Do You Need To Count Calories For The Rest Of Your Life?

As you may have heard, your diet is going to play a very meaningful role in your ability to lose fat, build muscle or make whatever other improvements you’re looking to make to your body.

And in that “diet” category – at the very top of the listis your total calorie, protein, fat and carb intake each day.

No, these aren’t the only dietary factors that you need to care about. There are other factors that will play important roles in your results and overall health in general. However, above all else, your total daily calorie and macronutrient intake is going to play the largest role of all. By far. Times infinity. Plus one.

And it’s when you finally come to understand this fact that you begin to see the very specific task that lies ahead: you’re going to need to closely monitor what you eat.

That’s right. You have to count calories. You have to count grams of protein, fat and carbs. You have to weigh/measure the foods you eat. You have to consistently track your diet each and every day.

And it’s when you finally come to understand this (and/or actually begin to do it) that one very common thought comes to mind: “ughhh, this is a huge pain in the ass!

And from there, two questions will typically arise:

  • Do I have to do this for the rest of my life? As in, do you have to count calories and macronutrients, weigh your foods and closely track your diet every single day forever? Even after your goals are reached and you just want to maintain?
  • Do I really have to do this in the first place? As in, is all of this counting, weighing, measuring and tracking stuff REALLY necessary for reaching your goals?

Well, the way I see it… you have 4 possible options.

1. You Can Count Something Else Instead

I’ll admit this up front… this option is almost definitely NOT going to be what you’re looking for. Rather, it’s mostly just a semantic technicality.

For example, instead of “counting calories,” you can simply ignore calories and only “count macronutrients” instead.

Why? Because your macronutrient intake (protein, fat, carbs) will initially be calculated based on what your daily calorie intake needs to be to support your goals. Which means that when you eat the correct total amounts of protein, fat and carbs each day, you’re going to end up eating the correct total amount of calories as a side effect of that.

Here, I’ll let JC Deen (who I know recommends this) provide an example:

Let’s say you’re aiming for a diet of 2000 calories with the following macros:

200g protein
165g carbohydrate
60g fat

200 + 165 = 365. 365×4 = 1,460 calories
60×9 = 540 calories
1,460 + 540 = 2000 calories

So when I am tracking, I simply set my total calories, and then determine the macro composition. Once I know that – all I focus on is meeting the macro requirements.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with approaching your diet this way. Calories still matter just the same, and you still need to figure out how many calories you need to eat just the same, and you still need to calculate your macros based on that calorie intake just the same.

But, once you do that, you technically only need to count macronutrients if you prefer it that way.

There’s just one small problem. You’re still counting, weighing, measuring and tracking. This doesn’t eliminate that task. So you’ve maybe eliminated “daily calorie counting” but the virtually identical process of “daily macronutrient counting” is still required. Which means the original pain-in-the-ass aspect of having to closely monitor your diet every day is still present.

A second example of something else you can count is “points” using a diet like Weight Watchers. They have their users count points rather than calories and/or macronutrients.

But again, the same problem still exists. You’re still left counting something every single day and closely monitoring what you eat. That task remains yet again.

On a slightly off-topic note, there’s an unrelated problem in this specific example because Weight Watchers employs the lovely concept of “free foods.” As in, foods (apparently magical ones… typically fruits and vegetables) that you can eat an unlimited amount of because they’ve been assigned no point value whatsoever.

If I could be so douchey as to quote myself on this topic…

If your weight loss diet has “free” foods that you’re allowed to “eat unlimited amounts of” and “don’t have to count,” then please allow me to bring to your attention the fact that your weight loss diet is fucking stupid.

For clear evidence supporting this statement, look no further than this real world example.

So yeah, while there are other things you can count besides calories, you still have to count something.

2. You Can Follow A Fad Diet… And Hope For The Best

Now here’s what you’re really looking for. A diet that will flat out claim that “calories don’t matter” and/or “you don’t have to count anything as long as you [insert some special way of eating here].”

The best way to categorize these types of diets is by referring to them as fad diets. In this context, I’ll define that as any diet that doesn’t directly have you figure out what your calorie intake needs to be AND THEN have you directly set out to meet those needs.

What you’ll find here instead are diets that place a bunch of rules and restrictions on the way you eat with the intention being that these rules and restrictions will be enough to indirectly cause your calorie intake to be what it needs to be without actually making you directly do that. (All of course while claiming it was their “special way” of eating – not calories – that caused everything good to happen.)

You know the types of diets I’m referring to. The ones that say “eat these good/clean/magic foods” and “avoid these bad/dirty/evil foods.” Or “eat only at these times and avoid eating at these times.” Or whatever else. And that as long as you do these things, you’ll lose fat or whatever else the diet is designed for making happen. No need to count or track or care about calories at all.

Now, does this sort of thing ever work?

Yup, definitely.

I mean, if you restrict enough of the stuff that people commonly eat (carbs, fat, grains, wheat, meat, sugar, “dirty” foods, gluten, foods that cavemen didn’t eat, etc.), it’s going to make it much harder for someone to eat more calories than they’re supposed to be eating.

However, just because something is “harder” to make happen doesn’t mean it’s still not going to happen. And therein lies the problem.

Because with diets like this, whenever you end up eating the amount of calories/macronutrients you ideally should be… it’s really just a matter of blind luck. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t. Cross your fingers and hope for the best, I guess?

But if you just figure out how much you need to be eating, and then track your diet closely enough to ensure that you eat those amounts, the need for luck goes out the window. Now you’re just directly doing the thing you need to do AND making sure you do it.

The bonus in this case is that all of those (often completely pointless) rules and restrictions that fad diets typically require are gone, and they’ve been replaced by simply getting the total amount of calories/macronutrients you need each day from a nice balance of (primarily) higher quality foods that you truly enjoy eating.

