I’ve spoken to literally hundreds of people over the years who have told me some variation of “I can’t lose weight, no matter how hard I try,” or “I can’t lose this stubborn belly fat,” or for the skinnier, ectomorphic people, “I just can’t gain muscle mass.” Well for the vast majority of them (except for those without serious medical issues), the reason is simple: they’re not creating a sustained caloric deficit (to lose fat) or caloric surplus (to gain weight), primarily because of their haphazardly approach to food intake. Many of these people even exercise regularly. Many of them claim to know “for a fact” that they are eating right and that they are creating a caloric deficit or surplus, but when I ask them point-blank, “How do you know? Are you counting your calories?” their response is some form of “well kind of, maybe”, which means a resounding NO.
Look, if you want to really understand your body’s unique response to food and exercise, and thus lose weight properly (by properly I mean losing fat, not just water weight, while maintaining a healthy & balanced diet), then you need to give counting calories a try. As an example, I’ve used this method to drive my body fat down dramatically into the 4% range right now (from a double-digit level when I started a few months back) to take pictures in the next week or so. Getting my body fat down this low has been very interesting – it looks like I’m constantly in a state of “workout pump” because I’ve gotten so vascular… it feels pretty cool, actually. Now, I don’t recommend sustaining an ultra-low body fat level for too long, as it can be unhealthy (short-term is okay). I’m only doing it temporarily to take pictures, after which I will be jumping back up at least several percentage points from where I’m at now, perhaps to 8% or so, to balance health, aesthetics, and athletic performance.
Why count calories? There are many reasons to do this, but here is a list of the most salient reasons:
- Get a deep understanding of how many calories you are actually putting into your body and identify your eating flaws, which helps give you the know-how and confidence to control your body weight for a lifetime. For example, by counting calories, I learned that my weight loss was being hampered by my continuous night-time snacking, as well as high beer & wine consumption – I was able to scale these things back, which was the key to controlling my weight.
- Helps you learn portion control. You will learn how to eat well while staying within your caloric budget.
- Understand your sources of Calories (Macronutrients) and ensure you get the proper amounts. This helps you to hit various fitness goals, like for working out (e.g. getting enough protein in your diet), preparing for a photo shoot or athletic competition (e.g. adjusting your level of carbohydrate intake to either carb-load for sports or lower your fluid levels for aesthetics), and for overall health (e.g. keeping your fat intake levels in check).
I know most of you guys are really busy with work, kids, or school, so I’ll try to make this as EASY AS POSSIBLE to do and provide practical shortcuts. Here’s my approach below, so just give it a try for 2 weeks, and I promise you that it will make a huge difference in how you manage your weight going forward for the rest of your life.
HERE’S HOW TO GET STARTED, COUNTING CALORIES!
Step 1: Gather everything you need. Most of you will have everything you need already.
- Body Weight Scale. This is the only required piece of equipment. You will weigh yourself each morning for 2 weeks.
- Spreadsheet Program (Excel), Tablet (iPad), or Plain Paper. This is where you will record the data each day for the next 2 weeks. You can use a mobile app if you prefer, if you found one that you like.
- Optional items: Food scale (costs $20~$30) and measuring cups. Don’t worry if you don’t have these – you can just estimate.
Step 2: Determine your Average Daily Caloric Burn. This number is just a broad estimate, and it only serves as a starting point for now. After counting calories, you will understand your true caloric burn much better.
- Try one of the 3 approaches below to deduce this number:
- Use my Simple Approximation approach that I lay out in the Chart Below to find your RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate), then multiply your RMR by the appropriate “Activity Factor”found below to get your Average Daily Caloric Burn:
- 1.2 (Sedentary): if you are quite sedentary, work at a desk job, and get little exercise.
- 1.375 (Lightly Active): if you are lightly active and engage in some level of exercise 1~3 times per week.
- 1.55 (Moderately Active): if you are moderately active and engage in some level of exercise 3~5 times per week.
- 1.725 (Very Active): if you engage in hard exercise 5~7 times per week.
