3 Reasons Calorie Counting May Not Always Work

The first time I ever started tracking my calories and macros I felt like I was playing Tetris with my food. Things like bread and chicken felt like those square shaped pieces that were bulky and took up a bunch of space and protein powder felt like the lying down “L” shaped pieces you always wanted to use in the beginning.

It was an eye opening experience for me. And being a Type A kind of person who likes knowing all sorts of stuff like how much fat is in a serving of sour cream, I took to it like crazy. I tracked what I ate every single day for nearly 1,000 days straight, according to MyFitnessPal.

And you know, during that time I definitely made some improvements. I noticed that I was a bit leaner, but probably not by much.

I was definitely a more muscular. But again, not by much. At least not what you would expect for close to three years of serious nutritional accountability.

Which was all a bit of a bummer. You don’t feel like you’re doing a great job in tracking your food intake for years at a time expecting to have mediocre results, after all.

That story isn’t unique to me, though. Between running the nutrition check-ins for Snatched in Six Weeks, and our nutrition coaching program Nutrition for Ninjas, it’s something that I hear constantly.

And chances are if you’re reading this, this story sounds vaguely familiar to you as well.

Which is why I’m here today. I’m going to hit you with three reasons why calorie counting may not work, and action items you can use for each to start moving closer to making your health and hotness dreams a reality.

Food is far more than just a number.

Humans are social creatures, and much of that socializing tends to take place around food. It’s how we experience parts of other cultures, bond with friends and family, get to know someone new, and share experiences. These are all social elements to food that can’t be diminished to just a number.

But that’s sadly what starts to happen when you begin meticulously counting calories. Food becomes nothing more than a number. You begin to see a chicken breast on a bed of rice and think, “Okay, so that’s probably 75g of carbs, 50g of protein, and about 9g of fat.” And then just to be sure, you weigh it out and check it on MyFitnessPal.

Which, sure, that’s fun. But not exactly sustainable when you’re out on a date or you’re at a restaurant with your friends.

This is one of the more valuable lessons about food and counting calories. In the West and America specifically, it’s easy for us to diminish food to nothing more than a quantifiable number. But that diminishes the quality and the social impact that food has.

Food is something that brings us joy in our lives. It’s a source of fulfillment and happiness, often because of what comes along with it. And these are all things that make up part of the health and hotness journey. It’s no use stressing about the numbers when you could be happier by just enjoying yourself.

So what should you do?

Put simply, enjoy eating food, damn it. While that sounds simple, it sure isn’t easy.

Food has a lot of emotional triggers tied up to it for many of us, and enjoying food guilt free often takes years of focused work.

One of the things that we’ve started working on with our Nutrition For Ninja clients is working to eat slowly. Simple, I know. But I promise you it’s much harder than you think.

Ideally, we like to see our Ninjas take about 20-25 minutes to eat each and every single meal. Sometimes we even recommend using a timer to hold them accountable. The reason being is that hunger signals often take up to 15 minutes to show up. Which is why so many of us don’t feel utterly stuffed until after getting up from the table.

Not only that, eating more slowly allows us to work to try and be more mindful about the food we’re eating. Allowing ourselves to enjoy the flavor profiles, the texture, and the company.

If you want to read more about this, our friends over at Precision Nutrition, have a great write-up all about eating slowly, why it matters, what the research says, and action steps in how to make it happen consistently. You can check it out here.

‘Calories in’ is seriously imprecise.

Here’s a dirty little secret: the calorie numbers that you see on your nutrition labels? Those can vary wildly. Sometimes as much as 50%. Which could mean the difference of 500 calories or more in a day.

That’s not a joke. Many of the calorie numbers that exist for foods right now have been the same calorie numbers that were first discovered by William Atwater over 100 years ago. In case you weren’t aware, there are quite a few things that have happened in the last 100 years. We have iPhones now, for example. And sliced bread.

