A terrible habit lurks among us all - one that destroys diets and impedes progress. It's a habit so vile that it distracts and foils even the most dedicated "lean eaters". It's....counting calories.
That's right, counting calories can be detrimental to the pursuit of a lean physique. While the common Calories In / Calories Out calculus makes sense to a degree, it misses some very basic and important science. Furthermore, it can squeeze your psyche through the ringer and ruin your nutritional progress right out of the gate.
At first glance, counting calories seems logical. A calorie is a unit of energy (the amount of energy needed to heat 1 liter of water 1 degree Celsius, to be precise). We measure our energy expenditure in calories, and we measure the amount of energy contained in a food in calories. By this logic, if the amount of energy going out is higher than the amount of energy going in, we lose weight! But not so fast. Reality is a more complicated picture.
Calculating Your Needs: An Imperfect Science
The standard formula for figuring your daily caloric needs is based on an estimate of how much energy your body burns. The majority of the energy your body uses in a day is merely to keep you alive with baseline functions like pumping your heart and keeping your body temperature at a cozy level. The sum of these needs is known as your Basal Metabolic Rate, commonly abbreviated BMR. BMR is calculated solely as a function of bodyweight and gender. According to this calculation, these two guys (who each weigh the same but clearly one of them carries much more lean muscle instead of bodyfat) have the same Basal Metabolic Rate:
We also burn calories when we eat food. This is called the Thermic Effect of Food, and it is the amount of calories we need just to digest food and break it down into usable elements. Yes it's true, it does take some calories to burn calories.
Lastly, we burn quite a few calories through daily movement and exercise. Walking to the car, going to the gym, sprinting up a flight of stairs, they all require calories. This figure is known as your Activity Level.
In sum, this is the standard formula for figuring out how many calories you burn in a day: Total Metabolism = Basal Metabolic Rate + Thermic Effect of Food + Activity Level
Most online calculators use this formula, so if you've ever estimated how many calories you burn in a day, this is likely how you did it. But there is a major problem here - it gives you an estimate than can significantly miss the mark.
The only 100% sure, foolproof method to determine how many calories someone burns in a day is to set the person up in a laboratory room surrounded by water in the walls, ceiling and floors. The scientist then measures the temperature of the water at the beginning and end of the day to determine the difference. Practical, no? The workaround laboratory estimate involves laying perfectly still for an hour under this attractive plastic ballgown.
The equation is a reasonable alternative to these strict measurement techniques, but there are myriad variables for which it can't account. What if you gain a pound or two throughout the day, which is highly likely? What if you have an extra serving of vegetables? What if you take the stairs instead of the escalator? What if you forget your keys and have to take an extra 10 steps? How hydrated are you? All of these factors have to be quantified in order to know the exact number of calories you burn in a 24 hour period. We can never track this minutiae in any one day, let alone over long periods of time, so we really have no way of knowing how many calories we burn in a day. And all of our best guesses are exactly that: guesses.
Calculating Your Intake: Another Imperfect Science
Ok, we may not know what we burn, but surely we can calculate how many calories we eat, right? It says how many calories are in a food right on the packaging and on websites like Calorie King and My Fitness Pal. Well, not really. These labels are based on the average of a very specific quantity of food. What if your actual serving is over by a gram? 2 grams? What if you have a glass of water with your meal? It changes how many calories are needed to break down the food. What if the nutrition label is just wrong? It happens more than you think.
The problem here stems from a scientific study performed decades ago wherein researchers determined the energy quantity of foods by burning them to cinders and measuring the heat radiated. I don't know about you, but my digestive tract doesn't burn anything to a crisp.
The very idea of a calorie in food being a specifically measurable data point is perilous. Another major problem with the calories in / calories out concept altogether is that it doesn't consider the TYPE of nutrients you are consuming. Have another look at the two 190-lb dudes in the photo above. Sure, their Activity Levels are probably quite different and, therefore, the buffer guy's caloric needs are higher, but I would wager my nest egg that the TYPES of foods each guy is eating on a daily basis are way different. Protein, Carbs, and Fats are not processed the same way by a body, let alone EVERY body, and a host of other factors like fiber, sleep quality, hydration and electrolytes play major roles. To keep it simple, a 1,00-calorie meal of 10 ounces lean protein, a cup of complex carboyhydrates, a ton of veggies, and a big serving of healthy fats will NOT be metabolized the same way as an Olive Garden plate of fettucine alfredo with the same number of calories.
Make Choices Instead of Crunching Numbers
The margins for error in calculating your energy needs and your energy intake are significant. If your estimates of daily calories consumed are off by 200-300, AND your estimates of daily calories burned are also off by 200-300, you're going to drive yourself nuts trying to calculate your precise intake and match it to your exact needs.
Here's a much better idea: don't count calories! While a general estimate is good to know ("I need about 3,000 calories a day versus 6,000"), successful lean eaters think about the big things, like eating enough protein and vegetables and sticking to unprocessed carbs. Don't worry about the calories you take in, worry about making the best food choices. Don't worry about how many calories you "burn" in a workout, worry about pushing yourself harder than last time. Keep your eyes on the big picture and find yourself in a lean, strong and healthy body. That's what really counts.