- 1.9 (Extremely Active): if you have a physically engaging job (e.g. manual labor) and you exercise hard 5~7 times per week).
- Use an online calculator, such as one found here (http://www.start-losing-weight-today.com/rmr.html) to get your RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate), then multiply the number by the “Activity Factor” above. This approach will be a bit more precise than what I propose above, since you are entering your own unique numbers, as opposed to ranges.
- Calculate your caloric burn based on all activities you do throughout the day. I won’t get into this one here, as it takes a bit of time to explain, and it’s not necessary for this exercise.
For example, I have an RMR of 1,650 based on this chart that I created, which I multiply by 1.725 for being very active, which yields around 2,850 average caloric burn per day. Incidentally, I know that this number is low for me because average RMR is based off of “normal” body fat levels (~15% for men), while more muscular people burn more calories – actually, each additional kilogram of muscle burns around 70+ more calories per day. But this figure is a good starting point, regardless. Whatever approach you take, this figure is just an approximation of your actual caloric burn, which you will use to calculate your Caloric Budget. Each person’s metabolism and musculature is different, so your actual caloric burn can vary tremendously from this.
Step 3: Set Your Caloric Budget by using the Average Daily Caloric Burn you calculated in Step 2 and your own Weight Goal.
- Caloric Budget: Take your Average Daily Caloric Burn from Step 2 and subtract (lose weight) or add (gain weight) calories to this number as appropriate. For example, if you want to lose 1 pound per week, you must target eating 500 less calories than you burn per day (500 kcal x 7 = 3,500 kcal, which is about 1 pound of fat). If my daily caloric burn is 2,800, then I should set a caloric budget of 2,300 per day to lose a pound a week. Conversely, you should create a caloric surplus to gain weight.
- Unless you are very experienced with dieting, you should not try to lose more than 2 pounds per week (1,000 caloric deficit per day). Also, DO NOT go under 1,200 calories per day for women and 1,800 calories per day for men without first consulting your doctor or physician.
Step 4: Record everything you eat and weigh yourself every morning. Do this for at least 2 weeks.
- Finding Nutrition Information: Use food labels and use a nutrition calculator like this one: http://caloriecount.about.com/
- Key things to record:
- Food names. If you have trouble finding the nutrition information for a certain food, then you can even break out the food into its components (I do this frequently). For example Roast Beef Sandwich can be broken out into 2 slices of wheat bread, Roast Beef (4 oz), Kraft American Cheese, Mustard, Veggies.
- Total Calories. Enter the value for each food, then total it for the day.
- Total Protein (grams). This is important if you are working out and need to take at least 1 gram per pound of body weight.
- Total Carbohydrate (grams).
- Total Fat (grams). A general guideline for your health is to try and keep fat as a % of total calories to under 30%.
- % of Calories from each Macronutrient (protein, carb, fat). Calculate this from the total amounts for the day. Each gram of protein & carb has 4 calories and each gram of fat has 9 calories.
- Comments (optional) – you can talk about how you are feeling, looking, or whatever else you think is important.
- Body weight each morning. You will use your this to adjust your caloric budget on a weekly basis.
- Below is what my calorie counting spreadsheet looks like, as well as a sample eating day. Notice the items that I track, the comments that I leave, and how I break down some foods into their components (e.g. see my jelly sandwich breakfast).
- Helpful tips & tricks:
- Copy and Paste in Excel. People often eat similar foods repeatedly, so once you record a food, it’s easy to copy and paste this information over in your spreadsheet, which saves a ton of time.
- Pre-fill the information and PLAN your Calories for the Day. Pre-filling information helps to keep you under your caloric budget and gives you a good food roadmap for the day.
- Leave your calorie counting spreadsheet open at work or at home and record what you eat whenever you have time. If you don’t have time, just log the foods you eat first, then come back later to fill in the nutritional information. You can “hide” the fact that you have this spreadsheet open from your colleagues or boss by keeping your work items on top in your PC but use the [Alt] + [Tab] keys to quickly access your spreadsheet whenever you need to.
