Why ‘Counting Calories’ is a Complete Waste of Your Time (usually)

In order to become a great athlete, you must train like one, right? Well, yes, but that’s only part of the equation. In fact, I’d say it’s less than half of it. You might have heard the old adage “It’s 30% training and 70% nutrition that makes you win the battle”. I believe this to be 100% true (see what I did there?).

What we put into our bodies has a direct effect on our performance and body composition, in conjunction with our training. Calories, carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, the whole 9 yards; these all play a vital role in the optimization of our training and achieving the body composition we’re seeking. However, if you’re counting Calories and plateauing, you are wasting your time and not creating an energy deficit… Here, we’ll go into the body composition aspect a bit more, and go ‘against the grain’ speaking about:

  • Calorie Counting: Why it’s a complete waste of time (in our opinion).
  • Energy Deficit & Energy Surplus.
    • The Effects of Dieting.
  • Intuitive Eating.

Calorie Counting: Should You Even Do It?

Ahh yes, counting some good ole’ calories. As an athlete, you know you should be doing it. You know it’s going to get you where you want to go. Or will it?

Research that has been released within the last couple of decades appears to doubt the efficacy of meticulous calorie counting. One study that monitored cyclists during the Tour de France event discovered that the relationship between energy expenditure (energy output) and food intake (energy input) was closer after 3-5 days rather than 1-2 days [1]. In other words, the variation of input vs. output didn’t matter as much in terms of weight loss after a day or two compared to a longer duration of time (almost a week long). Therefore, the concept of weight loss or gain should be viewed over the periods of weeks and months, rather than hours and days. The long-term is what matters the most.

Also, there is a significant psychological factor that plays a part in calorie counting that should be considered. One study found that constantly counting calories as opposed to simply eating intuitively (an eating style that promotes “listening to your body” through physiological signals such as hunger and satisfaction) promoted greater incidences and severity of eating disorders [2]. Now, as athletes, it can be assumed that incidences of this would be less than they are in a younger population such as the one in the aforementioned study (which was a college population). However, eating disorders are a very serious matter and should not be taken lightly, especially for the athlete. If an athlete were to develop any type of eating disorder, not only would it negatively hinder their performance, but also would negatively impact their overall health, as it would put them in danger of fatal or near-fatal incidences such as electrolyte imbalances and malnourishment.

Energy Deficit & Energy Surplus

It’s pretty simple; you need to eat in a calorie (energy) surplus in order to gain weight and you need to eat in a calorie (energy) deficit to lose weight. Not that hard, right? Well, it actually isn’t that simple.

The Effects of Dieting

There are several hormones that are involved in regulating your hunger levels. Your body was built to survive, not necessarily thrive. Because of this, it wants to protect you, even if that means costing you your performance.

The two primary hunger hormones; leptin and ghrelin, both act as opposites to one another to regulate appetite. Leptin acts to reduce food intake and increase energy expenditure (happens when you’re full) and vice versa with ghrelin (acts when you’re hungry). Time and time again, it has been shown that calorie restriction results in a rapid reduction in levels of leptin and energy expenditure, thus, an increase in appetite (due to increases in ghrelin) [3].

Surprisingly, one systematic review of weight loss studies illustrated that between ⅓ and ⅔ of dieters actually regained more weight than they initially lost! [4]. This is where the term “yo-yo dieting” comes from.

Okay, So What’s The Answer Then?

So if counting calories and dieting isn’t the answer, then how do we get into the shape we need to for our events if our bodies are just going to fight us back? Just a second, it may be simpler than we actually thought.

We need to think outside the scope of just counting calories. We know that caloric intake over the short-term is unlikely to have a significant impact on our weight. We should only look at our short-term nutrition for the benefits of our training sessions, such as pre- and post-training nutrition. We also know that an energy deficit over the long-term is what will get us where we want to go. But how do we get there?

Food Density and Volume

We need to take into consideration two factors about food; density and volume. A foods’ density is its caloric content, while its volume is how much space the food takes up, more specifically the space it takes up in your stomach. Foods such as fruits and vegetables have a much greater volume: density ratio than higher calorie foods such as fatty meats, pastries, butter, sugar, etc.

Knowing this, we can implement these high volume, low-density foods into an intuitive eating plan. Low-energy and high-density foods tend to have higher levels of water, fiber, and protein content. In fact, those who eat a majority of these types of foods in their diets result in feeling fuller for longer compared to those who ate mostly high-density foods [5]. I’d say a good rule of thumb is to use what’s called the “80/20 rule”; 80% of the time you stick to high-volume and low-density foods and the other 20% of the time you can eat more dense foods such as oils, nut butter, etc.

Conclusion

Give intuitive eating a shot. In today’s day and age of constant tracking; both with our nutrition via calorie-counting apps such as MyFitnessPal and training through wearable technologies, it may seem to be “going against the grain”, which it is. But we have solid evidence to back up why intuitive eating may be the better strategy. So try it, and let us know what happens!

If you’re looking to learn more about sports nutrition, create flexible, sustainable, and indefinite habits when it comes to healthy food choices, and have a knowledgable Coach in your corner throughout the process, check out our Nutrition Coaching program.

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References

  1. Saris W. H. M. (1997). Limits of human endurance: Lessons from the Tour de France. In Kinney J. M., Tucker H. N., editors. (Eds.), Physiology, stress, and malnutrition: Functional correlates, nutritional intervention (pp. 451–462). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott-Raven.
  2. Romano, K. A., Becker, M. A., Colgary, C. D., & Magnuson, A. (2018). Helpful or harmful? The comparative value of self-weighing and calorie counting versus intuitive eating on the eating disorder symptomology of college students. Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 23(6), 841-848. doi:10.1007/s40519-018-0562-6
  3. Oetjen, E. (2012). Long-Term Persistence of Hormonal Adaptations to Weight Loss. Yearbook of Endocrinology, 2012, 22-23. doi:10.1016/j.yend.2012.03.060
  4. Mann T., Tomiyama A. J., Westling E., Lew A. M., Samuels B., Chatman J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, 62, 220–233.
  5. Buckland N. J., Stubbs R. J., Finlayson G. (2015). Towards a satiety map of common foods: Associations between perceived satiety value of 100 foods and their objective and subjective attributes. Physiology & Behavior, 152, 340–346.

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Shayne Gaffney

About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in Health Science in Professional Development and Advanced Patient Care, is a licensed physical therapy assistant in Massachusetts, a USA Cycling Level 1 (expert level) certified Coach, a USA Cycling Power Based Training certified Coach, Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified Coach, a US Military Endurance Sports (USMES) affiliated Coach, and USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport certified. He is the owner and head Coach of GC Coaching, Workout Content Editor at Zwift, the creator of P2 Coached Computraining, and the creator of Zwift’s “Build Me Up” Flexible Training Plan. He has been published in Bicycling Magazine, the TrainingPeaks blog, and Zwift Insider. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com

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