How to Count Calories
Counting calories, tracking your intake, watching portions and serving sizes… while it’s something we talk about a lot in the health and fitness realm, it’s not easily understood as some may believe.
As someone working in the industry, I sometimes forget that many of the concepts and ideas that seem simple to me are often foreign to others. For instance, I’ve gotten emails with basic questions such as “should I use a kitchen scale or measuring cups?” or “Should I count macros, calories, or both?” I’ve even gotten the “do calories even matter as long as I’m eating clean?” That one always gives me the lol’s.
Before we go any further, I figure I’d better explain why I’m writing this piece.
This is strictly for those who have questions about counting calories, or about how to track their intake. There are some very strong beliefs about whether or not you should track your intake.
I realize that the majority of my work is based around making this fitness lifestyle easier and more laid-back than the average, frustrated bro who thinks he has to eat nothing but chicken and brown rice 10 times per day.
I also realize tracking your calorie intake can seem cumbersome and that it has potential to become an obsession (for those who have extreme personalities). I used to be that extreme person, but I woke up and wrote my Fat Loss Cheat Sheet.
Also, I’m writing this to serve as a resource for my clients and for those who email with questions about tracking their intake.
Let’s dive in.
What is a Calorie?
To put it simply, a calorie is nothing but a measurement of heat (energy) equal to 4.1868 joules. The formal definition: quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1°C under standard conditions.
What are Macronutrients?
When working with individuals, as I set up their calorie guidelines, I emphasize the importance of hitting their macronutrients by the end of the day – as long as this happens, I generally don’t care too much how it gets done (within reason, of course).
The 4 macronutrients are protein, carbohydrate, fat, and alcohol.
Below is the amount of calories for every gram of each macronutrient.
Protein: 4 calories
Carbohydrate: 4 calories
Fat: 9 calories
Alcohol: 7 calories
How to Read a Nutritional Label
Below is an image of a typical nutritional label. I’ve left out the micronutrient profiles at the bottom because that’s beyond the scope of this article. The first step in accurately tracking your intake is knowing how to read a label.
The first macro you see is the total amount of fat in one serving (8 ounces/240 milliliters), which includes saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans-fat.
Below that, you’ll see total carbohydrate, which includes sugars as well as dietary fiber.
And finally, at the bottom, you’ll see protein.
In this example, we have 13 grams of fat, 31 grams of carbohydrate and 5 grams of protein.
So in this case, the label reads 260 calories. But how did they arrive at that total?
13 (grams of fat) X 9 (amount of calories per gram) = 117 calories.
Since carbs and protein have an equal amount of calories per gram, just add them together first. 31+5 = 36
36×4 = 144
144+117 = 261 calories.
Should I Count Macros or Calories?
This question is easy. I never recommend tracking calories – macros only. Why? Because if you land the macros, you’re sure to be within the calorie range I’ve provided.
Allow me to illustrate my point.
Let’s say you’re aiming for a diet of 2000 calories with the following macros:
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.
If you’re on a diet of 2000 calories, all you need to worry about is the macro composition.
Should I use Scale Weight or Measuring Cups?
I’ve found that weighing your intake is much more accurate than measuring cups. It’s fairly easy to err when using measuring cups because of density differences, air pockets (when scooping protein powder, oats, or other dry goods), and the tendency to use a rounded scoop.
When looking at peanut butter, for instance, the label reads 2tbsp as one serving. If you’ve ever actually measured this out, 2tbsp is not a lot. It’s actually pretty easy to get more than you think – and even when you make sure to level it off when weighed out on a scale, it’s often more than the amount suggested on the label.
Leigh Peele has a great video demonstrating how easy it is to overshoot your numbers using a measuring cup for oats and a tablespoon of peanut butter.
After watching that – I hope you may reconsider measuring with spoons and cups and begin using a kitchen scale for accurate measurements.
Should I Weigh Meat Raw or Cooked?
If you’re looking at most labels, let’s say a label on the back of some frozen chicken breasts, the calories/macros by weight are, unless otherwise stated, meant to represent the raw state.
As an example, on the chicken breast label, it’s likely to read something like the following:
Serving Size: 112g (4oz)
Total Fat: ~1-3 grams (it varies depending on how lean the cut is)
Carbohydrate: 0 grams
Protein: ~22 grams
These macros pertain to the raw, thawed, water-drained chicken breast. The same applies to other cuts of meat (beef, pork) and fish.
But what about fatty cuts of beef and pork?
Due to the differences in every cut of meat, it’s impossible to know exactly what the macro composition is. In fact, it’s impossible to know the exact macro composition of anything as the calorie totals on packages and in the USDA databases are merely very good, educated estimates. Nothing is exactly 100 calories.
No steak has exactly 22g protein per serving. Sometimes, it’s more or less due to the amount of fat present within the serving.
So, in general, when weighing these portions out, be mindful of how much fat is present and if you’re a bit concerned, trim some of it off. I will touch on some databases further down the article to get an idea of how much fat is in certain cuts if there is no nutritional label provided.
