Why You Should Count Calories
Not necessarily for weight loss…
I’m less than a year from 40 and I have a single mid-life crisis goal: I want to get lean enough to see my abs before I get too old to do so. I’ve tried all sorts of diets, and they all work to varying degrees, but when serious bodybuilders, fighters, and other athletes must maintain perfect control of their physique, they count calories. So that’s what I’m doing.
While health should be a prime focus of your preparedness, I’ve realized that counting calories is a useful tool beyond cutting fat, maintaining weight, or building muscle.
Tracking what you eat helps you gain better insight and control over your body, the human machine, and that in turn can help you better plan your food storage.
For example, I often throw out 2000 calories per person per day as metric to gauge your food storage. But do you really need that many calories? Or is it too few? It’s a decent enough guess, but everyone has a different Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR).
I’ve had some people ask me why I’m losing weight in the face of an uncertain food supply over the winter. Popular wisdom would say I should pack on the pounds so I can go longer without food. But the heavier you are, the higher your BMR.
When I started, I felt woozy if I didn’t have at least 1,800 calories per day. Now I’m finding myself able to function at 1,000 to 1,500 calories per day. That’s fewer calories than I’d like to consume outside of a cut, but being able to do strenuous physical labor with a severe caloric restriction is a huge boon. I keep my protein intake high (150 grams or more per day) to limit muscle loss, and I’m still making strength gains in the gym.
Counting calories also means tracking your macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. More specifically, you know how your body responds to different stimuli. For example, I’ve learned that I can have a great weightlifting session with very few calories if I eat a banana first. I’ve also learned that while avoiding carbs helps me burn fat, taking one day a week to load up on carbs helps keep my energy levels high1.
Another benefit of calorie counting is finding out what foods are actually dense in calories. For years I believed that corn and squash were high-calorie foods. Turns out, not so much. In fact, nothing from your garden will compare to eggs or beef in terms of calories. I have to be careful when eating chuck roast because it’s very high in calories. Leaner cuts like New York Strip are much leaner.
Calorie counting can be a bit of a pain, but it doesn’t take a lot of time, and it helps you be accountable for what you consume. It gives you better control over your body and your food supply.
Tips for Getting Started
Back in the day, counting calories was a headache because you had to:
Guess your BMR plus daily caloric expenditure (tip: exercise doesn’t burn as many calories as you’d think).
Had to carry a booklet of caloric values. If a food wasn’t in the book, tough luck.
Had to also carry a notepad to record what you ate and add it up every so often.
Now we all have smartphones with Internet-connected calorie-tracking apps that make it easy. We also have affordable fitness trackers that do a decent job of guessing how many calories you burn in a day.
My calorie-counting system is based on three things:
I’ve tried several calorie-tracking apps, but Cronometer is my favorite in terms of ease of use, food database, and Apple Health integration. I set my Activity Level to None and instead have it import my activity from Apple Health, which draws from my Apple Watch.
You don’t have to use an Apple Watch. Fitbit, Oura, and Whoop all make fine fitness trackers, though I think for the money, the second-generation Apple Watch SE is the best value fitness tracker on the market.
You also don’t have to weigh your food, but it helps you maintain accuracy. Measure in grams and make sure to zero out your scale with your plate or bowl on the scale before adding food, and zero it out again before adding additional foods.
I take my scale with me to family members’ houses, but when I’m eating out, I just eyeball it. And sometimes when I’m having a really good meal, I say to hell with it. Life is just too short and the occasional splurge won’t wreck my long-term goals.
For more on calorie counting and eating your way to a better physique, see BowTiedOx’s Diet Guide.
In fitness circles, this is called a refeed day, with the theory being that carb loading fills your muscles with glycogen, which is used during heavy exertion.