our guide to calorie counting

Hello! We keep getting asked to explain calorie counting and how we do it, so I thought it might be useful to get Paul to write down everything he thinks and produce a handy guide for you all. So, over to Paul…

Calorie counting can seem confusing and complicated to start with, but it really doesn’t need to be! Now we all have smartphones in our pockets it really is easy to do.

First of all, what is calorie counting? In its most simple form it’s the reality that you must expend more calories than you take in. If you consume fewer calories than you burn off, you’ll lose weight. Do the opposite and you’ll gain. Most slimming clubs work on this principle but without the actual counting part – their plans will encourage low calorie foods other energy dense foods using a system of points, syns or other scoring system. Calorie counting simply reintroduces the actual counting part and gives you more flexibility, as you truly can have whatever you want – no foods are off limits, at all, and nor are any ‘groups’ of foods outlawed. Provided you stay within your calorie count you can expect to lose weight.

The first thing to do is to figure out how you’re going to log everything. The obvious choice would be a smartphone app – after all, if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already got one. I’d recommend Nutracheck – it’s very easy to use and the database of foods is professionally maintained so you can be pretty sure that it’s up-to-date and accurate. Simply scan the barcode and choose the serving, and it’s logged! Things without a barcode are easily searchable too. There is a cost, however, but in our opinion is completely worth it. It also links with your phone and smartwatches to automatically import steps, or you can add exercise manually.

There are free alternatives though, such as MyFitnessPal which has been the leader for years. This works in the same way, however just be careful when entering food – anyone can add anything to the database so the information can be incorrect, so be sure to cross-reference with the packaging. Apart from that, it works really well and also logs your exercise. There’s also an NHS App where you can do the same thing.

If doing it online isn’t your thing, there are plenty of diaries, planners, logbooks or just a simple notepad you can use instead! Use whatever works for you.

Okay, so you’ve agreed HOW to log your calories. What next?

Calorie counting really depends on you and your starting point. There are lots of complicated formulas you can use depending on height, weight and other measurements to get an exact figure (don’t get spooked by this – this is all about your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) which is the amount of calories you need to consume every day in order to maintain a steady state. That is to survive, without any other exercise whatsoever, but you don’t really need to worry about that if you’re starting.

If you’re using either Nutracheck or MFP there’s a profile screen where you enter your basic stats such as height, weight, age and activity level and it’ll give you a general number of calories you should consume in order to lose weight. This number will vary wildly between people based on all sorts of factors so don’t worry if yours is different from someone else’s.

So you have your number. It’s time to start! Well, not exactly. My advice to anyone starting out with calorie counting is not to do what we all do instinctively when we’re starting to lose weight and diving straight in at the deep-end, chasing immediate results. If you do that you’re running the risk of falling off the wagon and starting exactly where you came from.

Slow and steady, will, you guessed it, win the bloody race.

Take that number of calories and keep that in mind for a TARGET. If you really want results, you want to AIM for it eventually, not go there straight away. You might be riding a wave of motivation and chomping at the bit but go steady and you’re more likely to stick with it, and enjoy it. And if you get both of those things they’re more likely to stay as a lifetime habit.

So here’s what I advise – before you start, spend a few days doing what you’re doing, even if you’re in the middle of a binge, but make sure to log everything, You don’t need to spend more than 3 days doing this, but it’s great to have as a starting point. Log everything and work out an average of what you had, and start from there. Have THAT number as your starting point, and then every other day or so reduce it by 100kcals or so until you get to your suggested target calories, then stay there. If you find yourself struggling a little bit, nudge it up slightly for a day or two until you’re more comfortable, and then start bringing it slowly down. By doing this you’re introducing the changes gradually so it’s not so much of a shock to the system, and even though you might worry that means you’ll spend ages getting to your target you might find yourself doing really well and willingly coming in at target, or below. And then you can, if you’re sure you can manage it, accelerate the rate of descent. The key here is to make sure you’re completely steady before reducing it, don’t rush it.

As your calories come down you’ll probably start to feel really good about yourself, and maybe even start increasing your exercise. The beauty with calorie counting is that the more exercise you do, the more calories you can have! So the more you exercise the more you eat! It becomes a bit of a self-perpetuating system where you eat to exercise, and exercise to eat, but without it feeling like a punishment. The two become interlinked with each other and you appreciate how they interact with each other, and you’ll find that your eating habits and your exercise habits improve.