3. You Can Be Less Strict About It… And Hope For The Best

So on one hand, you can carefully weigh out everything you eat and closely track the nutritional content of every single food… every day… for the rest of your life.

Or, you can maybe take it down a notch. Or two notches. Or ten notches.

So maybe you can “eyeball” things more often. Take more guesses. Do more estimating. Stop eating when you’re full. Make smarter decisions with your food choices. Use better judgement with your portion sizes. Use a combination of pictures, mirrors, tape measures and the scale to let you know when it’s time to “adjust” a bit. Or do 100 other similar things that on paper will ideally allow you to be some degree less strict about tracking your diet while STILL allowing you to reach your goals and/or maintain them after they’ve been reached.

Sounds pretty good, right?

The only problem is that what works on paper doesn’t always work in the real world. At least, not for everyone.

You see, more often than not, these varying degrees of “less strict” diet tracking are exactly what prevents a very significant portion of the population from reaching (and eventually maintaining) their goals.

Why? Because it’s just WAAAAAAY too easy to screw up.

In fact, it’s so easy to screw up that it’s one of the main reasons why people end up in a position where they need to start closely tracking their diet in the first place.

Want an example? Okay. This old (yet forever-relevant) video from Leigh Peele should do:

And this is only showing you the difference between weighing foods on a scale vs using measuring cups/spoons. Now imagine how much the degree of potential screw-up difference would be if you remove the measuring cups/spoons and just “eyeball” it? Or take your best guess? Or estimate? Or just try to use “better judgement” and make “smarter decisions” or countless other less-strict dietary approaches?

How do you envision that working out for you?

If you’re like most people, the answer is horribly.

And this is equally true both for people who are looking to eat less for the purpose of losing fat and those who are looking to eat more for the purpose of gaining muscle (without gaining fat). If you’re not closely tracking your diet, the odds are strongly against you.

Now that doesn’t mean that every single person reading this will need to be super obsessive about every little detail of their diet for the rest of their lives. Some people certainly will (like it or not, some people permanently require the highest level of strictness possible to keep themselves/their diet in check), but plenty of others will gradually be able to take things down a notch or two without anything bad happening. I put myself in that category, although I will note that it took me years of practice to get there.

4. You Can Continue To Track Everything For The Rest Of Your Life

Here’s something funny.

You know who asks this question the most? Do you know who is most concerned with and annoyed by the possibility of having to track what they eat for the rest of their lives?

People who literally just started doing it.

I’m talking about people who are a few weeks (sometimes just days) into tracking their diet and closely counting/weighing everything for the very first time.

You know why that’s funny? Because every new habit is going to be at its hardest and most annoying when you first try to implement it.

And I’ll admit, when you make that initial transition from just eating whatever the hell you feel like eating with no regard for nutritional content (which was pretty fun as best as I can remember it… except for the fact that I looked/felt like crap), it DOES seem like a huge pain in the ass.

Let’s face it, it’s just this annoying “time consuming” extra step that has now become a part of your daily life. I remember that feeling well (and this was back in the early 2000’s when there was no fancy app on my phone… it was just a pen, paper and a calculator, or maybe an Excel spreadsheet).

And I remember thinking “seriously, am I really going to still be doing this 10 years from now?”

Well, it’s been 10+ years since then and here’s what I can tell you.

It gets easier. Much easier. And much less annoying and time consuming. It also becomes pretty routine. Like brushing your teeth or showering. And it honestly doesn’t take much longer than these types of normal daily tasks. It just sort of blends right in with them. And the addition of a fancy app on your phone makes it laughably easy.

Which is all my way of saying relax and give it some time. However horrible it seems now, it will seem a whole lot less horrible at this time next month. And again the month after that. And again the month after that. And even more so the year after that.

Plus, when you see this task become directly responsible for you getting the results you want, you’ll start to feel like the world’s biggest idiot for ever making such a big deal about having to do it in the first place.

“Ughhh, do I really have to keep doing the thing that is allowing me to reach my goals?!?!”

Yeah buddy, you kinda do.

80 thoughts on “Do You Need To Count Calories For The Rest Of Your Life?”

80 Comments

  1. Maybe I interpreted your fad diet section the wrong way, or maybe this doesn’t classify as a fad diet but here goes:

    I’ve read from a few credible sources (Lyle McDonald was one of them) that since counting is such a pain in the ass, there are a few ways to gear your diet towards your goals and being more flexible about it. The big disclaimer here for anyone else reading would be YOU WOULD NEVER GET THE ACCURACY OF COUNTING, but for the average Joe Citizen its a great place to start.

    For example, when “clean bulking,” you eat until you feel satisfied, eating the protein off your plate first because of satiation, then the unrefined carbs next, conscious of only eating mono/poly’s for fats, etc. And for MOST people, the caloric surplus would be small enough to avoid excessive fat gain. This is also given that you have created a progressive overload signal for your body.

    What about for those people who would be scrutinized for obsessively counting? Like someone with a job that has a client take them out to lunch and there is no nutritional information available. The client might think you’re crazy if you take out the electric scale from your pocket and weigh each bit of food before you put it in your mouth…and you just lost their business.

    Are there guidelines for those situations in which you would recommend where counting is just not feasible.

    • Nope, this isn’t the “fad diet” stuff I was talking about. This is more in line with the “take it down a notch” I describe in #3.

      And as I mentioned there, for some people these types of less-strict methods will work. For others however, they will be THE cause of their lack of progress.

      And regarding your specific example of “And for MOST people, the caloric surplus would be small enough to avoid excessive fat gain.” I’d lean towards that being the case for the minority… the majority will either end up with no surplus (and gain nothing) or too big of a surplus (and gain too much fat).

