Does Calorie Counting Work For Weight Loss?

Let’s get this out of the way up front.

Yes, calorie counting works for weight loss.

  • The law of thermodynamics applies to everyone.
  • The “Calories In vs Calories Out” equation applies to everyone.
  • A caloric deficit is the underlying cause of fat loss.
  • A caloric surplus is the underlying cause of fat gain.
  • Other factors also matter, but above all else… it comes down to calories.

These are proven science-based facts.

But you’ll often hear people say this isn’t true. That calorie counting doesn’t work.

In many of these cases, it’s because they’re trying to sell you some bullshit plan, program, or supplement that will somehow allow you to lose weight without eating fewer calories.

These people are the worst. Try to avoid them.

“Calorie Counting Didn’t Work For Me”

But other times, you’ll hear it from regular honest people who tried it themselves.

They’ll say something like…

“Calorie counting doesn’t work. I know this, because I tried it and I didn’t lose any weight.”

Or maybe…

“Calorie counting might work for you, but it didn’t work for me.”

Or…

“I’ve been counting calories for X days/weeks/months, but I’m not making any progress.”

And for most of these people, this will be all the proof they need to conclude that weight loss isn’t about calories after all. At least, not for them.

It must be carbs. Or sugar. Or gluten. Or not eating at the right times. Or not doing the right exercises. Or not taking the right supplements. Or their metabolism is broken. And on and on and on.

Whatever it is, one thing is now certain to them: calorie counting doesn’t work.

Here’s the thing about that.

Calorie Counting Works… When It’s Done Right

It is VERY possible and VERY common to count calories and NOT lose weight.

I’m not denying that fact at all.

It happens all the time.

But it’s not because calorie counting doesn’t work, or because weight loss isn’t really about calories. It’s because a mistake was unknowingly made somewhere that prevented it from being done right.

Think of it like this.

Imagine you want to drive from Point A to Point B. So you get in your car, drive around in circles for an hour and then say “Driving doesn’t work. I tried it but I didn’t get anywhere.”

The issue isn’t that driving doesn’t work. It’s that it wasn’t done right.

And when it comes to counting calories, there are 5 main reasons why it may not have worked for you in the past or may not be working for you right now.

Let’s see which one applies to you.

1. You’re Eating More Calories Than You Realize

I really can’t overstate how often this happens. It’s seen in study after study (sources: here, here, here, hereherehere, and here) and in the real-world by damn near every dietitian, diet coach, and diet professional who works with clients.

I see it with people on a daily basis.

Whether it’s due to underestimating, miscalculating, under-reporting, or some combination thereof, it’s a well-known fact that people unintentionally eat more calories than they are intending to.

Yes, even when they’re closely counting every calorie they eat.

They still unknowingly end up eating more than they realize, which means a caloric deficit doesn’t exist, which means weight loss doesn’t happen. (I cover all of the ways this can happen and how to prevent them right there: Why Am I Not Losing Weight?)

In these cases, it’s not that calorie counting doesn’t work, even though it may seem that way.

Rather, it’s that the person is eating more calories than the amount they’re counting.

2. Your Calorie Calculator Isn’t Accurate

The first step to counting calories is figuring out how many calories you need to eat per day to lose weight (or whatever your goal may be).

This way, you have a daily calorie target to aim for. That’s the number you’re counting your calories to reach.

So, how do you find this super important number?

You probably Google “calorie calculator” or “TDEE calculator” or “maintenance calculator” and find 1000 different calculators that use complex mathematical equations and promise to be the best and most accurate of them all.

You enter your height, weight, age, gender, and activity level, and the calculator instantly gives you the calorie intake you need to make weight loss happen.

Awesome.

From there, you start counting calories every day to ensure you’re eating the magic number of calories the calculator told you to eat.

Days pass… weeks pass… months pass… and then… nothing.

No weight loss. No progress. No results.

This must mean calorie counting doesn’t work, right?

Not quite.

Calculators Only Give You An Estimate

The reality is that every calorie calculator in existence is only capable of providing you with an estimated starting point, not the guaranteed calorie target you truly need.

No matter how perfect and completely accurate it claims it be, it’s almost never going to be perfect and completely accurate.

In fact, these calculators are regularly off by hundreds of calories.

So what happens is that a person will use some calculator to get a calorie target to aim for, and they’ll incorrectly assume it’s the perfectly accurate calorie target they need.

They’ll then eat this amount of calories every day for weeks or months (maybe even years), and never lose any weight.

They’ll then think “calorie counting doesn’t work” or “I tried it and it didn’t work for me,” when in reality the number the calculator gave them was simply too high and a deficit didn’t exist.