Now, that’s not to say that calorie counting should be thrown out completely. I do think it can be a valuable tool from time to time. But all too often people start counting calories and place all of their faith in the labels that they scan, and then start blaming themselves when the scale still won’t move down.

Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t their fault. Maybe it’s the fact that labels vary more than you ever thought possible.

So what should you do?

I’m a huge fan of using your hand as a measuring tool when it comes to food intake. Weird, I know, but it’s a surprisingly foolproof plan when it comes to overeating. You see, we know that calorie counts are wildly imprecise, but we also know that people burn calories differently.

Things like hormones, genetics, epigenetics, activity levels, and the size of your body all impact just how many calories per day you should be taking in and how many calories per day you’re probably burning.

One of the easiest ways to make this happen is by using your hand as the guide for which you’ll measure the contents of your plate. I’ve been sending over a guide from our friends at Precision Nutrition about this sort of thing to many of our Nutrition For Ninja clients, but if you want one of the easiest guides in how to use your hand to help you drop weight, you can check it out here.

‘Calories out’ is a guessing game at best.

When I first started as a trainer, I worked at a big commercial gym that had lots of treadmills, bikes, ellipticals, and rowers in it. In some ways this was great, because that equipment was always being used, which means people were moving.

But the reason it wasn’t great was that I was always getting questions from people who were wondering why they weren’t losing weight if the machine said they were burning 600 calories every single workout.

Even if you work out at a place like MFF, where we don’t give you numbers like calories burned, many people can’t help but think about how a workout has burned a bunch of calories and how, in turn, they’ve “earned” the right to go out and eat a burger. If only it worked that way.

Calories burned during a workout is a terribly inexact science, and the truth of the matter is that unless you’re working out for hours upon hours, it’s usually not even enough to make an actual difference when it comes to making up for food intake.

Even really intense classes that last for an hour will tend to only burn a couple hundred calories at most. Sure, you burn some after thanks to an effect called EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, but even then you’re really only talking about 300-400 or so. Hardly enough to make up for eating a burger.

So what should you do?

The biggest thing we tell our Nutrition For Ninja clients is to work to do things that support their health and hotness goals and to stop looking at food after exercise as a reward, or as exercise as a thing that creates room for food.

Exercise isn’t something that allows you to eat whatever you want. You can eat whatever you want because you’re an adult and you get to do cool things like wake up and eat ice cream for breakfast. You just need to understand that it may impact your goals.

The big move here is to work to eat foods that support your goals, enjoy treats when you want to, and to move often. Or, in other words, do things that a healthy adult tends to do.

If you want to read more about it how exercise and calorie burning don’t always go hand in hand, you can check out this infographic from our friends at Precision Nutrition.

Putting It Together

This is all a lot, I know. Not just the information in this article, but the idea of moving away from counting calories to help control your diet. For many of us that feels so counterintuitive and terrifying. It’s a bit like flying blind after jumping off of a cliff made of Pop-Tarts and other easy-to-find in MyFitnessPal foods.

The biggest thing I could ever hope to tell you is that this is all a process. Your health and hotness journey will rarely be one in which you find yourself arriving at an end point. There’s always a new destination, a new road map to get there, and new lessons to learn along the way.

And that’s the best part of it all. Using systems like we’ve talked about above is a great place to start.

But most importantly, it pays to be patient. I get it, we all want to look better. There’s nothing wrong with a goal like that. But having done this for quite some time now, I can tell you that people tend to see the best results when they start focusing on their health from a holistic point of view.

And one of the easiest ways you can do that is by recognizing that each and every meal is an opportunity to make a choice that moves you closer to your goals. A healthy choice. No matter how small it is.


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Tanner Baze is a Ninja Trainer, Nutrition Sherpa, and token Texan at Mark Fisher Fitness. He is a Precision Nutrition certified coach and Complete Human Performance certified personal trainer. He’s also a freelance writer, world class snuggler, and repository of useless facts. You can find him on InstagramFacebook, or check out his website.


Image #1 by Sachin Teng 

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