      Oh, and during those times when you’re out to eat, that’s when #3 becomes most ideal.

      • Tangentially I would say that maybe for someone like you, counting calories almost every day is a plausible idea. I just do not think that for some people its possible. The mother working two jobs? The investment banking analyst working 100 hour weeks? For some I just don’t think counting is an option.

        You outline in your routine guide a 2-day a week split for people who can’t make it to the gym the 4-5 days that you recommend. If this is truly their case, how in the world are they supposed to find the time to count their calories.

        I know meal prep exists, but even then there are situations where people just cannot do so. For example, as a college student when nutritional information isn’t readily available to me and the dining hall quantities are not measurable, how am I supposed to count at school? I leave calorie counting to my cutting phase, which is usually my time off from college when I can focus on it, and not focus on getting a job instead which is the more important aspect. How can you get nice gains if you don’t have the money to pay for the gym membership? That kind of thing.

        I am in no way advocating people who are lazy and won’t calorie count because of the social stigma it creates or the pain in the ass it might be. I just don’t think calorie counting every day is a feasible option for quite a large group of people.

        I believe looking at the calendar 6+ months in advance will help with choosing when the most convenient time for cutting is and when to bulk.

        There is a little bit of happiness that comes outside a perfect body, and its a mentally stable state, which calorie counting can often times ruin depending on the person. I am going to respectfully disagree that calorie counting is necessary at all times.

        • Hmmmmm, you do realize I agree with most of what you said? And this: “I am going to respectfully disagree that calorie counting is necessary at all times.” I agree with this too.

  2. For me, it didn’t get easier as time went on, but in fact got worse in many ways. I tracked my calories and macros daily for 18 months and by the end of it I reached a point where I realized that the quality of my life was declining. That is to say I was spending a pretty good chunk of my day thinking about, stressing out about, and of course weighing and calculating my food each day. There were also good things that came out of it- I learned a ton about food and how to use it. But at the end of the day I realized I could reach my goals without counting calories but instead just being mindful and making informed dining choices- and being much happier.

    Coincidentally I wrote up a blog post on this very subject recently- feel free to edit this out if you don’t want external links. 🙂 https://medium.com/health-fitness-1/counting-calories-long-term-de1f1271cf34

    • Yup, this is another possible outcome. But this is also an example of how some people can and NEED to take it down a notch or two as they get more experienced with tracking their diet. I am strongly in favor of everyone going through that initial period of closely tracking every single thing they eat. And then, depending on the needs and preferences of the person, they will either need to maintain that same (or somewhat similar) level of precision for the long term, or be able to be some degree less strict with tracking. You would definitely be an example of the latter. As would I.

  3. Jay, your so right man!! In the beginning I thought calorie counting was such a pain in the ass, and I kept saying to myself that I don’t need to know this crap.. but then finally I gave in and said “yes I do”. Especially if my goal was to put on muscle mass… I remember reading your articles before on how just to set up the perfect diet “the right way”… and your absolutely correct…… give it some time and it gets a lot easier counting calories and figuring out what foods you can take out of your food routine and which ones to put in its place… and it also doesn’t seem to matter how many meals a day I eat, as long as I hit my goals for macros your fine…… thanks Jay for another awesome article to help keep me in check….

  4. Thanks Jay, another wonderful article. Hope tbat most people there will be able to benefit from it. I over here (you know where I am) will have a difficult time in counting calories, as our food here seems like there is no calorie indication. We just eat our Chinese, Malay and Indian food day in day out. Tough luck, but I am just adjusting it to how I feel and see in the mirror. I just have to gauge it and hope for the best.

    By the way, hard to ask wife or mother how much and wgat ingredient they out inti which food they like to cook each day. Do not want to offend our female “queen” of the house. Not to mention all the leftover foods from the kids!

    But I have come to realise quite some while back, it is not just we need to take care of ourselves, but also to have a happy family (and thst really requires to keep wife and mother hàppy in the house), enjoy (or pretend to enjoy) all the foods prepared by them. So, adjustment needed to make on the training side, lesser rest in between sets, higher intensity and so on to burn off the extra Calories.

    Lastly, is all food are given by our God Almighty, we have to truly appreciate what is on the table. So, fellow brothers and sisters, please give grace to our Lord. By the way, I always say a prayer before my workout, and it does make a difference to me. God bless.

    • “but I am just adjusting it to how I feel and see in the mirror. I just have to gauge it and hope for the best.” Yup, that would be the way to do it in a situation like yours.

    • True story: none.

      I only really like a handful of foods, and I typically eat those same foods as part of the same meals in similar amounts at similar times… every day. Training days will be different than rest days, but all training days are virtually identical, and all rest days are virtually identical.

      So the way I do it, I figure out all of the totals I need to reach on a given day, and then figure out what amounts of various foods I will need to reach those totals (this is the only time I ever use an app anymore). Which means I essentially have a day of eating planned out in advance. And since I’m the world’s most basic and boring eater, I just repeat that day over and over and over. The counting/tracking is already done… so there’s no need to keep doing it daily when I already know it’s the same as the previous day(s). I still weigh out everything to ensure the serving sizes are what they need to be, but there is zero calorie or macronutrient counting involved anymore.

      The only time this changes is when some kind of diet adjustment is needed to keep things moving in the direction I’m aiming for (fat loss, muscle growth, etc.). That’s when I add/remove whatever I need to add/remove to make the adjustment I need to make. Which means there’s about 5 minutes worth of counting taking place before I get right back to just repeating this each day from that point on (or until another adjustment is needed).

