The Art of Counting Calories

BY Matt Fitzgerald

Counting calories makes sense, but in practice it is not very easy to do accurately or effectively. Here are some both low- and high-tech methods for doing so, and the benefits or drawbacks of each.

Counting calories makes sense. A calorie (technically a kilocalorie) is a unit of energy. Specifically, it is energy stored in the bonds of the nutrient molecules we consume in food. To oversimplify a bit, when calories remain stored in molecular bonds, those molecules become part of our bodies (for example, body fat). When our bodies break apart those bonds, the energy is released and used to fuel a biological function such as contracting a muscle. Thus, when you ingest more calories in food than you use for biological functions, you gain weight, and when you burn more than you store, you lose weight.

But what’s simple in principle can be difficult in practice. Counting calories for the sake of managing body weight has historically been difficult for two reasons.  First, it’s a pain in the butt, requiring more time and effort than most people feel it is worth. Second, the do-it-yourself methods of calorie counting are not very accurate.

How Calorie Counting Can Still Work

Recent advances have made calorie counting easier than it used to be, however. In particular, online tools such as those here on TrainingPeaks have greatly streamlined the process. Furthermore, researchers have found that do-it-yourself calorie counting does not have to be 100-percent accurate, or even 95-percent accurate, to be helpful. That’s because counting calories increases dietary awareness, and when people are more conscious of what they are eating they automatically eat better, even when they don’t make a conscious effort to act on their awareness, but especially when they do.

Very few people, even among those who succeed in losing excess body fat and keeping it off, count every calorie they consume every day of their lives. It simply isn’t necessary. Most people naturally maintain fairly consistent eating habits. Once you find eating habits that are effective in moving you closer to your optimal weight, it will be easy to stay close to your optimal weight simply by being consistent with those habits. Counting calories can help you discover the eating habits that are most effective in moving you closer to your optimal weight. These habits will consist of certain types of food you eat regularly and others you eat minimally or not at all, particular portion sizes, and a schedule of meal and snack times. Such habits are very easy to recreate from one day to the next without calorie counting.

The tool of calorie counting is sort of like the booster rocket that the space shuttle uses for lift off. The booster rocket provides the power the shuttle needs to overcome the earth’s strong gravitational pull at ground level. But once the shuttle reaches a certain altitude, the force of gravity becomes weaker and the shuttle is able to jettison the booster rocket and orbit the planet unassisted. Similarly, calorie counting can help you identify what you should eat, how much, and how often to reach your racing weight. But once you know what, how much, and when to eat, there’s no longer any need to count calories and you can then maintain our weight by continuing to practice the eating habits that calorie counting helped you find.

Methods of Counting Calories

There are two ways to count calories: low-tech and high-tech. The low-tech way is to record calorie information from the labels of the foods you eat, and to find calorie information on non-labeled foods in a resource such as The Complete Book of Food Counts by Corinne Netzer. To do this accurately you need to get your portions right. For example, suppose you have a bowl of Cheerios with skim milk for breakfast. According to the labels, Cheerios contain 110 calories per 1-cup serving, and skim milk contains 86 calories in a 1-cup serving. But if you like a nice big bowl of cereal in the morning, you may eat 1½ cups of Cheerios with 1 cup of skim milk (it’s normal to add roughly ¾ cup of milk to 1 cup of cereal). As this example shows, your calorie counting will be more accurate if you measure your food portions whenever appropriate instead of assuming you’re eating or drinking one serving.

Calorie counting is most difficult when you prepare meals from scratch and when you eat out at non-chain restaurants. You could go crazy trying to figure out how many calories are in one portion’s worth of every ingredient you add to a homemade chilly.  Likewise, while virtually all large chain restaurants provide calorie information for all of their menu items, the typical independent restaurant chef has no clue how many calories are in his or her creations.

