Counting calories: yes or no?

Hand eating cake

There’s no shortage of advice when it comes to diet and weight loss; in fact, it’s an industry that was recently valued at £2 billion in the UK and an estimated £220 billion globally. From diets that claim to help you shift multiple pounds in one week, to the pills and potions that promise to get you the body you want, there seems to be a helping hand at every corner, waiting to take your money. So, what actually works?

I’ve tried a number of diets over the years. Most I have adapted to suit my own lifestyle and needs. Looking back, most of these diets – from detox, to Keto to Venice A Fulton’s ‘Six Weeks to OMG’ – have ended up working, not because of the diet specifically, but because of the one simple rule to weight loss: consume less energy than you burn and you’ll lose weight.

So how should you go about doing this?

To start with, what is a calorie?

Can you answer this question? I certainly couldn’t a year ago, but it should be one of the first things you familiarise yourself with before you start trying to ‘count’ them. A calorie is a unit of energy – typically the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree celsius. One calorie is actually pretty small, so the calories that you see on a food packet are actually kilocalories (kcal) – or 1,000 calories. Different types of food contain different levels of energy; for instance, 1g of carbohydrates contains 4kcals, 1g of protein contains 4kcals and 1g of fat contains 9kcals (meaning it is a lot more energy-dense). Alcohol, incidentally, contains 7kcals per 1g.

Energy in must be less than energy out

How often do you talk about calories in a negative way? 99.9 per cent of the time, I would imagine. However, the truth is that your body needs calories to function; in fact, even if you spent the whole day laying in bed watching Netflix, you’d still need calories. The amount of calories your body needs on a day to day basis is called your Base Metabolic Rate, or BMR, and it’s useful to get a sense of yours before you start a diet.

You can calculate your BMR manually by following one of a multitude of rather complex equations – many available online, if you’re interested – but, seeing as it’s unlikely that these will be completely accurate, there are a couple of good ‘calculator’ options that come close (here and here).

Going on my own stats, I can calculate that my body needs 1,288 kcals a day, simply to function. However, that’s clearly not the whole story, unless you actually do spend all day in bed watching Netflix. Most of us will need additional calories because we move about; we go to work, exercise, go shopping, do housework etc – all of which require additional calories.

The total number of calories your body requires each day will depend on your activity level, and is often referred to as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or TDEE. In order to estimate your TDEE, simply multiply your BMR by your activity level. The common numbers are:

Sedentary: Very little or no exercise, and desk job = 1.2
Light activity: Exercise 1-3 days per week = 1.375
Moderately active: Exercise 3-5 days per week = 1.55
Very active: Vigorous exercise 6-7 days per week = 1.725
Extremely active: Physical job, exercise multiple times per day = 1.9

This, very broadly, is the amount of energy (or the number of calories) your body needs to maintain weight each day. To lose weight, it’s a good idea to eat around 15-20 per cent less, thus putting your body into an energy deficit. Calculate your daily calorie requirements by multiplying your TDEE by 0.8. Here’s how mine looks:

Estimated BMR: 1,288 kcals
Estimated TDEE: 1,996 kcals
Daily calorie intake for weight loss: 1,572 kcals

Losing weight should be gradual and sustainable

So, you’ve worked out your calorie needs for the day, what next? Realistically, it’s up to you how you use them, but there are a few simple rules to bear in mind to make sure your weight loss is sustainable.

1. Never eat less than your BMR – it can effect your performance, both on a mental and physical level, and can actually lower your metabolism as your body responds to the low calorie levels. This could then lower your BMR over time, meaning you’ll find it harder to lose weight.

2. You shouldn’t try to lose more that 1kg (around 2lbs) in a week, any more and it’s likely that you will be losing lean tissue – which is what you are looking to keep. Some people will find they lose more than this in the first week or two – but in many cases this will simply be water weight and isn’t sustainable in the long term.

3. Don’t rely on cardio – the calories you burn during your 30 minute run are never as great as you imagine they are, and will rarely make up for a day of poor food choices.What’s more, working out in the gym makes you hungry, meaning you are more likely to eat to fill your stomach. Ever heard someone training for a marathon say they’ve gained weight? Don’t get me wrong, you should of course keep exercising your heart for overall fitness and well-being; just don’t rely on your twice weekly run to help you shed pounds.

4. Train with weights – lifting weights is more important than ever when you’re on a diet; not only will it burn calories without making you super hungry in the process, but it will help you to maintain the lean tissue that will give you a toned physique. What’s more, building muscle will increase your BMR as, put simply, muscles need more energy than fat to maintain themselves.

Counting calories

If you are looking to lose weight, it would be silly to ignore calories. However, it’s important not to get too obsessed with it. You will slowly start to pick up how many calories are in the typical foods you eat, which means you will find it easier to keep a mental note. For the first week, at least, it’s a good idea to track what you’re eating, including all the little snacks and bites of food that can easily rack up over a day. Some people I know have had good experiences with calorie tracking apps – such as MyFitnessPal – but I’ve always found that establishing a routine delivers results for me. I find a few good breakfast and lunch options and stick with them; then I’m free to build my snacks and dinner options around these regular portions

The final rule: Keep things simple!

What’s worked for you? Share your ideas with us at, or leave a comment below.

2 thoughts on “Counting calories: yes or no?

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