      And during the times when I go out to eat or it’s a holiday or whatever other less-typical scenario occurs, I just estimate as best as I can. It goes just fine.

      • How do you cope with social meals? I mean, sometimes you go out with friends of family and eat at a restaurant, right? How do you keep track of calories?

        For me this is the most difficult part of tracking calories and macros, I try to eyeball the portions and use myfitnesspal to estimate, but most of the times I have the felling that I’m completely off.

        It’s funny because I always thought that losing weight was hardest part of dieting but i’m having trouble following a (take down two notches) clean bulk.

        • That’s when I rely entirely on my ability to estimate/guess/eyeball/make good decisions. If you’re good at it and/or only end up in those social meals a small percentage of the time, you can get by just fine. But if you suck at it, and/or you end up eating in these types of scenarios constantly, that’s when it can be a problem.

  5. Jay, yet another PAINFULLY HONEST & ACCURATE Article on the virtues of Life Long Dietary Diligence for Fat Loss, Muscle Building and all around General Health. I have been ‘guilty as charged’ for not measuring my portions when it comes to nut butters (i.e,. peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter, etc.,) and have seen my fat loss stall as a result. This article was a real ‘wake up call’ for me. Thank you for being so on time with it!! With Ivory Soul, May Palmer, The Queen of Ivory Soul

  6. Great article.

    Doesn’t the sugar intake matter? I mean if you stay within your correct calorie and macronutrients intake and if you don’t have any health issues. Or is “20-30 grams of sugar per day” rule a bullshit?

  7. Nice article!
    One thing I wanted to ask regarding #1:
    http://www.sweat4health.com/calories-not-what-you-think/
    Basically the above link says that, the 4 cals per gram for protein and carbs, and 9 cals per gram for fats, isn’t strictly true, and there can be around 20% or so difference (some foods have wildly different fiber to calorie ratio, absorption rates etc). Seeing that even small changes add up, wouldn’t a 20% difference completely screw things up for people who count just macros?
    Also, for people who pretty much each the same thing (I have a 2-3 days schedule, meaning I eat the same thing every 2-3 days – or, all I eat fits in a 2-3 day cycle, and I keep repeating that cycle), what do you think of being less strict in the sense that, since you’re eating the same stuff, it could be easier to add/subtract from what you eat if you get too fat/skinny, because your portions are same and it’s easier to control the amount (you’re already familiar with your portions, or even how you full you feel after the meal)?

    • 1. Consistently track things the same way, monitor progress, adjust when needed. Do this, and very little else will ever matter.

      2. Yup, see my comment above about what I do as I also eat the same stuff most days.

  8. the only thing that ended up working for me is to literally eat the same 6ish meals over and over and over again. Mostly because I found doing anything else is almost impossible

  9. It’s worth noting that are plenty of in shape and healthy people that don’t count calories. I happen to know a few of them myself… yeah I’m not talking skinny fat either.

    When I hang out with these people they seem to just have a lot more unconscious awareness of when they should stop eating.

    So yeah I believe after you have calculated calories and can learn what it feels like to eat an appropriate amount of food you can actually just sort of wing it after that as long as your eating mainly unprocessed foods.

    • As mentioned in this article, it’s not a requirement. It CAN and DOES work without it. It’s just that it’s a minority of people who will be able to make that happen, while the majority fails partially if not entirely as a result of their lack of counting/tracking.

  10. Great article Jay! I used to strictly cleanly intuitive eat, cutting out what I thought were “bad” or “unhealthy” foods but not tracking. I found that this method just caused me to want to binge on all those foods whenever I had the chance and ended up keeping me further from my goals. Best part about tracking my calories? It’s really easy to fit fun foods (read: cookies) pretty much whenever I want. I think that’s why tracking is actually easier to maintain long term, as you never have to cut specific foods out or feel deprived. Plus.. Cookies.

  11. I don’t count calories anymore but still getting results, maybe not the optimal ones, but results are results.
    Once you count enough calories of the food you usually eat, you kinda already know how much you need to eat.
    Although I have to admit my weekday diet is pretty boring =P

  12. Another great article, Jay. Im one of those people that needs to log and weigh everything. I know its a long term commitment and when i tell folks that i do this they look at me like i have two heads. Only the negative comments come from overweight people, go figure.

  13. I hear ya Jay Dog, but it isn’t realistic for people with full time jobs to track calories their whole lives. Yet I do not know of any better alternative unless you can really do some really accurate guessing. Another thing I can’t figure out is I work out and I get hungry, yet I am supposed to eat less? I find this very hard to do after a good workout. The easiest thing to do is workout hard then eat a crap load. It is working out hard then eating less which can be difficult.

    I am having an incredibly difficult time going below 188 lbs at 5’10” and eating less calories isn’t working for me, although I will admit, I do not always calculate. I try and try and it just keeps fluctuating from 188-194 lbs. I am beginning to believe the only way I can drop to 165 is to semi- starve myself and always be hungry, yet learn to override the starvation feeling. But what happens is I get so hungry after eating so little for a while I eat like 4 tacos after. and thensome! I feel I eat less than most people, and eat lots of vegetables, do good workouts, yet can’t drop below the late 180s. Any help would be appreciated!

    • I hear ya. But it mostly sounds like you’re the perfect candidate for more-closely tracking what you’re eating. Because “eating less calories isn’t working for me” is a guaranteed sign that you’re eating more calories than you think you are, which is the kind of thing tracking things closer is guaranteed to show you and help you fix.

      • Jay I think you are right, but when I did track my calories I still couldn’t get below 188 lbs. Do you think it’s possible that my metabolism is so slow now that I may need to eat like 1200 calories a day only? Also, maybe stir frying with oil I am underestimating the calories.