This isn’t a sign that calorie counting doesn’t work. It’s a sign that an adjustment needed to be made to this estimated starting number.

3. Your Calorie Counting App Isn’t Accurate

Once you have a calorie target to aim for, the next step is usually going to be finding some diet tracking app to count your calories with.

These apps will allow you to search their massive database of foods, select the ones you eat each day, adjust their serving sizes accordingly, and then automatically add up the total calories (and protein, fat, carbs, etc.) that you’re consuming per day.

This is something I highly recommend doing, as it makes the whole process significantly faster, easier, and more accurate than any other approach.

However, it’s still not perfect.

This is because most diet tracking apps have nutrition information in their database that isn’t always accurate.

This mostly comes in the form of user-submitted data.

Meaning, while many of the foods in the database are going to be provided by trustworthy sources (like the USDA), many others are going to come from some random person who added them on their own.

How is this possible, you ask?

Because many apps allow random users (like me, you, and your most clueless friend) to add foods into the public database with little to no process in place to verify that any of it is even remotely accurate.

So if you’re using one of these apps and relying on a food database that’s only partially accurate thanks to it’s user-submitted data, you can very easily end up eating more calories than it seems.

Once again, this doesn’t mean calorie counting doesn’t work.

It means you need to avoid using user-submitted foods in your tracking, or maybe just find a less-stupid diet tracking app that doesn’t allow this to happen in the first place.

4. You Didn’t Give It Enough Time To Work

Now let’s imagine you’ve successfully avoided the previous 3 scenarios, and you are correctly and accurately counting your calories.

Great news, right?

The bad news, however, is that there are still two other mistakes that are made all the time.

The first is not giving calorie counting enough time to work.

This could be said for every weight loss diet and method too, of course.

For example, I’ve had people tell me something like “I’ve counted my calories for the last few days but I haven’t lost any weight.”

Um, no kidding.

This is going to take a bit longer than “a few days.”

Most people can expect to lose between 0.5 – 2lbs per week, with the higher end of that range being more likely for those with a lot of weight to lose, and the lower end being more likely for those with less weight to lose.

So if you’re only giving this a few days to work, or you’re expecting to lose 10lbs in a week (or something equally unrealistic), it’s not going to happen.

Yet again, this isn’t calorie counting “not working.” This is having unrealistic expectations for what “working” truly entails when it comes to losing weight.

5. It Worked, But You Didn’t Track Your Progress Well Enough To Notice

The next mistake has nothing to do with calorie counting, and everything to do with progress tracking.

Because if you’re not tracking your progress correctly, it’s VERY easy to think progress isn’t being made when it actually is.

The most common example of this is when a person weighs themselves just once a week (e.g. every Monday).

The problem with this approach is that body weight fluctuates from one day to the next for completely normal reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with fat being lost or gained.

This could be due to temporary changes in water, poop, glycogen, the amount of food in your stomach waiting to be digested, and more.

So if you weighed yourself last Monday and it happened to be a day where your weight temporarily fluctuated downward for whatever reason, and this Monday happens to be a day where your weight has temporarily fluctuated upward for whatever reason, do you know what you’re going to see?

Weight gain.

And that’s going to make you think calorie counting doesn’t work.

But that’s only because you don’t realize how common it is for a person to gradually lose body fat throughout the week WHILE temporarily gaining some other form of weight that counterbalances it.

This can make it look like no fat was lost at all (even though it was), or perhaps some fat was actually gained (when it definitely wasn’t).

To prevent this scenario, the most accurate way to track your progress is by weighing yourself every day (in the morning, before eating or drinking), taking the average at the end of the week, and focusing entirely on what those weekly averages are doing over a span of at least 3-4 consecutive weeks.

This approach will help you see what’s really happening with your body weight and your progress.

So… Does Calorie Counting Work?

Yes.

It does.

But, there are plenty of mistakes that are unintentionally and unknowingly made that can sometimes make it seem like it doesn’t.

So if you’re counting calories for the purpose of losing weight, gaining weight, or maintaining weight, and you find that it’s not working for you, that’s a guaranteed sign that there’s a mistake being made somewhere.

The five we just covered are the most common, so they’d be the best places to start looking.

What’s Next?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
About Jay
Jay is the science-based writer and researcher behind everything you've seen here. He has 15+ years of experience helping thousands of men and women lose fat, gain muscle, and build their "goal body." His work has been featured by the likes of Time, The Huffington Post, CNET, Business Week and more, referenced in studies, used in textbooks, quoted in publications, and adapted by coaches, trainers, and diet professionals at every level.