I know many people weigh out their portions cooked, but this can become problematic due to the way the food is prepared. If a food is steamed/baked, it’s going to retain more water than if it’s cooked on an open flame where much of the water runs off. Or what if you’re the person who loves their meat burnt to a crisp?
That chunk of char is sure to weigh far less than the baked version. If you’re going off of the macros suggested for cooked chicken, the results in weight can be much different due to how they were cooked.
100g of baked chicken will contain less protein than 100g of grilled, blackened (dry) chicken. So in fact, while you’re eating the same post-cooked weight – there will be a difference in calories.
How Do I Portion Out an Awesome Recipe?
While it may seem cumbersome, it’s not too difficult if you were to plan ahead. What you’ll need to do first off is figure out how many servings you’re making. Then, you need to determine how much of each ingredient is going into the recipe for said servings.
Once you’ve determined the number of ingredients, you then will have to weigh out each individually and record it. After you know the macros for each ingredient, add them all up and divide it by 4 to determine how much will be in each serving.
Cook, and prepare your dish, then separate into 4 equally sized portions. Just remember it’s not going to be completely accurate, but it’s close enough.
If you want to be super anal about it – you can add the entire finished product to the food scale and divide it out accordingly.
So let’s say the finished dish of pasta and meat sauce (or whatever) totals to 2000 grams. You’d simply separate it into four 500-gram servings.
What About When I’m Eating Out?
This one can be tough – most of the restaurant chains these days have a calorie guide to use. Every fast food chain I’ve been to seem to have their nutritional info in sight. In ‘N Out Burger has the calorie contents of their burgers and fries on their menu inside.
So in general, it’s fairly easy to keep track when eating at a chain restaurant as they have the money and resources to track, record and print the calorie data of their food menu for all of us to see.
But what about small, mom and pop restaurants?
Yeah, this one is not so easy. Whenever I eat out here in Nashville, it’s almost always a small sushi joint or café – hardly ever a chain restaurant.
I really know of no way to accurately track your intake at these places because it’s impossible to know how they’re preparing, how much butter they use in their sauce, etc. You can always ask how they’re preparing their food, but I never do – I simply try to make leaner choices when I can – those leaner choices being non-fried foods, soups, and sauces that are not cream-based, etc.
Should I Account for Veggies When Tracking my intake?
I personally don’t because I only eat a handful of green veggies daily, so it’s not that big of a deal and the calorie impact is minimal.
Most people, aside from those who can manage to eat truckloads of cruciferous veggies on a daily basis, can get away with not including these into their macro numbers.
If you’re counting and want to accurately track your intake – I’d still include them in your carbohydrate totals for number’s sake.
Other vegetables such as peas, carrots, corn, etc. should definitely be included in your carbohydrate totals as they’re more carbohydrate dense than green veggies.
Calorie and Macronutrient Databases – How to Use Them
Here are a few that I’ve used and a few that seem to be fairly accurate.
USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
FitDay – very popular but I’ve never used it.
Livestrong – I was referred to this one by a reader. You can actually plug in your height, weight, age, and goals to get a decent starting point for maintenance intake. I haven’t played around with it much, but it looks good.
First of all – despite all the technology available to us, and considering a majority of my full-time work is spent using computers and fancy gadgets, I’ve never been keen on tracking my intake using online trackers.
I’ve always used a pen and notebook in the kitchen. It always seemed cumbersome to log in to my computer to track my intake when I could do it by hand when preparing my meals.
However, if you wish to utilize such resources, these tools are great and have many benefits.
One of the main benefits of having these databases is for when you’re buying produce or meat from the deli. I’ve yet to find a butcher slapping a sticker detailing the macro composition on the steak he just cut for me. So what do you do?
Simple – just refer to the USDA database or CalorieKing.
Here’s an example from CalorieKing when figuring out the macronutrient content of a banana.
As you’ll notice – it reads: Fresh Fruits: Banana, raw*
On the serving size, instead of choosing the size of the banana, I use the drop-down menu and select either ounces or grams, then weigh out the raw banana and calculate accordingly.
So, in a sense, this is the same as reading a label – and is a good substitute when a label isn’t available.
Won’t This Calorie-Counting Thing Make Me Crazy?
Yes. I mean no. Well, maybe. Depending on your personality, it could eventually. I would never recommend someone continue counting calories forever unless it was absolutely pertinent to them maintaining their weight loss efforts.
I also advise and require all clients to track their intake while working with me because it allows us to monitor progress and make adjustments when necessary. It’s hard to make changes when you have no records to work from.
However, once you’ve tracked your intake for a while – you’ll have an idea of how much you’re eating on a daily basis. Plus, if you’re like me and eat the same foods daily, it becomes pretty easy to never track a calorie again.
Attention: This Guide Is Not Complete
If you still have questions, ideas, suggestions for making this more thorough – please email me or respond to your questions in the comments. I’ll go back and update the resource as needed.