    • There is a way to maintain a calorie deficit without actually counting them, but it may be harder than just simply counting calories.

      It looks like we have are (or were ) in a similar situation. I am 5’-10” and my weight usually fluctuates between 188 lbs. and 200 lbs. Over the years I have tried a number of diets and plans to try lose weight and have usually found short term success followed by regain. Basically the same story everybody else tells. Then I had a realization. Just about every single diet get things backwards and ends up trying to get a horse to push a cart. It’s really no wonder then that these plans ultimately fail.

      Diets are like religion, you start with a set of rules and rituals (you might even have a sacred text) and if you follow them faithfully, you should find salvation. Jay has already covered the usual pitfalls of this arrangement in detail so I won’t cover them again here, but they did inspire me to create a diet that is less like religion and more like a thermostat based on the rock solid law of conservation of mass and energy. Essentially it is a diet that as long you as you actually do it, cannot fail. I put the horse back in front of the cart.

      On December 1, 2014 I weighed 203.6 lbs., as of today I weigh 168.7 lbs.

      I call my plan Aces (fast days) & Eights (eat days): The Dead Man’s Plan. Don’t let the name scare you. I call it that because it involves intermittent fasting and anytime I tell someone (especially someone who is very overweight ) about IF they always warn me about how very, very dangerous it is. Clearly, I am just a dead man walking.

      Here is how the plan works. I set a daily goal and measure my weight every morning. If I weigh more than my goal weight, then I fast until the next morning. If I weigh less than or equal to my goal then I eat that day. There are no other rules about how much or which foods I should eat, but I try maintain my macros.

      I determined what my daily goals should be calculating how much I could safely lose per week. I felt like 1% of total body weight would be good, so I set up a spreadsheet to do the math and subtract the appropriate amount each day. Once I get to my target weight, I will stop subtracting and just use that weight as the daily goal in order to maintain.

      There are still some rules to my diet, but they are easy to remember.

      Weigh yourself every morning, if wt > goal then follow fasting protocol till the next morning, if wt <= goal then follow eating protocol till the next morning. You may end up having to fast for more than one day, but so far I have not had to fast for more than two consecutive days. You may also get to eat for several consecutive days. I have had as many as five eat days in a row.
      Fasting protocol means real zero calorie fasting. I had a co-worker try my plan and was “fasting” by drinking Starbucks coffee and drinking fruit juices. That is not fasting. You cannot fast by drinking “coffee” that has more calories than an ice cream sundae. Fasting means consuming zero or very near zero calories. Water is ok, and unsweet tea and coffee and maybe diet sodas.
      You can eat whatever you want on eat days and in whatever quantities you want, but if you over do it, like I do sometimes, then you will have to pay for it by fasting for two ( or more ) days to get back to your goal weight. Likewise, if you eat sensibly on your eat days then you will have fewer fasting days over all and usually only have to fast for one day at a time. I do recommend eating some junk on eat days so that you don’t get cravings.

      There you have it.

      • I appreciate your response but this is a bit nuts. You are saying to lose weight simply starve! Just don’t eat! I mean obviously if you don’t eat you will lose weight, but not many people can not eat 1-2 days a week every week and maintain sanity and their livelihood. This can;t be a healty way to do it.

        • I believe that fasting is healthy even if you are not trying to lose weight. But I am not evangelical about it, I won’t try to talk anyone into it, just letting you know what works for me.

          • Ryan. Zero calories diet is really bad. The guy already feels hungry most of the time, and you basically want to starve him. Besides, that’s REALLY unhealthy way to lose weight anyway. I strongly advice against your “dead man” diet, to be honest.

          • The thing about hunger is that much of it simply comes from an expectation of food. When you don’t expect food, then you don’t feel nearly as hungry. The key is make sure that you have a zero calorie day. if you cheat and eat even just 10 calories then the hunger will come on strong.

            I appreciate your concern, but I believe there is ample data to suggest that IF is healthy. Very low calorie diets have also been shown to actually increase the life span of test organisms. I really don’t see any evidence that IF is harmful but there are huge mountains of evidence that show that consistent over-eating is unhealthy. Now of course, I do agree that not eating at all is bad. But intermittent fasting is INTERMITTENT, so I do eat. In fact I eat quiet a bit. I just cut back enough to maintain weight loss at 1% per week, no more.

          • But what you wrote is along the lines of my initial question, do I need to starve myself to lose weight? Ok, obviously I don;t need to not eat 1-2 times a week, but the reality may simply be for me to go from 188-168 I may need to be in pain and really eat like a bird

          • You do not need to starve yourself to lose the weight. You just need to eat differently that you seemingly are.

            I started counting in Nov 2014. At that point I was 5’11 200 lbs.
            I use MFP as my counting app. Based on their criteria, for me to lose 2lb/week, with my activity level classified as sedentary, because I do work a full time job, jockeying a desk everyday, I needed to limit my intake to approx. 1350 cal./day.

            And of course, if I were working out, then my allowable intake for the same goal would be higher. And for a while I was working out, and logged my workouts as well, and the app adjusts its estimates accordingly. So I could partake in those post workout splurges that my body craved.

            Yes, at first this was hard. This sucked actually. But once I started looking at what I had been eating and comparing them to recipes and things I was finding online, I realized I was eating a TON of empty calories. A ton of crap.

            Where are your “4 tacos” coming from? Taco Bell? Or are you actually making those as home with ingredients that you have control over? That makes all the difference right there. Preparing my own food made me SO much more aware of what I can eat vs. what I shouldn’t.

            By the beginning of March my 200 lbs. had dropped to 172. I didn’t get there by feeling that I was hungry all the time. By breakfasts and lunches were boring. same thing everyday. An Atkins mocha latte shake for breakfast and a homemade salad for lunch, totaling just over 400 cal. for both meals. And water all the time. No soda, no diet soda, no juices. Too easy for me to “forget” to count those, and they are just calorie bombs.

