will benefit from the various nutrients, and it will take you longer to eat it, which again can help with satiety and mindfulness.
The first calorie-counting diet was published in 1918. Lulu Hunt Peters preached a method of calorie counting that would help to prevent overeating. She worked out 100 calorie portions of different foods, and would get people to measure their food in this way.
This is actually quite similar to modern calorie-counting. The best teachers don’t tell you to avoid certain foods, they just help you to get better at identifying reasonable portions. If you know that a tablespoon of olive oil is 100 calories, then you are less likely to drizzle 500 calories worth of olive oil over your roast potatoes.
Since then, there have been many other diets that use calorie-counting, but it isn’t always obvious. Weightwatchers uses a sort of calorie counting system for their diet advice. However, they have been quite smart with it. Taking into account the nutritional value of some foods rather than only focusing on the calories.
My Fitness Pal has had a huge influence in calorie counting, as have the personal trainers and fitness experts that encourage their clients/audience to use it. This has been helpful for some, but harmful for others, and it is no surprise that there has been something of a backlash.
Diet culture is a relatively new term. It is used to describe the worst aspects of the fitness industry. The promotion of “ideal bodies” can have a negative impact on mental health. The rise in eating disorders that such bad advice has led to is a good example of that. Add to this the hidden realities of these perfect bodies (photoshop, lighting, crash-dieting, disordered eating) and it is easy to see why many people are alarmed at how the fitness world presents itself.
Many fitness experts now claim that calorie counting can have an adverse effect on people, increasing their risk of eating disorders, and not providing enough context to fully inform people on nutrition.
It is true that certain people will respond badly to calorie counting, and that it can lead to bad food behaviours when not implemented correctly. However, when it is used sensibly and by people who have no history of disordered eating, calorie counting can be a superb tool.
But calorie counting should always be applied alongside education and it is rarely useful for regular people who just want to lose a little weight after Xmas (for example). But bodybuilders are not regular people, and they are not doing regular things to their bodies.
Does this mean that calorie counting is necessary? No. There are still people who bodybuild who can suffer from eating disorders, in fact, they are at higher risk than the general public.
But, as you will soon see, bodybuilding can be made easier and more efficient when combined with calorie counting.
Bodybuilding is all about energy balance. When bulking, you need to be in a positive energy balance. Where you are consuming sufficient calories to fuel your training and recovery, as well as building muscle mass.
Cutting is the process of slowly dropping body fat over a period of time. For this, you need to be in a negative energy balance. But, you still need enough calories to fuel your workouts, which is why counting your calories is so important.
Mike Mentzer was perhaps the first big-name bodybuilder to use calorie counting to build his physique, before that bodybuilders such as Schwarzenegger would use their own methods. But no bodybuilder went as far as Rich Gaspari when it came to calorie counting in a bodybuilding context.
He was incredibly disciplined, and used formulas and weighing so that he knew exactly how many calories he was consuming at each meal. His hard work was met with incredible results and changed bodybuilding forever.
Today, almost every single Pro bodybuilder pays a lot of attention to the calorie content of their foods, and will try to track how many calories they burn each day. This can be traced back to Gaspari, Mentzer, and the scientists who informed them.
The answer here is that some do and some do not. Unlike bodybuilding, athletes do not usually need to be as lean as possible. They need to fuel their workouts and their performances, and keeping a lower body fat count can sometimes also be important. But not in the same way.
Any athlete who competes in a sport that has a weight category is likely to count calories. Anthony Joshua is a heavyweight boxer and claims not to count calories. But Joshua doesn’t need to worry about his weight in the same way that a Flyweight boxer would.
Athletes tend to be younger than the general population, and tend to be more active. So they are much less likely to be consuming too many calories. This makes it less likely that they would benefit from calorie counting.
Michael Phelps claimed to be eating 10,000 calories per day during training, and yet had one of the leanest physiques imaginable. Obviously, he needed to count calories to work out how many he was actually consuming. But you can see why many swimmers wouldn’t bother. If you are burning 10,000 calories per day, then you are not going to worry about the calorie content of a peanut butter sandwich.
It seems likely that many athletes use trial and error when it comes to estimating whether they are eating enough or too many calories. Rather than spending time scrolling through formulas. It should also be pointed out that the more successful athletes will have teams of people who can organise their nutrition for them. Meaning that they may benefit from calorie counting without even realising that they are using it.
Before answering this question, you need to know yourself first. What is your relationship with food like? What is your relationship with your body like? Have you a history of disordered eating or body dysmorphia? If so, then counting calories could seriously jeopardise your mental and physical health.
That being said, everyone is different. It is best to talk to a doctor, therapist, or dietician about what works best for you.
Most people don’t need to count calories. Instead, they should focus on improving their diet nutritionally. Adding more fruit, vegetables, and fibre to your diet will make a huge change to the physiques of most people. However, if you are planning on following a bodybuilding career, counting calories can be very helpful.
That depends on what sort of bulk you plan on doing. A clean bulk, where you only consume enough calories to build muscle while keeping fat gain to a minimum can benefit from calorie counting. Even if you are doing a dirty bulk. Where fat gain is seen as acceptable, calorie counting can help you to stay moderately healthy.
For most people who are new to bodybuilding, calorie counting for muscle gain is unnecessary. Just add an extra high-protein meal to your day, or increase your portion sizes slightly.
Calorie counting should not be necessary at first, as initial fat loss is simple to achieve. But the leaner you get, the less margin for error there is, and counting calories can make things a lot easier. It can also help to prevent under-eating, which is a common issue.
Do bodybuilders count calories? Yes, bodybuilders definitely count calories, but not all the time.
They usually do so during the strictest part of their fat loss programs, allowing them to be as efficient as possible. But it certainly isn’t necessary for regular gym-goers and should be seen as an optional (yet often helpful) tool that can keep you on track when needed.
Calorie counting can be abused and can contribute to eating disorders and bad mental health. But this is not the case for everyone, and when taught correctly, it can be safe for most people to use as part of a healthy lifestyle. Even if you don’t count calories. Having a good idea of what foods are very calorie-dense, and what foods are nutritionally-dense is very helpful for healthy weight maintenance.
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.