It's a question that has been debated in the world of nutrition and fitness for years. The answer, however, is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Whether or not you should track your calories depends on your goals, personality type, and approach to food and nutrition. Furthermore, it’s important to understand that no matter what your situation is, tracking calories should only be a short-term strategy, not a lifelong habit or task. It's a powerful tool, but like any tool, its effectiveness depends on how, when, and why you use it.
In this blog post, we'll explore the pros and cons of tracking calories to help you determine if it's the right strategy for you – and why it's best used as a temporary measure rather than a lifelong commitment.
Awareness of what and how much you eat
One of the primary benefits of tracking calories is that it provides you with a clear picture of what and how much you are eating. It can help you become more mindful of your food choices and portion sizes. This awareness can be especially helpful if you are trying to make healthier choices or manage your calorie intake for weight-related goals.
Monitoring energy balance when trying to gain or lose weight
If your goal is to gain or lose weight, tracking calories can be a valuable tool. It allows you to keep tabs on your energy balance – the relationship between the calories you consume and the calories you burn. By tracking your calorie intake, you can adjust your diet as needed to reach your desired weight.
Although the ‘calories in, calories out’ equation doesn’t have much relevance regarding optimal health, you do need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight and a calorie surplus to gain weight.
To explain it in a slightly extreme way, you can lose weight by eating one Macca’s burger a day as your only meal, but you won’t be healthy as you are missing important nutrients.
Accountability when trying to reach a health or fitness goal
Tracking calories can provide a sense of accountability. It gives you a tangible record of your food choices, making it easier to stay on track with your health or fitness goals. Knowing that you need to log your meals can deter you from making unhealthy choices.
Beneficial for athletes trying to get to a certain weight category
Athletes, especially those in weight-restricted sports like boxing or wrestling, may find calorie tracking essential. It helps them reach and maintain their target weight category for competitions while ensuring they have enough energy to perform at their best.
No consideration of the quality of calories consumed
While tracking calories can be useful for managing your overall energy intake, it does not account for the quality of the calories you consume. There is a significant difference in health and fitness outcomes between consuming 100 calories from vegetables and 100 calories from lollies. Focusing solely on calorie counts can lead to poor nutritional choices.
Creates obsession about food and can lead to disordered eating
For some, tracking calories can quickly become an obsession. Constantly monitoring every morsel of food can lead to disordered eating patterns, such as orthorexia or an unhealthy preoccupation with food and dieting. It's essential to approach calorie tracking with caution and awareness of your emotional relationship with food.
Time and mind-consuming
Tracking calories can be time-consuming and mentally taxing. It requires diligent record-keeping and calculations. For some people, this level of detail can be overwhelming and detract from the enjoyment of eating. By not tracking your calories, you reduce your screen time and free up your mind to focus on other, better things.
Calorie tracking, especially when done manually, can be prone to inaccuracies. Food labels may not always reflect the actual nutritional content, and estimating portion sizes can be challenging. Relying solely on calorie counts may lead to misleading results.
Our recommendation and tips
Whether or not you should track your calories depends on your circumstances and goals. At Chief Nutrition, we recommend tracking nutrients rather than calories.
For example, not getting enough vitamin B12 and iron can leave you low in energy, lack of zinc will impact your skin and immune system, and insufficient vitamin D may affect your bones, to give you a few simple examples.
However, if your diet primarily consists of whole foods or minimally processed foods such as a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, organic meats, including organ meats, and good quality fats in small amounts, you are likely hitting your micronutrient targets without consuming excessive calories and toxins.
If you are after health and longevity, focus on the quality of your food choices and pay attention to your body's hunger and fullness cues.
If you choose to track calories, consider it a temporary strategy to gain awareness of your energy intake, make informed choices or reach your athletic goal. Always be mindful of the potential downsides, such as an unhealthy obsession with food or an overemphasis on quantity over quality.
Your long-term health and well-being should be the ultimate goal, and the method you choose to achieve it should align with your values and lifestyle.
What your day on a plate should look like if you don’t want to track calories:
- 600g non-starchy vegetables
- 1 cup starchy vegetables or ½ cup legumes/quinoa/rice/other grains
- 1-2 serves fermented vegetables
- 100-200g meat/fish/seafood (this can be Chief Beef Bar or Biltong)
- 1-2 eggs
- Handful of nuts and seeds (this can be a Chief Collagen Bar)
- Olive oil for cold dishes and organic grass-fed butter, ghee or tallow for cooking
- Fresh herbs and spices
- Organic dairy, if you can tolerate
- Healthy snacks if you run out of time to meal prep (Chief Collagen Bar or a green smoothie with Chief Collagen Protein Powder)
Eat when you're hungry and don’t eat when you are, not just because it’s lunchtime, dinnertime or whatever time. Eat slowly and chew your food properly. Your brain will have time to register the fullness, and you won’t overeat.
Co-Founder, Registered Nutritionist, Exercise Physiologist