            This left me with about 900 calories for dinner and/or snacks, which is actually pretty easy to do. There are lots of recipes available for dinners in the 400-700 calorie range that ARE filling. Lots of low calorie vegetables can be eaten that act as “filler” for your stomach.

            I was still going out to eat about once a week. And yes, those 1500 calorie single meals did tank my daily counts, but they were infrequent enough that they didn’t disrupt my progress.

            Now for the last month or so, I haven’t been counting. I’ve been “eyeballing” my intake. I’ve also been going out to lunch a lot more than I previously was, and more than I know I should be. lots of fast food and soda. As a result I shot back up to just over 180 lbs. which isn’t horrible, but not the direction I want to be going.

            So it’s time for me to refocus on what I want to achieve. It all boils down to how badly do you want it, and how much are you willing to work to get there.

  14. One thing I’d point out (though it is in line with your final point) is that if you eat the same foods a lot of the time you don’t need to count calories per se, just weigh up the ingredients, cook and eat. For example, I often eat a big meal of chicken and Mexican rice after training and it’s always the same size (Mexican rice is in a packet, chicken is bought in a packet with the weight on the front so I know exactly what size to buy each time – around 650 grams). So whilst I’m not weighing food and counting calories, I kinda am anyway, though I have done it once and now know what I’m eating every time.

    I also created a spreadsheet a while ago so I can track individual ingredients, so all I have to do is weigh everything, punch it into the spreadsheet and there’s my macros and calories. Took a while to make as I’m terrible with Excel, but once I got it working it makes life a lot easier.

      • Ha! I was actually pretty close! I do have a legit question if you’ll allow me, but first i want to say thanks for all the work you do here man this website has saved my sanity!

        Some background for my question: I’ve been dieting at approx 1000 cal deficit for 74 days. On this diet I’ve come from 220 to 185. Using the U.S. Navy body fat calc (not great accuracy I know) I’ve gone from 30% to 20% bf. While I’m so happy with my results, I know I still have a long way to go.

        So the question is do I really have to do a refeed? After reading your articles, I’m not worried about “starvation mode”, but I’ve read how beneficial a refeed can be especially as folks get leaner (not that I would call myself lean yet). I guess I just really don’t want to put my progress on hold. I feel great, not tired, and have more energy now than ever. I’ve not seen any slowdown in weight-loss and keep improving in my workouts. Thanks!

  15. Another superb article on what has to be the best resource for nutrition and fitness advice I’ve found on the web. Let me add my own experiences with 4 months of calorie counting and what to be wary of when using apps.

    I liked calorie counting straight from the start. Seems bizarre to most, but for me it fit right into my desire to quantify things. There’s a budget program wherein I enter every single expense, and it annoys me to no end when I’ve paid something in cash, forgot to enter it and then afterwards can’t remember exactly what it was. I make spreadsheets on Google Drive for the most mundane things if it helps me organize them better. During any sort of cardio I wear a heart rate monitor which calculates calories burned depending on age, weight, height and gender, so I can get at least a ball park figure of how much I’m burning and settle for nothing less on the next workout.
    To me, calorie and macro counting is just another way to get a grip on my life. Looking back it almost feels weird to be eating just whatever, staying in the dark about how much calories it accounts for and the macro composition. Even when you have days where you eat too much, or all the wrong stuff (family dinners on holidays, going to a restaurant, take-away with friends or colleagues…) I’ve found it has a benefit because when you know from experience how much carbs and calories are in your beer or how much in a single slice of pizza, you tend to become more careful. Even on the days where you’re doing damage, it’s nowhere near the level as when you weren’t conditioned by months of being surprised (pleasantly and unpleasantly) by the properties of some foodstuffs.
    Some people in my family and colleagues probably think I’m insane for doing it and actually tracking the milk I drink down to the milliliter. For me it’s just peace of mind. I’m simply not the type who can drink soda and eat too much without gaining weight. Why would I not adjust my habits to fit my body?

    Now, there is one aspect I absolutely hate about tracking my food, which brings me to the websites and apps that are supposed to make this easier for us. I’m using MyFitnessPal, which in some ways is horrible but it’s just functional enough not to throw it out, mainly thanks to its humongous database of foods and free phone app. I could go on and on about how much some of its design sucks (almost nothing loads asynchronously, too many page loads, not back-button safe, complete inconsistency between creating and editing recipes…) but that isn’t the problem. The problem lies with the fact that its data is mostly crowd-sourced, which is its biggest strength and downfall.
    You see, the people entering data for the food are its user base, and they’re a cross-section of the global population. Needless to say, not everyone is equally bright, nor equally concerned with accuracy, and when it comes to some of the more subtle aspects like proper unit conversion and understanding portion sizes, pretty soon you’ll be convinced the site is full of idiots when you ARE concerned with those things. Which you should be, as you can read in the post.

    Sometimes you’ll have to scroll ages to get the generic data for a simple food before you’ve gotten past all the (usually horribly inaccurate) specific brand or grocery store chain entries. That’s when your problems are only beginning. Once you’ve found an entry, it has to be in some usable unit. Now I don’t mind doing a quick conversion from ounces to grams or cups to ml, but quite frequently people will go with serving sizes on a package that are often fully arbitrary. 12 grams of mayonnaise? Which council has decreed that one should always consume a multiple of that? This, while the nutrients per 100 grams are usually clearly listed and so much easier to use. Ate 10 grams? Just enter 0.1 as your serving size. You should see what some folks do when trying to convert to a different amount, getting basic arithmetic wrong or simply failing to understand the metric system.
    Some serving size data is also complete bullcrap. Suppose you ate a bit of meatloaf at someone’s place which you didn’t make so you have no idea what exactly went in it. No problem, find a generic meatloaf entry so at least you can get a rough idea and adjust the rest of your intake accordingly. That’s when you find an endless list of entries listing “slices” as their serving size. What the hell is a slice? Is it 2 mm thick? 4 mm? That would make it twice as much meatloaf and twice as many calories, no? How big is a slice? If you don’t weigh it and it’s not a content measure like ml or cups, it’s useless.

