If you’ve followed along on our intro group nutrition series, you’ll recall that we’ve been discussing food quality and quantity. So far, we’ve described two ways to know how much fuel your body needs. Mindful eating involves tuning in to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, while the plate method is a way to set up your plate for success. I truly believe that many athletes can see great success using just these methods. However, I want to briefly cover the third strategy, which is calorie counting.
Calorie counting is the most precise method for knowing how much to eat. However, it’s not for everyone. You should never, ever calorie count (without supervision from a qualified medical professional, at least) if you’ve ever had an eating disorder or struggled with food obsessions.
And really, I don’t recommend calorie counting long-term for most people. It’s a good way to know how much food you need when you’re just getting started, and you can always return to it if your diet isn’t working for you. However, calorie counting can get pretty tedious and time-consuming.
That said, some people may benefit from calorie counting short-term, until they get a more intuitive sense of how to fuel their workouts. Here’s how I recommend that you do it.
Calorie Counting: The Basics
The easiest way to count calories is with an app. I recommend MyFitnessPal, but others love LoseIt or other apps. If you already have an account on one of those, just go with that.
Once you’re in the app, disregard the calorie recommendations they provide. In my experience, the calorie estimates tend to be low for the type of activity we do at the gym. I prefer the NIDDK body weight planner to estimate calorie needs. Once you’ve calculated your needs, you’ll need to adjust them in your tracker. In MyFitnessPal, you do this under “more,” then “goals,” and then “calorie and macronutrient goals.”
From here, you’re ready to track! Track as much as you can, as accurately as you can (brand names, portion sizes, etc.—you can see how this gets tedious!!). Don’t forget condiments, coffee add-ins, alcoholic drinks, bites of your kids leftovers—it all counts.
I usually recommend that my clients begin with a couple of days of tracking without making any changes for a couple of days—just to get a baseline. From there, you can start to work toward hitting your calorie goal. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t hit it, especially at first. It takes time for your body to adjust, and it’s easy to let perfection get in the way of progress.
Once you’re hitting your calorie goal consistently, hang out and track at that number for a few days and see what happens to your weight and your energy levels. If it’s trending in the direction you like and you’re feeling good, then you’ve likely found your calorie sweet spot.
Calorie Counting: When to Adjust
Even people who feel great and are consistently moving toward their goals will need to adjust calorie levels eventually. At some point, your progress will slow down.
However, there are times when I might recommend a more immediate adjustment:
-You’re consistently losing more than 2 pounds per week.
-You have low energy.
-You’re struggling during your workouts.
-You’re really struggling to hit your calorie goal.
Feel free to grab me at the gym if you encounter these or any other roadblocks, and we’ll make an adjustment. Happy tracking, friends (should you choose to track!).