If there are so many unknowns and inaccuracies in measuring energy (calorie) intake, is there any point in doing it?
And if so, how should it be done?
This is a topic that causes a lot of debate among coaches.
One challenge is defining what, exactly, "calorie counting" means.
Does it mean being aware of your energy intake using some method of awareness?
Or does it mean precisely weighing and measuring exactly what you consume?
The answer is: It depends.
Whether I ask my clients to become aware of their general energy intake or measure more precisely depends on many factors, including:
Goals: What clients want to do.
Knowledge: What clients know.
Competence and skill: What clients can do.
Consistency: What clients can do, repeatedly and well.
For some clients, the point of tracking is to become more aware of their energy balance (calories in / calories out), so that they might change it (for instance, eat more to gain mass or eat less to lose fat).
Other clients may want to monitor energy intake to discover:
the relationship between energy intake and recovery or athletic performance;
how their energy intake calibrates with physical hunger (or other factors such as stress and sleep);
how much of a certain macronutrient (i.e., protein) they are eating;
and many other reasons.
So, we try not to confuse the why (i.e., what the ultimate purpose is) with the how (i.e. the tool, technique, or tactic used to fulfill the purpose).
If the purpose is knowledge, observation, and change, then yes...
Some type of awareness and measurement process is important.
Data on people who successfully achieve and maintain healthy bodyweights and body compositions (as well as other goals, such as athletic recovery), show:
Self-monitoring is a powerful tool that leads to clinically relevant weight loss (i.e., enough weight loss to improve health and wellbeing).
People who self-monitor lose up to 5% bodyweight even without dietary counseling.
75% of successful weight losers still monitor their body stats and food intake in some way.
Tracking and being aware of energy intake, as well as correctly calibrating it, is an important skill for most clients.
But... there are many options for doing this.
It all depends on clients' interest, skill level, and willingness.
The data suggest: It doesn't matter how detailed the self-monitoring and tracking is, as long as people do something consistently.
Let's look at a possible continuum of calorie counting (i.e., awareness of energy intake) ranging from least to most precise, detailed, and skill-testing.
Low effort / skill
Take a photo of what youeat, or
Write down general amounts, i.e., "small blue bowl of oatmeal", "2 pancakes".
Moderate effort / skill
Use a hunger and fullness journal to indicate how hungry you were at the start of the meal, and how hungry you were after.
Use hand-size portions, such as palms of protein, fists of vegetables, thumbs of fat, cupped handfuls of carbohydrates.
Use a tool such as a portion-controlling plate.
High effort / skill
Use measuring cups and spoons for some things, and / or standardized amounts (i.e., a 12-ounce can of soda)
Weight everything using a food scale or measure with measuring cups / spoons, and track all items preciselky using calorie-counting software.
In our Nutrition Coaching Program / Moxie Custom Nutrition Templates, we provide a "quick Start Guide" that calculates a clients' hand-size portions from their weight, goals, and activity level at intake. We've done the math on the back end so that clients who want it can get a starter portion guide that simplifies their tracking, without having to worry too much about details.
For clients with disordered eating, specific tracking is less helpful.
For instance, evidence suggests that over-use of calorie and macronutrient tracking software is strongly linked to symptoms of disordered eating, such as:
rigid expectations and "shoulds";
binge eating; or
ongoing anxiety and preoccupation with food and eating.
Now, ask yourself:
What method do you need?
What method do you want?
What method can you reasonable do, consistently?
What method would help you feel most successful... and sane?
What's the "best method:? There isn't one.
At least not one for every single persobn all the time.
Explore how you might improve your awareness, monitoring, and accuracy of your energy intake... and look for the most appropriate and successful method for YOU.