    Then there’s two of the biggest problems, that I have seen handled correctly in close to 0 entries on the site: total carbohydrates and sodium content.
    You see, in the US nutrition data tends to list total carbohydrates including sugars and fiber. So if you want to know your carb intake minus the fiber, you just subtract the latter from the total. Easy, right? Hold on. In Europe, the tendency is to list “carbohydrates”, followed by “of which sugars” and THEN list fiber separately. The fiber isn’t counted towards the total carbs. So when you add a food, you should pay attention to this and add the fiber content to the total carbohydrates if that isn’t the case on the packaging, which it is for pretty much everything found in Europe.
    Sodium is not the same as salt. Salt is approximately 40% sodium by weight (not precisely, but it’s close enough not to matter). You want to know the sodium amount in your food and this is what’s tracked on MFP. So if it lists sodium, you enter that. If it lists salt, take 40% of that. Now I myself couldn’t care less about tracking sodium, but for some folks it might be important.
    Of the many, many entries I’ve encountered, CLOSE TO NONE got the above two things right. When they got one right, the other would usually be out of whack.

    This is the one thing I hate about calorie counting: the tools are out there, but you have to constantly double-check every entry you use which you didn’t make or adjust yourself previously, lest you mess up your actual goals. The video in the post shows how easy it is to mess up totals if you aren’t entirely accurate and weigh things instead of eyeballing it or relying on things like “cups” or “tablespoons” (which are total bull anyway). So now, even when you are weighing your food and think you’re doing everything perfectly, you can still get tripped up by other people’s inaccuracy. This constant correcting of database entries on MFP takes up way more of my time than actually entering, tracking and planning my meals.
    There ought to be some simple failsafes. Like for example, not allow someone to make an entry that lists a lower total carb count than there is fiber in something (I’ve witnessed this more than once). Ideally, you’d be given instructions and have to undertake some sort of test to be actually allowed to add to the database, coupled with a sort of point system for users where the best scorers have their entries listed higher, and people continuously messing up being blocked from making entries and edits. Naturally that isn’t going to happen. In fact, the only “improvement” I’ve seen is a new recipe editor, which is absolutely horrible and looks like you’re not even on the same site as where you initially entered the recipe.

    One site I’ve found that seems to be immensely accurate when cross-checking with multiple sources for nutrient contents is nutritiondata.self.com. The downside is that you can’t track exercise on it (as far as I know) which makes it somewhat less convenient to figure out net calorie intake, and while it is very comprehensive regarding all sorts of whole foods, it doesn’t have the huge database of brand, food chain and other entries that MFP can boast. I’d almost consider going full paleo just for the convenience of being able to put everything directly into nutritiondata.self.

    TL;DR
    So, okay, this has turned into a rant. I’ll list the more important stuff here for people tracking their calories and macros and using MyFitnessPal or any similar tool.
    * Don’t ever trust serving sizes. Use exact measures, like grams or ounces.
    * Double-check every entry you didn’t make yourself or previously edited for accuracy.
    * The above also goes for non-labeled food such as fruits or vegetables.
    * Almost no-one gets the total carb count correct for stuff from outside the US.
    * Almost no-one gets the sodium content correct if a label lists salt content.

  16. I don’t bother counting calories anymore, I switched to counting carbs. It is simple, just keep it under 100 grams each day, or 30 grams for 3 meals. Counting carbs will eventually stop because you just know what foods to buy. Meat, eggs, some dairy, some vegetables, some fruits, etc. I swear by it because after a few days when your body adjusts to it, you can practically see the pounds falling off as you walk down the street. When I first did it, I lost 6 pounds in about 4 days. In about 2 weeks if you haven’t had a lot of fat on your body, you will notice in the mirror that your body is getting cut looking. What I love about it is that you can eat more at each sitting.

    • For the average fat person trying to lose fat, limiting carbs to a certain lowish amount clearly works (as evident by the various low carb diets in existence). But the reason why it works is simply because carbs comprise the majority of most people’s diets, and it’s the macronutrient people are most likely to overeat. So, if you limit carbs, you greatly limit calories… which leads to fat loss. This is fine if that’s how you want to do it, but you could just as easily count calories and put a specific goal intake on that instead, and then still get to eat a decent amount of carbs.

      Also, the 6 pounds you lost in the first 4 days… that’s mostly if not entirely a combination of water and glycogen rather than body fat. If you increased your carb intake in a similar manner, you’d likely gain about the same amount in the same period of time. Carbs are funny like that.

  17. Jay,

    Love your site, it has become my go to when I have questions and need answer.

    Calorie counting is the only thing that has worked for me. I find that it holds me accountable. Sure I have days I don’t count, but I get back to it the next day. Counting has helped me lose 22 pounds since December 5. I am down to my lowest weight in over 10 years!

    Also following your beginner workouts. So as a newbie I have gotten stronger and lost fat, pretty cool.

    Thank you for your expertise and humor, makes it fun to be on this journey.

