Should you count calories?

Should you count calories?

As most of you know, I’m a big fan of intuitive eating and I don’t count calories. In the past year, I have tracked calories exactly three times and all for blog purposes! Given that I create nutrition plans most days of the week, I can tell you the rough calories and macros of almost any food, but it’s not something I even loosely calculate for myself.

I eat according to my hunger and whatever training I have planned for that day. However, just because I eat intuitively doesn’t mean I believe everyone else should. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to eat according to their hunger signals while achieving optimal physical and performance-related results. In reality, I do believe there is a time and a place for calorie counting.

My current intake
Since my last competition, I have kept my calories high as I’m trying to stay as close to my weight division (75kg) as possible. A week ago, I would have guessed that I was hitting approximately 4000 calories per day. It appears I have the opposite problem to most women, in that I seriously underestimate my caloric intake!

For fun, I tracked the past four days of eating. I should note that two of these were rest days, and two were low-intensity workout days – Sunday’s half-arsed pressing workout and one day with three sets of a van pull and three sets of atlas stone loading (it sounds impressive, but it’s really only about six minutes of exertion in total).

Damn you, Starbucks, damn you.

Damn you, Starbucks, damn you.

I ate above 5000 calories every day, with the highest day being 6800! Granted, this is higher than usual for two reasons. Firstly, I have been having mocha cookie crumble frappucinos every day as it’s Happy Hour week at Starbucks (they are 500 calories a pop). Secondly, I had a two day migraine – whenever I have migraines I just want to eat carbs, carbs and more carbs, so I had four mashed potatoes, two baguettes, a big bowl of pasta and half a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in a single day. Ignoring these outliers, I would estimate my average daily intake for the past 4-5 weeks as 5000 calories.

Why are baguettes so damn good?!

Why are baguettes so damn good?!

Last night I weighed in at 75.9kg. Granted, I was feeling bloated and it was the end of the day, but it was enough to send me in a panic. I plan on losing 2kg in the next two weeks, so I can eat a big meal the night before my next competition. The funny thing is that despite gaining 4kg since March, I really don’t see that much physical difference. My boobs have gone up a cup size (definitely not complaining!), but I had assumed that was because I went back on the pill.

If I cut back to 4000 calories, I should be able to lose that weight easily. 4000 calories is still a lot of food, and I doubt I will be starving. I don’t plan on making any real changes other than cutting back my breakfast portion (most days I have eggs, bacon AND 1.5 cups of oats – I’ll get rid of the bacon and halve my oats), switching to iced americanos, and laying off the daily (often twice-daily!) desserts. I also have to stop making chocolate nut butter. I have eaten dinner out every single night since last Thursday. That’s not necessarily a problem (except for my bank account!), but I know I’m having too many carby foods like bread and fries. I know that even if I keep my calories high but switch from carbs to potatoes as a carb source I will drop water weight.

Bye bye, burgers - only for a little while!

Bye bye, burgers – only for a little while!

My previous experience with counting calories
Three years ago, I stopped counting calories after having done so for five years. I had an addiction to tracking absolutely everything that went in my mouth, even gum! Even on days where I ate the exact same thing as the previous day, I would have to write it all down to have a perfect record. I also tracked all  my exercise, and made sure that the difference between my intake and expenditure was at least 1000 calories.

I hated eating out in public, because I could never be sure of how many calories something contained. I limited myself to 1200 calories per day, which can be used up in a flash in just one restaurant meal. Three years ago, I received a meal plan from my bodybuilding coach. I was given specific options to have at each meal time, and I was hitting the same protein, carb and fat totals every day. I knew exactly what I was eating and I saw the results I was looking for, yet I continued to count calories.

One day I quit cold turkey. Enough was enough. I had no reason to track my calories when I was following a plan that had been specifically designed for me. After about a year of following my coach’s plans (I was having between 1400-1600 calories a day during this time), I tentatively dipped my toes in the waters of intuitive eating. I increased my calories very slowly over time until I reached the point where I am at today: happy to eat what I want with no constraints of meal timings, food group restrictions or macro targets.

Should you count calories? 
When I polled my Facebook fans, about 50 per cent of you said you count calories – and usually only to make sure you are eating enough. If you are just getting started on your fitness journey and are completely clueless as to how many calories you are consuming, I would recommend tracking your calories for two to three weeks. It will give you a good idea of how much you are consuming on average and may enlighten you as to how you can improve the balance between your protein, carbohydrate and fat intake, without it turning it a lifelong obsession to track.

If you are more experienced with calorie counting, meaning that you have a rough idea of how many calories certain foods contain, I would recommend counting calories one or two days a week only if you have a specific weight gain/loss goal in mind. If you are just looking to maintain your current size, I would recommend eating intuitively without tracking anything at all.

Counting calories can mess with your head. Even though I feel energetic and happy with my body, when I saw how many calories I had eaten over the past few days I had a mini freak-out: Am I eating too much? Do men even eat this much? Is there something wrong with me? Am I going to gain more weight? Do I have reverse body dysmorphia and am actually fat?

(Almost) 76kg doesn't look that bad?

(Almost) 76kg doesn’t look that bad?

For this reason, I don’t think anyone should count calories every single day for extended periods of time. This is why I am not a fan of IIFYM. I appreciate that it lets you eat “whatever you want”, but it also fuels an obsession with food. In my opinion, calorie counting sucks the joy out of eating and normalises disordered eating behaviour. It also messes with your normal hunger signals by telling you how to eat with no regard to actual satiety. Some days I eat like an animal while other days I don’t feel like stuffing my face, and that’s fine too.

Most people are afraid of eating intuitively as they think they will overeat lots of processed foods. I can promise you that it just doesn’t happen. I (and most people) feel better consuming a diet of mostly whole, nutritious foods that fuel my workouts and every day life. I do eat processed foods occasionally, but definitely not all day long – having a sugar crash right before a deadlift session is not what I want! I don’t see foods as “good” or “bad” so when someone screws up their nose when I have pasta AND bread, I can frown right back for being so narrow-minded and restricted.

Do you count calories? Why/why not?

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