We all know that eating fewer calories than you burn is essential to losing weight.
Learn how to count calories accurately with this simple guide.
Do Counting Calories Work?
Before we get into the specifics of how to count calories to lose weight, you're probably wondering if the practice of tracking calories and counting macros works.
The short answer is yes; counting calories can work. What's more, counting calories can work with any diet -- carnivore, keto, Mediterranean, IIFYM, etc.
The caveat is that you have to be consistent with your tracking.
You'll hear from the "gurus," as well as some individuals in your circle of family and friends now and then, that counting calories "doesn't work."
The truth is that calories didn’t work for them due to a variety of reasons, including:
- Not accurately tracking calories
- Not taking the time to count calories
- Overestimating their energy expenditure
- Underestimating their calorie intake
However, if you consistently track your food intake and are honest about your nutrition and energy expenditure, counting calories does work for losing weight. This has happened millions and millions of times by competitive physique athletes and average jimmy's, joe's, and jane's.
Plus, multiple studies show that tracking food intake and physical activity are very effective ways to help lose weight.[1,2,3]
Correctly counting calories helps individuals lose weight in three specific ways:
- First, tracking calories gives you a rough idea of how many calories you’re consuming each day so that you know whether you’re consuming enough calories, too much, or too little to help you reach your fitness and physique goals.
- Second, counting calories can help you identify specific eating patterns you may have and alert you if they are helping or hindering your weight loss goals.
- Third, tracking your food intake can help you monitor your behavior, which may help keep you accountable regarding the dietary and activity choices you make throughout the day (e.g., consuming a whole pizza at lunch leaves you sluggish and skipping your workout, whereas a more balanced lunch of grilled chicken, sweet potato, and asparagus keeps you motivated and alert)
The Basics of Calorie Counting
Calories are a way to measure energy, both from the foods we consume and the energy our body burns during the day (also known as your total daily energy expenditure -- TDEE).
Beginning with food, every one you eat (as well as every beverage you drink) will contain one or more of the following macronutrients, with each one yielding the following amount of calories:
- Protein: 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrate: 4 calories per gram
- Alcohol: 7 calories per gram
- Fat: 9 calories per gram
Something to keep in mind is that most articles on calorie counting or tracking macros won't mention alcohol since it's not one of the three "main" macronutrients. Still, alcoholic beverages are one of the most significant sources of "hidden" calories in people's diets, much the same way other calorie-containing liquids are often overlooked -- cold-pressed juices, fruit smoothies, gourmet coffee, etc.
Remember, when you want to count calories to lose weight faster correctly, you need to be as accurate as possible and consistent with how you measure. For example, some people choose not to count fiber or fibrous veggies (e.g., broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) since the calorie yield is so trivial that you'd have to overeat them to blow your diet.
So long as you are consistently eating the same amount of green veggies and tracking your other food the same, you can still achieve the results you want.
The same thing applies to measuring protein sources raw or cooked. There is a small difference in the amount of calories in a piece of grilled chicken vs. raw chicken, but so long as you are consistent in the manner that you count your calories (e.g., always using cooked or always using raw), you'll be fine.
Individuals get into trouble when they become inconsistent -- start measuring some foods one way and then changing course the next day (or meal).
Energy input is one component of the energy balance equation (calories in vs. calories out). If you want to count calories to lose weight, you need to ensure that your output is more significant than your input. This creates the calorie deficit required to force the body to turn to its energy stores (i.e., body fat) and utilize that to make up for the energy it's not getting from food.
A calorie deficit is at the very heart of weight loss, and without one, you will find it very difficult, bordering on impossible, to lose weight efficiently and consistently.
The most effective way to create a calorie deficit is through diet and exercise (physical activity).
Earlier, we mentioned TDEE, it is the total of all the energy your body uses in a day, and it is made up of four primary components:
- Basal metabolic rate (BMR): the energy your body requires just “keeping the lights on” -- heartbeat, hormone production, organ function, breathing, etc. This is the largest component of your TDEE
- Thermic effect of feeding (TEF): the energy burned digesting, absorbing, and utilizing the food you consume. This is a tiny portion of your TDEE, accounting for about 10% of TDEE.
- Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT): energy burned during structured physical activity (i.e., exercise). This can vary greatly from one individual to another and between days for the same individuals.
- Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): energy burned during non-structured physical activity (e.g., walking the dog, cleaning the house, folding the laundry, etc.). This is one of the "secrets" of creating a bigger calorie deficit while not feeling like you're living in the gym every day -- stay more active. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park at the back of the parking lot, go on a walk while talking on the phone, etc. All of this "non-exercise" activity burns calories and can be a powerful tool for increasing your energy expenditure.
Use Tech Tools to Your Advantage
Thanks to the advances in technology, tracking your nutrition and counting calories has never been easier. There are countless free apps readily available to find your TDEE.
And, if you like the more "old school" approach to calorie counting (i.e., pen & paper), we've written an entire article on how you can calculate your TDEE.
Should I Keep a Food Journal?
Even if you don’t meticulously count calories, you might be wondering if it’s helpful to keep a food journal. While they might seem like the same thing, they are similar but not identical.
For example, you could merely keep a record of what foods you ate throughout the day, but you may not track the exact amount of each food (e.g., ounces, grams, etc.). You may merely choose to eyeball the portions and keep track of it in your food journal. This can help keep an eye on what you eat and how those foods make you feel (full, stuffed, wanting more food, energized, etc.).
Food journaling can be beneficial for individuals trying to identify common traps or trigger foods in their diet that cause them to overeat, feel sluggish, etc. It is not the most accurate way to ensure that you are creating a deficit, but it's better than not tracking anything at all.
Something else to keep in mind is that research indicates that most individuals overestimate how many calories they burn during exercise and underestimate how much food they consume each day. This is the perfect 1-2 punch for stalled weight loss or (worse) weight gain.
Therefore, if you’re new to dieting or trying to lose weight for the first time in a while, counting calories provides a more reliable method for gauging your progress than merely guessing or assuming that you are creating a calorie deficit.
Counting calories is a time-tested method for effectively losing weight. Much like workouts, though, it will only work so far as your ability to work it, meaning that you have to be consistent, accurate, and honest about what you’re eating and how much if you truly want to be successful.
Use the tips outlined above, as well as the other articles linked within, to set up your diet for faster fat loss, and once you've got your diet and exercise plan in place and looking to enhance your performance further, recovery, and weight loss results, check out our comprehensive line of weight loss supplements and fat burning creams.
1. Ingels JS, Misra R, Stewart J, Lucke-Wold B, Shawley-Brzoska S. The Effect of Adherence to Dietary Tracking on Weight Loss: Using HLM to Model Weight Loss over Time. J Diabetes Res. 2017;2017:6951495. doi:10.1155/2017/6951495
2. Painter SL, Ahmed R, Hill JO, et al. What Matters in Weight Loss? An In-Depth Analysis of Self-Monitoring. J Med Internet Res. 2017;19(5):e160. Published 2017 May 12. doi:10.2196/jmir.7457
3. Goldstein SP, Goldstein CM, Bond DS, Raynor HA, Wing RR, Thomas JG. Associations between self-monitoring and weight change in behavioral weight-loss interventions. Health Psychol. 2019 Dec;38(12):1128-1136. DOI: 10.1037/hea0000800. Epub 2019 Sep 26. PMID: 31556659; PMCID: PMC6861632.