Counting Calories? Don’t waist your time.

Why are you counting calories? Your body doesn’t “need” them.

Counting calories doesn't tell you enough about your nutrition.So you want to change your body composition. This is the ratio of lean body mass to body fat. It’s the healthiest way to think about your “weight”. Weight as a raw number doesn’t really tell you alot.

You’ve frequently heard that to change your body composition, you should pay attention to calories. It’s a simple matter of calories in versus calories out, right?


Well, technically it’s partially wrong. It’s incomplete and it’s the wrong focus.

So if your body doesn’t need calories and counting them isn’t what you should focus on, what is?

Some definitions:

Calories: A unit equal to the kilocalorie, used to express the heat output of an organism and the fuel or energy value of food.
Macronutrients: Any of the nutritional components of the diet that are required in relatively large amounts: protein, carbohydrate, fat and macrominerals.

Calories themselves don’t exist in isolation. Each of these required nutrients has a caloric value attached to them. And every calorie you take in comes from one of these three sources.

  • 1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of fat = 9 calories
  • 1 gram of protein = 4 calories

The problem with the “calories in vs calories out” mindset is that it assume a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. I’ve even seen writers on really good, reputable sites that I follow state this as a fact. And quite simply that is NOT true. Let’s have a look.

Nutrition Facts

Chia Seed

 Calories 100 100
 Total Fat 0g 7.4
 Total Carbohydrate 27g 1g
 Sugars27g 0g
 Protein 0g 4.6g
Taking a look at the three macronutrients, we can see that 100 calories of Coke does not have the same nutrient content as 100 calories of chia seeds. The Coke has exactly one macronutrient: Carbohydrates in the form of sugar. On the other hand, the chia contains fats, very little carbohydrates (no sugar at all) and protein.

Do you think your body processes and uses 27 grams of sugar the same way it processes and uses 7.4 grams of fat and 4.6 grams of protein? Of course not. So simply counting calories and thinking you’re truly benefiting your body isn’t the whole picture.

Instead, start counting what your body does. Measure macronutrients.

New Leaf Metabolic testingHere is a bit of irony in this article. In this method of measuring your food intake, you do actually need to know how many calories you need daily.

That’s why I said it was incomplete. It is part of the picture, but it’s the beginning, not the end.

Yes, start with calories. Find out your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) either through having it directly measured or by having it estimated through your current body composition.

The picture on the left shows someone having their RMR tested with a system called New Leaf. You lay there and you breathe for 15 minutes without moving. It’s a very accurate method for determining you RMR.

The estimation method is done by calculating your lean body mass and using a simple formula to estimate your daily caloric requirement. Once you’ve had your lean body mass estimated (the method I use with clients is the 7 Site Skin Fold method) you calculate your daily caloric needs by only “feeding” your lean mass, the mass of your bones, muscles, skin and organs. You don’t want or need to feed your fat. The basic formula is 12 calories per pound of lean body mass. (UPDATE 07/15: Here is a good online tool to find your RMR and DCR)

Next, you’ll estimate your needs ABOVE your RMR by taking your level of physical activity into account. Once that number has been calculated, you’ll know your estimated daily caloric needs. *Whew*

If you are serious about changing your body composition and want to know your RMR and your balance of macronutrients, please take the time to see a nutritionist or registered dietitian.

Finally, you’ll determine the mix of macronutrients you’ll be counting.

I’ll use myself as an example. I weigh 165 lbs and have 10% body fat. So my lean body mass is 149 pounds. Using the estimation method, my estimated RMR is 1788 calories. Since I’m on my feet for work and constantly moving and I exercise almost every day, I would increase my RMR by 40% to cover daily activities. That makes my daily caloric requirement 2503.

I tend to follow a balanced, vegetable based diet with occasional meat. A good estimate for the mix of macronutrients I eat would be 50% carbohydrates, 25% fats, and 25% proteins. Now take your calories and break them up by these percentages then divide by the number of calories per gram of each.

  • 1251 calories in carbohydrates DIVIDED by 4 calories per gram = 313 grams of carbohydrates
  • 626 calories in fats DIVIDED by 9 calories per gram = 70 grams of fat
  • 626 calories in protein DIVIDED by 4 calories per gram = 157 grams of protein

So if I want to be specific with my diet, I’d measure my foods and know how many grams of each I’m eating. I wouldn’t be counting calories. It just not very useful.

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