Calorie counting versus “intuitive eating” for fat loss is a central issue in the health and fitness discussion. And a hotly debated one for that matter – people really do seem to have strong emotional opinions either way.
But as I’ve said, having any emotional bias whatsoever in health and fitness is ultimately counterproductive, because it detracts from your ability to be objectively analytical.
What’s the best strategy to achieve the goal/ideal at hand? That’s the only thing that makes sense to be concerned with.
In that vein, the answer to the initial question is… it depends. Anticlimactic, I know, but, I really do think that personal situations and preferences don’t get nearly enough consideration when it comes to health and fitness. Furthermore, what’s best for you now might not be in the future – it’s good to be flexible, to periodically assess things and make prudent adjustments as needed.
Yesterday I published a two part series that expounded the various pros and cons of counting calories:
Today, we’re going to tie it all together and discuss how to decide if calorie counting for fat loss is the right choice for you.
Clickable Table of Contents by Section
Calorie Counting Pro/Con Summary
The notable pros of counting calories are:
- Virtually guaranteed to work.
- Decision fatigue removal, resultant peace of mind.
- Highly valuable learning experience that makes subsequent intuitive eating much easier.
- Great to have as a fallback strategy, just in case.
- Could illuminate nutrient deficiencies (rare in 1st world, but they can happen).
- Zero dietary restrictions.
- Essentially required if you want to get “next level” lean and ripped.
The notable cons of counting calories are:
- Not realistically feasible in certain situations.
- Can enable poor food choices.
- Might not solve the issue of hunger, which always wins no matter what.
- Might (ostensibly) restrict food choices to that which is easier to count and track.
- Unavoidably extra work, a sufferable daily chore at best.
- Might not actually be necessary to lose fat effectively.
The Crux Question
Said again, whether counting calories is a good fat loss strategy or not is really going to depend on your situation and preferences. I think it can be ultimately summed up thusly:
Would you rather…
- Do a little extra work to, essentially, guarantee effective fat loss? Or,
- Skip the extra hassle and accept that your progress will be somewhat of a shot in the dark.
There’s no right answer here. For some people, the extra work is well worth the certainty. Others might not mind if their fat loss progress is a little “loosey goosey” as long as they eventually get there, especially if that means they can use a simpler and less involved strategy.
A Critical Point…
There’s something that is very important to understand:
Calorie counting and intuitive eating for fat loss are not dichotomous, they’re the same system.
Whether you decide to count them up or not, calories do primarily matter for weight loss/gain. The science clearly shows that calorie restriction produces weight loss, and that weight loss does not occur if calories are controlled for.
That being true, both calorie counting and intuitive eating for fat loss are a system for establishing a calorie deficit. They just work in different ways:
Calorie counting directly focuses on the amount of calories you consume and expend.
Intuitive eating, on the other hand, indirectly focuses on the behaviors which influence the amount of calories you consume and expend.
It’s important to understand that the main goal is always the same. Calorie counting, intuitive eating, or any other fat loss system – if it’s to be effective – always has the main goal of facilitating calorie restriction over time.
My Personal Experience And Opinion
I counted calories and used a meal plan, and it worked well for me to get quite lean.
Though, I certainly don’t want to count calories forever if I don’t have to.
All in all:
- I’m glad that I did it once and had success with it.
- I’m glad that I know I can always do it again if I need to.
- The prior experience helps me immensely with being able to maintain a lean bodyweight via intuitive eating.
- As long as I can maintain my weight with a simpler and easier system, I don’t see why I should continue to count calories.
Here’s what I honestly think: Doing calorie counting once – and succeeding with it – is absolutely worth the effort. Especially if you’ve perhaps failed with seemingly everything else and you’re at your wits end. It really is an eye opening experience, and it really does help you truly understand what the “right” amount of food should “feel” like.
…But as long as you can maintain your results without it, I don’t see much point in continuing to do it, unless you like doing it of course, I suppose. Some people do.
Should You Count Calories?
Again, it’s ultimately a matter of personal preference – would you prefer to do extra work for virtually guaranteed results, or would you rather keep things simpler and accept an unpredictable margin of error?
If you’re perhaps new to fat loss dieting, you might be somewhat intimidated with the idea of counting calories, and that’s OK. Try intuitive eating first, and see how that goes – maybe you can achieve perfectly decent progress doing it that way. Just understand that the ultimate goal is still to restrict calories enough to start losing fat, whether you’re counting them up or not.
* Further Reading:
On the other hand, if you’ve repeatedly tried various intuitive eating strategies and failed with them, it might be time to bite the bullet, do the extra work, and start counting calories.
* Further Reading:
It’s certainly possible to achieve and maintain lean body composition without counting calories – if you can, then I don’t see much point in doing the extra work of calorie counting.
That said, if you want to get “next level” lean and shredded (not worth it in my opinion), you’ll almost certainly have to count calories to get there.
Just remember that calories will always primarily matter for weight management – we have to appropriately control them, no matter what, either by counting them directly or by using prudent strategies that effectively influence them.