Counting calories doesn’t work

Counting calories is stupid and it doesn’t help people.

This is going to be a porcelain piece – meaning a blog that’s short enough for you to read it on the toilet. I didn’t come up with the phrase and I’ll be damned if I can remember who did, but if you know please drop me an email so I can give credit where it’s due. Anyway, today I’m going to tell you that calorie counting doesn’t work…Of course that’s clickbait and I’m hoping that by this point you:

  1. Know I’m being intentionally facetious
  2. Are really, really, really annoyed

But I do have a serious point to make.

Sometimes it feels like everything within fitness is simplified beyond the point of utility. In the case of fat loss, for example, on the back of the low carb movement claiming calories don’t count came the wave of people who actually knew how things worked, to point out that actually, yeah, calories are kind of important. What happened then, however, was a sleight of hand. The claim “calorie balance is the single determinant of weight loss and gain” was switched out almost immediately, and without notice it was replaced with “everyone should be counting calories” as if that was the logical conclusion. But that’s not how it works - the conclusion here doesn’t really follow from the premise quite that simply.

You can see that counting calories doesn’t really work for many people, simply from the sheer magnitude of coaches who ask “Why is my client not losing weight even though they are in a calorie deficit?”. The answer to this isn’t some physiological hocus pocus – it’s that the person isn’t eating what they tell you they are – but that’s not the point of this piece. The point is this:

In theory asking someone to eat fewer calories than they burn will result in fat loss.

Coaches need to provide more than that

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In practice what often happens is they don’t do as you ask (either on purpose or unwittingly), they tell you they are, and then when their weight loss stalls you’re left with no explanation as to why. At this point they get frustrated, you get frustrated, and often they end up going back to doing whatever they were doing before.

The problem is, as I see it, that coaches try to coach methods. “I’m going to work out their TDEE, take a few kcals off and then ask them to eat that” but first and foremost they should be coaching individuals.

I’m going to help this person find a way to get their food intake under control so they can reach a goal

Calorie counting trap, woman

The calorie counting trap

That might involve calorie counting, sure, but it might not and you can be pretty sure that it’ll involve a hell of a lot of person-coaching, communication, empathy, direction, simplification and maybe a little trial and error regardless of what the particular method ends up being. It might be macro tracking, might be calorie tracking, might be a portion-based method, might be the Eatwell Guide, might be the 5:2 diet, might be zone….Whatever fits their temperament, lifestyle, preferences and goals – and whatever allows them to adhere to a calorie deficit.

That you understand the overriding fact of calorie balance, and that you should be telling your clients that calories are what matters, doesn’t mean that giving them a calorie goal is enough. People can work out the number of calories they need to lose weight with 2 minutes on Google.

Coaches need to provide more than that.