Pros and Cons of Tracking Calories 

Lady using calorie tracking app

Calorie tracking is a divisive issue when it comes to weight loss, with some people considering it to be over-restrictive, obsessive, and unmaintainable, whereas for others it provides flexibility and accountability. There are undeniably pros and cons of tracking calories and like with most things what works for one person won’t work for others. So, what are calories? Do you have to track calories to lose weight? What are the benefits and drawbacks? And what are the alternatives to calorie tracking? Keep reading to get the answer to all these questions and more. 

What are calories? 

A calorie is a unit of energy. One large calorie is the amount of energy required to heat 1kg of water by 1 degree Celsius.  The calories that you see on food packaging are kilocalories (kcal) and 1000kcal equal 1 large calorie. Your body intakes energy in the form of food and drink, and expends energy in the form of movement, and all cellular processes to keep you alive. Without getting too scientific about it:

  • If you consume more calories than you burn your body will store the excess as fat 
  • If you expend more calories than you consume you will burn body fat 
  • If you consume the same amount that you burn your level of body fat will stay the same. 

Therefore, to lose weight, aka body fat, you will need to eat less calories than you use also referred to as creating a calorie deficit. There are two ways of doing this:

  1. Eat less calories than your body needs
  2. Increase your calorie expenditure through movement

Ideally you will both eat less and move more to optimise the loss of body fat without either the need to exercise to excess or over-restrict food. This is where calorie tracking comes in. 

What is Calorie Tracking?

Simply, tracking calories is adding up all the calories of the food and drink that you consume. This can be done with pen, paper, and calculator, but we are in the 2020’s and there are several app options to make tracking calories as easy as possible.  There is no reliable way to know for sure how many calories you are using each day, but a rough estimate can be gained by using an online calorie calculator. By setting a calorie goal that is lower than this estimate you will likely be in a deficit and able to lose weight. 

Benefits of calorie tracking:

  • Education of the nutritional value of food
  • Awareness of what you are eating
  • Accountability that adding calories to an app might help you make more goal focused choices
  • Some people thrive on numbers and targets

Drawbacks of calorie tracking:

  • Can become obsessive
  • Can limit food choice to pre-packaged options with calories on packaging
  • Difficult to track meals out 
  • It’s not very accurate
  • Some people find it restrictive and tedious 

Do you have to track calories to lose weight?

Many people are put off diets due to the requirement to track calories, and arguably this is a benefit of some popular slimming clubs that their food rules mitigate this requirement. However, you absolutely do not need to track calories to lose body fat, and neither do you need to follow rigid slimming club imposed rules. 

Arguably, many people have a very limited understanding of what food contains and which foods are higher or lower calorie. It is easy for me with a wealth of experience and nutrition based education, however, it’s not something that is readily taught in schools, and there is a lot of unfounded information on the internet and in the media. Therefore, I often do suggest that my clients track calories when getting started primarily to help them learn to make educated decisions. 

If you have no idea how many calories are in a potato, chicken breast, carrot, or chocolate bar, how can you make informed decisions over what and how much to eat to be in a calorie deficit. However, it is not a long-term solution for most people, and once you have tracked for a week or two, maybe a couple of months you will have such a vastly improved understanding of the calorie content of different foods that you probably won’t need to track anymore unless you want to. 

Another issue with calorie tracking is accuracy. Calories on food labels are based on the numbers achieved by burning food in a bomb calorimeter, our body does not process food in this way. Therefore, the numbers cannot be completely accurate for every individual and provide a guide only. Likewise, you are unlikely to measure every drop of food and drink, which would again cause inaccuracies. In terms of energy expenditure, despite the smart devices that we use daily, these do not accurately tell us what our body is burning during movement. 

Alternative to tracking?

Given the inaccuracies of tracking both intake and expenditure of calories, utilising alternative methods are certainly viable. Everyone is different, and just because you don’t want to track calories doesn’t mean that you can’t lose body fat. I would always suggest a brief period of tracking, primarily for the purpose of education and accountability, but if you don’t want to that is fine. Most people are quite habitual when it comes to food intake, and we can use that to help you to create a calorie deficit that suits your life. There are several ways to do this that include one of or a mix and match approach of the below options: 

  • Rotating between set meal options 
  • Structured breakfast, lunch, and snack with flexible evening meal
  • Basing meals around protein and veg
  • Lower carb
  • Intermittent fasting 

There is no one size fits all approach, we must find the approach that works for you. The important thing to note is that there are options to lose weight without the need for obsessive calorie tracking.  

Should You Track Calories?

Calorie tracking is inaccurate, calories on labels can be up to 20% out, portion sizes vary, and there are lots of foods without calories on packaging and then there are meals out and food other people have prepared to contend with. However, being consistently inaccurate with calorie tracking allows you to learn about the calorie content of different types of food and gives you a baseline to work from if the need to increase or lower calories arises. 

However, the same can be said for alternative methods of monitoring food intake. The important thing is to be aware of what you are taking in. Creating some element of routine to your meals, will allow you to amend things as necessary. When getting started I would often suggest the following approach to someone that wants to lose weight without tracking:

  • Eat 3 meals and 1 snack daily
  • Base meals and snacks around protein, and having a larger portion
  • Eat 6+ portions of fruit and veg per day. Two at each meal, plus snack
  • Reduce carb portion. Half is a good starting point. 
  • Limit alcohol, cake, biscuit, chocolate etc

As a weight loss coach, I discuss the options available to you, and help you to implement the method that you think will suit you best. Which is often a combination of tracking and structure that changes as you progress through your weight loss journey. Ultimately the aim is for you to eat a wide variety of foods including plenty of protein, fruit, and vegetables, while being able to enjoy higher calorie foods in moderation. 

If you would like some support to lose weight, without over-restrictive rules, while following a process that is conceivably maintainable for the long term you can sign-up here. If you’re not quite ready to join, drop me a message and I can give you more information or arrange an informal chat. 

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