FYI, I try to keep somewhat close to a 40:40:20 ratio of protein, carbs, and fats in my diet. Of course, this ratio is commonly very off (and that’s okay!), but that’s the ratio I strive towards. Also, remember to get ample protein in your diet (i.e. if you are doing resistance training, you should get at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight).
Step 5: After one week, adjust your caloric budget based on your starting and ending weight. This is an iterative process, and it’s a very important one.
- Compare your starting weight with your ending weight for the week. If you are trying to lose weight, did you lose weight, and did you lose at the rate that you expected? Based on this information, adjust your Caloric Budget that you calculated in Step 3. For example, if your Average Daily Caloric Burn is 2,500 and you’re trying to eat 500 calories less per day and thus set your Caloric Budget at 2,000 calories (to lose 1 pound per week), then check if you lost a pound of weight. If you lost more than 1 pound, then you may want to adjust your Caloric Budget upwards by a little bit to slow the pace. Conversely, if you lost less than 1 pound or even gained weight, then you may want to adjust your Caloric Budget lower. The spreadsheet below shows how I track my data. Yours DOES NOT need to look this complex. You can just track your daily body weight, then make adjustments to your caloric budget on a weekly basis.
- Don’t worry about daily weight fluctuations, which are mainly due to things like food, fluid, and waste levels in your body. For me, I’ve seen my body weight spike up and down 3+ pounds per day, measured at about the same time each day, but I don’t worry about it. All that I’m concerned about are longer trends, at least of a week.
- Keep in mind that if you are gaining or losing muscle during this weight loss or gain phase, then it can throw your numbers off a bit. For example, during many phases of weight loss, you lose fat and lean muscle as well, so your weight loss is not 100% from fat. Also, in some cases, if you are training hard while losing weight, then 1 pound of weight loss may be more than 1 pound of fat loss + lean muscle gains. However, this is practically impossible to track, so you should adjust your caloric budget based on weight loss and ignore the effect of muscle gains or losses.
Step 6: Repeat Steps 4 and 5 until you hit your weight goal. That’s it!
FYI, below are some additional eating tips for when you are eating out at fast food & other restaurants, to help you stay within your caloric budget:
- Try eating sandwiches (no mayonnaise, no cheese) from places like Subway, Lee’s Sandwiches, or any other Deli/sandwich place, Chinese Chicken Salad with regular dressing (no crutons, bread, or fried wonton), fish or chicken dishes, and lots of vegetables or salads (but be careful about thick dressing, as they are loaded with fat and calories).
- Try to stay away from fried foods, like French fries, fried chicken, etc. If you’re at KFC, for example, try their grilled chicken instead of their fried chicken.
- You can eat red meats, but try “protein-style” eating, which means eating the meats without a lot of the rice or breads. You can eat a lot of veggies, as they are low in calories. The reason I suggest “protein-style” is not because carbohydrates like brown rice, breads, and pasta are necessarily bad for you (quite the contrary) but because when you are dieting, you need to keep total calories down, and so I prefer to prioritize protein (needed to rebuild/repair tissue) and because generally you will get enough carbs from other foods that you eat throughout the day.
- Ask for all of your sauces on the side, then only use part of the sauce.
- Use portion control on everything, especially if the food is high in calories or is considered “junk food.” If you must eat high-calorie junk foods, use extreme portion control and just take a small piece. This helps satisfy your cravings, while keeping most of the junk out of your system.
- Don’t drink soda unless they have low/zero calories, like Coke Zero. Drink water – it’s good for you!
After INVESTING in this process for at least 2 weeks, I guarantee that you will understand your body much better, get an intuitive feel for how many calories and amounts of nutrients you are taking in, and you will be well on your way to obtaining your ideal body weight. For me, I’ve made it a habit to record my diet now, and I plan to do this into the foreseeable future. Try counting calories for at least 2 weeks, and let me know what you think! I’d love to hear if this is helpful to you!