    Bill

  18. Thanks for this article! Your straight-forward writing style makes it incredibly hard to make excuses. It’s kind of frustrating 😉

  19. This is a perfect article for my brother. This past Easter weekend I saw him for the first time in about 3 months and he was literally speechless when he saw me. I had lost a good amount of weight the last time we were together but I’m now building a physique rather than just being a thin guy. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt better.

    He wants me to advise him on what to do but he is kinda caught up on short cuts and gimmicky tricks he sees advertised. I had to repeat myself (your advice) over and over to try to hammer home the calorie/macro intake idea.

    I figured his TDEE and broke down his macros (he is right about where I was when I started) and as well as I know him I think he may be ready to get serious about it this time. I hope so ’cause I’d love to see him do it.

    Have a great weekend,
    Rob F.

  20. Jay is the man.

    I am on a cut and I find it easier to just count my total cals properly, Make sure I’m getting enough protein and let the other stuff fall into place. My cal limit is too restrictive at the moment to significantly overdo/underdo carbs or fats in my opinion. I eat enough carbs especially around workouts. My fats could be a bit low I guess but I get a decent amount from fish, meats, eggs, cottage cheese etc in general.

    My progress is pretty decent. On a cut I figured being more accurate with fats and carbs isn’t going to make a difference to results, or am I wrong in thinking that Jay?

    I guess this lazy method will be harder to implement on my first bulk.

  21. I love your articles man. Keep up the great work! I’m just starting out with refining my diet and this was very encouraging. Looks like I’ll be getting a scale!

  22. I have a question for you… I’ve been counting calories for over a year now, and for the most part you’ve been dead on with your advice. Wait, you have been dead on, it’s the calorie counting that is in question. Most foods are packaged and a fancy little app helps tremendously, but where I find the most difficult is counting calories in beef. For instance, if you go to acaloriecounter.com and type in “ribeye steak”, you have 9 different choices, and sometimes they can vary wildly. Also hamburger, I would assume a pound of raw hamburger would have more calories, since it has more fat, than hamburger that is cooked and drained, or grilled and the fat cooked out of it?

    It’s even tougher for me, as I have a friend who raises a few head of cattle and butchers every spring, so our family of 6, we buy 1/2 a cow so I don’t get the pre-packaged nutrient data you’d get at a grocery store. Plus, we get arm, rump, sirloin, chuck, and some other different roasts, so when I make a recipe or pot roast, it’s hard to figure out how many calories are in each cut of beef. So would you have any advice on where to get good, accurate nutrient information on beef?

    • Ha, yeah… I’d imagine that would make tracking slightly tougher. But really, all you can do is estimate as best as you can and then monitor real world changes to your body (and if needed, adjust accordingly).

  23. The habit of tracking calories/macros is so crucial to lose/weight. Yet, this topic is still not very popular on the Internet. It’s probably because talking about ”magical” foods and machines is a lot more profitable for the companies than talking about what really works. Thanks Jay for spreading the truth in such an effecient way. You are definitely a reliable fitness guru!

  24. Another option is to eat exact the same meals every single day. You would not have to count calories anymore. That’s what I do on regular week days. In case I gain weight, I still eat the same meal, but less in quantity. It does make sense, right?

    It’s still good to know my calorie intake in case I want to eat something different. But when you eat the same kind of food day in and day out, I’m sure you know the exact food profile… this makes it definitely easier than to look up every single piece of food you eat and write it down…

  25. Hi Jay,

    Does it ever reach the stage where you’re bulking up fast enough for the 7700kcal per kg of lost weight drops to something like 3500kcal per kg?

    Here’s what’s happened. I’ve been tracking calories for some time now, and my monthly average for calorie deficit to weight lost ratio used to be between 7000 to 7500 kcal of deficit for every kg of weight that I lost. Some time mid-last month I started taking creatine and whey protein supplements. I started small (2 scoops a day) but then started tracking this month and realized that I wasn’t hitting the required amount of protein so upped the intake of protein (0.7g for every pound of ideal weight for non-workout days and 1g for every pound of ideal weight for workout days). So I’m getting between 26% to 38% of my calories from protein now instead of around 10-15% eariler. And I’ve noticed that though I’m losing weight (2.3kgs averaged weight this month) the calorie deficit isn’t enough to account for that (8000kcal). Is it possible that the deficit is much larger because all the protein calories are being used for muscle build up and so aren’t available for regular energy needs?

    • I don’t fully understand your question, but I think you might be asking if increasing your protein intake while keeping everything else the same (including total calorie intake) could cause more/faster fat loss? If so, the answer is yes, as protein has the highest thermic effect of all the macronutrients (meaning, more calories are required to digest/absorb protein, thus causing your body to naturally burn more calories each day).

      • Thanks for answering, Jay. Yes, that does answer my question. I’ll read up more about the thermic effect onine.

        Regards,
        Manjit

  26. Just one more tip : you can solve all isues with total calorie intake and maths. So for example, you need 1800 calories for fat loss. If after a few weeks you see no change, obviusly something is wrong and your calorie intake is too high. That doesnt mean 1800 is a wrong number, it could mean youre just eating 2200 calories without knowing.

    So you reduce the calorie intake to 1500. With this, even if eat 300 calories more every day, you will still be at a fat loss level. Im not saying you shouldnt try to calculate it right on the first try, but for some people it can be very stresfull. ‘Does this piece of bread really have 200 calories?’ The stress begins.

    This way you have some extra space and can be more relaxed about it. Also be honest with yourself, dont forget to add coffee etc in your calories, and always calculate a bit more then you think a food has.

    Calorie counting is awesome, it gives you tangible data, all you have to do is track it and reduce/increase calorie intake.

    • This is true. Whether or not you are tracking things perfectly accurately or know the exact amounts you’re eating is much less important than the simple act of just eating a little less than you currently do if fat loss isn’t taking place.

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