If you go over your calorie count, don’t panic! It happens. If you can, just try and balance it the next day or over the next few days. It’s absolutely not the end of the world! One thing I’ve found with calorie counting is that it completely eliminates that sense of doom when you have a little treat, and you consider the ENTIRE week to be ruined, and so you might as well write it off. There’s none of that. You just take accountability and factor it in with the wider picture, and the mountain soon gets whittled down to a molehill. There’s no shame built in with calorie counting.

What foods can you have with calorie counting? Whatever you want! So long as you count the calories, it doesn’t matter. You can by all means track other macro nutrients too – I like to log my protein intake as I’m exercising a lot and trying to get more muscley, but you could measure your sugar, fat, cholesterol, carbs, whatever you like. Just make sure to have a balanced diet, of course – no bloody fads!

One of the things I really love that calorie counting has allowed me to do is lunches. You’ve probably seen my daily posts about these. Despite literally decades of trying I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that I will never, ever be the person that is able to make a sandwich or a salad for lunch. Never. I’m just not that organised, and I’d rather have the extra five minutes in bed. So for years my lunches have been the good ol’ fashioned Mugshots, Pot Noodles or absolute junk from the canteen or shops. The downside of this however is that, as a really greedy person, I’d always end up stuffing myself and then I’d feel slow and sluggish for the rest of the day.

But now, I pull together a grazing lunch! I fill a lunchbox with 8 or so little things and, starting at 9am, I choose one thing an hour to eat. Each thing is quite small on its own, but big enough so that it stops me feeling hungry but small enough for me not feel stuffed. I love it. I love the flexibility it gives me – there’s so many different configurations of stuff I can have, and I can have a mix of sweet and savoury, whatever I fancy! It suits me as a grazer. Left to my own devices I could eat all day long, and with this, I can! It really helps me to get my 5-a-day too because I can make some of them fruit.

As an example, I typically have: –

  • 9am: Kefir drink (for breakfast)
  • 10am: Cereal bar
  • 11m: Chicken satay skewers
  • 12pm: Banana
  • 1pm: Apple
  • 2pm: Snack cheese
  • 3pm: Satsuma
  • 4pm: Chocolate bar

… this lot usually comes in between 900-1100 kcals (depending on what I have). My daily calorie limit is 2100 so I’ve still got a whopping 1000kcals left for dinner and the rest of the day. Most of the time, I come in under my calorie goal and so I lose weight!

Are there any downsides to calorie counting? Of course. The counting, while easy with apps and things, is a drawback in that you do need to keep a running log. But, the more you do it the more intuitive it becomes and if you have the right equipment – like a smartphone or whatever – it does become easier. Also factor in the cost, if you’re paying for an app.

If you’ve ever followed or are currently following a slimming class it can be quite difficult to shake off everything you’ve learned from it. It took me so long to be able to go near bread, and butter. Be prepared to challenge these thoughts – you’ll need to remind yourself that calorie counting is a scientific fact, even if it feels like you’re stuffing yourself with junk!

The rewards, however, are invaluable. Slimming clubs just didn’t work for me. And that’s not their fault, but also – and this took a long time to reconcile – it wasn’t mine, either. It’s just something that didn’t work for me, and that’s okay! And if you’re struggling with them, it might not be right for you either! And that doesn’t mean you’ve failed! Just as I say with finding the right exercise, you need to find the right diet for you too. Calorie counting has been the right thing for me, and it might be the right thing for you too! But also, it might not – so keep a realistic look on how you’re doing and how you’re managing. Give it time to see if you can make it a lifelong thing, and if you can, great! Help others! If you can’t though, don’t worry – just like with the slimming clubs, you haven’t failed. Just try something new!

I hope you’ve found this helpful. I’m still learning from it too but will happily answer any questions you have. I really want you to remember though my advice up there about going into it gradually. It might seem counterintuitive, and you might not get huge losses to begin with, but stick with it and the results will come. And if you go in gradually you’re more likely to keep it up, which means consistent losses over time, rather than endlessly falling on and off the wagon, where you might end up in a worse place at the end of it!