7 Things to Keep in Mind when Counting Calories

If you're new to the world of calorie-counting, welcome. Tread carefully here, there is a lot of bad advice to go around. The idea of this article is to share some important concepts about calorie counting that could save you some time, frustration, and anxiety. Read on to learn more!

1. Understand what a calorie is.

Well, what is it? Glad you asked - an energy unit. That's it! Calories provide your body with the energy it needs to form the high-energy bonds within the molecule ATP (adenosine triphosphate).


ATP is the 'energy currency' of your cells. It powers all active cellular processes within the body.

If you're eating in a calorie deficit, your body begins converting endogenous carbon compounds into ATP. Your body mainly sources carbon compounds from within fat stores (adipose tissue) - and from your muscles, but not as much as from fat.

It is normal to lose some muscle mass in a calorie deficit. Your heart is a muscle, too - if your deficit is too extreme, your body will break down muscle tissue in your heart to generate ATP to keep the body going. Avoid weakening your heart muscles by not going ham with a crazy deficit.

2. About CICO.

You've almost certainly heard of "CICO" - it stands for Calories In, Calories Out. For people who are just starting to control their caloric intake, CICO is a helpful tool. CICO is often used to explain the expected outcome of one's controlled energy intake and expenditure.

You know how it goes: If you eat more than your body uses, your body stores the extra energy for later and you will gain weight. If you eat as much as your body uses, you maintain your weight. And if you eat less than what your body uses, your body will tap into and use up its reserves to make up for the deficit, and you will lose weight.

There is a LOT more to health and fitness than a simple intake/expenditure equation. But if you're looking for a place to start, CICO is pretty user-friendly.

3. Your 'total daily energy expenditure'.

You'll want to estimate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or your 'TDEE' before you choose a surplus or deficit. Knowing your TDEE is also helpful if all you want to do is maintain your weight!

You can use online TDEE calculators, like this one, to help. The number will not be exact, but it provides a good idea of what yours likely is based on your metrics.

Every person has different energy needs.

Then, choose a sustainable surplus or deficit. Unless you want to sabotage yourself, avoid choosing extreme deficits - i.e. deficits of greater than 500 calories daily. It is also a good idea to ease into a caloric surplus if you're looking to gain more muscle instead of fat, though you will gain fat anyway if you're bulking (totally normal).

To estimate changes in your weight over time according to your caloric consumption, you can try a calculator like this one.

Your health and fitness is a "forever" type gig - crash dieting is just going to give you new issues to recover from.

Chop Shop Physiques hereby forbids you from crash dieting.

4. Realistic deadlines are needed for sustainable changes.

Let's run through a hypothetical scenario for a minute.

So, you have a goal that involves counting calories:

Let's say you're a 35 year old woman, 5'8, you weigh 180 lbs, and you lead a lightly active lifestyle. Using the link above, your estimated TDEE is ~ 2145 calories.

Let's say you want to lose 15 lbs. You'd need to expend 15 x 3500 calories, or 52,500 calories, to get there.

What not to do:

If you were going to be SILLY and say "I need to lose all this in one month", that would mean you'd need to eat 1695 fewer calories... PER DAY. For one month straight. 2145 - 1695 = 450. That gives you 450 calories to eat, per day, for a month. That's planning to develop an eating disorder. That's setting yourself up for misery, failure, and punishment.

Can you think of a worse idea? Perhaps voluntarily removing a limb, to reach your unrealistic weight loss goal sooner.

What to do instead:

Instead of being SILLY, figure out what deficit you can realistically maintain long-term BEFORE you choose a set amount to eat per day. A deficit of greater than 500 is very difficult to maintain long-term for many reasons.

It's much easier to maintain an average deficit of 100-400 calories daily. So, let's pick a deficit of 300 calories per day, on average.

If you did that, you could comfortably eat 1845 calories for a little under 6 months, reach your realistic weight loss goal, and have an easier time maintaining your physique because you didn't crash diet to get there.

You can also increase your activity levels and eat more daily. You get the idea!

5. Nutrition is separate.

If you're ONLY focusing on calories, you are not monitoring your nutrition.

(You, preparing something delicious and nutritious)

Ignoring your nutrition can easily lead to nutritional deficiencies, which can cause fatigue, susceptibility to injury, a slower BMR (basal metabolic rate), psychological complications or exacerbation of pre-existing mental or physical illness, a weakened immune system, and overcompensation by overeating or even binge eating.

Did you know? You can eat in a calorie surplus - meaning, more energy consumed than used - and still be malnourished. But you say, "Oh, wouldn't I be very thin if I were malnourished?" And the answer is no.

It is easy to become malnourished at any weight, especially because many modern foods contain fewer nutrients than they used to. Try to make sure you're eating well - not just numerically "enough".

6. Your caloric needs vary daily.

No matter what myfitnesspal tries to tell you, you do not need the exact same number of calories per day! The amount of energy you expend depends on all sorts of factors.

(Gearing up for a track run to increase your TDEE)

Your appetite - not your biological need to eat, but your motivation and willingness to eat - is even more easily influenced by your circumstances. Did you sleep less than usual? Are you sick? Are you exercising a lot more? Do you do shift work? Stress greatly impacts your appetite.

The important thing here is to recognize that you will be hungrier some days. If you eat more or less than you planned to, don't beat yourself up for it. Accept the intake and keep on doing your best. Don't overcompensate in the gym, don't skip meals, and do not lose sleep! You'll only stress yourself out more.

7. Keep your self-worth separate from your counting!

If you tie your self-worth to your ability to be disciplined around food, you will inevitably feel terrible. It's not fair to set unreasonable expectations, then punish yourself for not meeting them.

Lots of us go on diets and fall off track soon after. Why is that? Well, because the diet was unsustainable. It wasn't the right plan for our lifestyle, for our needs, for our activity levels, or for our goals.

(You, enjoying your food to the fullest extent)

When you're malnourished, your body will do whatever it can to override your willpower and get that nutrition in somehow. For lots of us, that means we enter into a cycle of binging and restricting. This takes a toll on the soul and on our self-esteem.

Instead of throwing yourself at another unsustainable deficit, why not try hitting maintenance calories for a month or two instead? This way, you have more freedom to choose foods you enjoy and foods that fuel your body well.

Ditch the restriction/scarcity mindset, focus on stability and strength, and nourish your body.

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