You just have to do the best you can.  Look up all of the foods you eat (and the beverages you drink) at restaurants by type in a food count resource (e.g. grilled salmon).  Estimate the portion sizes as accurately as you can and be sure to account for the liberal use of butter and heavy sauces that is the norm in restaurants. When cooking at home, you may add up calories ingredient by ingredient, which is horribly tedious, or you may look up a recipe for your menu that includes a calories-per-serving estimate, as an increasing number of published recipes do these days, and use that number. Or work the other way around and cook from recipes with calories-per-servings estimates, which are available in magazines, in books, and online.

If you’re going to go online, you might as well take the high-tech approach to counting calories. Various websites offer applications that allow you to quickly look up the foods you eat and add them to a personal food journal, which automatically tallies caloric information and sometimes also grams and percentages of carbohydrate, fat, and protein. But the best nutrition tracking tools, in my humble opinion, are right here on TrainingPeaks.

Nutrition Tracking on TrainingPeaks

The nutrition tracking tools on TrainingPeaks allow you to quickly add up the carbs, fats, protein and calories in each meal and snack you consume, as well as daily totals.  All you have to do is find a particular food you ate in a vast multi-source database of fresh, prepared and restaurant foods, “drag” the item over to your calendar and drop it there, adjusting the portion size if necessary. If a specific item is not present in the library already, you can add it. Save meals you eat often as favorites so you can enter them even faster the next time.  There are also nutritionist-designed meal plans that you can purchase and load onto your calendar to follow just as you do with training plans.

Using the nutrition tracking tools on TrainingPeaks gets easier and easier the longer you do it. An initial investment of effort is required to input the foods and meals you eat most often, but once this work is done, it’s done. From that point forward it’s just a matter of clicking and dragging. The only headaches you’ll have are those complex homemade meals and restaurant meals eaten at non-chain restaurants. But even these headaches may ease over time, because as the library of foods and meals added by other TrainingPeaks users grows, so does the likelihood that you will find foods and meals that are similar to those you make at home and eat at independent restaurants.  While it is unlikely that these items will exactly match the number of calories per serving in those you eat, I will remind you that calorie counting need not be 100-percent accurate to be exact.  And guess what?  Work by consumer watchdog groups that even commercial food labels cannot be trusted for perfectly accurate calorie counts.

Nutrition and training impact each other, and these features make it possible to monitor, analyze and plan your nutrition as carefully as you do your training—and in an integrated way.  Your meals and workouts sit side-by-side on your calendar, and you can even view charts that compare the calories you take in through food against those you burn at rest and in training to help you achieve and maintain your optimal race weight.

Surprises Guaranteed

Endurance athletes are often shocked by what they learn when they first count the calories in their diet. A classic example is the case of Rafael de la Vega of Miami, Fla. An elite-level swimmer in his teens and early 20s, Rafael later got into triathlons but then stopped training altogether after becoming a father and suffering some overuse injuries. After four years without exercise he weighed 236 pounds. Disgusted with himself, Rafael started swimming again and then hired triathlon coach Lee Zohlman, who requested that Rafael log his eating for one week using the nutrition tools available on TrainingPeaks.  “One week was more than enough,” Rafael says.  “The tools showed me that I was overeating and my calorie intake was much higher than I needed.”

Zohlman showed Rafael how to modify his diet so that his calorie intake matched the number of calories his body used each day.  Over the next six months Rafael lost 46 pounds while working his way back into peak triathlon shape.

Take a cue from Rafael and start counting your calories, if only for a week. You may not be carrying around 46 extra pounds that you need to lose, but a recent survey found that nearly three-quarters of endurance athletes considered themselves to be above their optimal racing weight. Counting calories can help you figure out why you are above your own optimal racing weight, if only by a little. Every second, and every ounce, counts!

Trainingpeaks Author Matt Fitzgerald
About Matt Fitzgerald

Matt Fitzgerald is a journalist, author, coach and runner specializing in the topics of health, fitness, nutrition, and endurance sports training (read more about Matt on his blog). Matt uses TrainingPeaks to train, coach and deliver pre-built training plans for runners including training plans built specifically to be used with a Garmin Forerunner. View Matt’s 80/20 running plans here and his 80/20 triathlon plans here.

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