Not everyone needs to or should be tracking their calories. In saying that, it is an extremely useful thing to do at least at one point in your life. Why? Because often we simply don’t realise how many calories we are consuming.
Yes we know in theory that peanut butter has a huge amount of calories in it, but until we actually measure it out and put it into a calorie tracker, we don’t really comprehend how much a difference one heaped tablespoon of peanut butter can make to our daily calorie intake.
When it comes to nutrition, knowledge is power.
Do not do this if you have a history of disordered eating, eating disorders or are simply not confident in your relationship with food. Whilst calorie tracking is a powerful tool, it has to be used from a foundation of a healthy relationship with food. If you aren’t quite there yet, this needs to be addressed FIRST before focusing on fat loss.
What actually is a calorie?
A calorie is simply a unit of measurement. It is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of water by one degree.
In food, a calorie is a unit of measurement and nothing more.
In New Zealand, we still insist on using kilojoules (kJ) rather than calories (kcal or cal) on all our food labelling (facepalm). This can make things very confusing. To turn kilojoules into calories, divide kilojoules by 4.184, or just simply 4.2. Annoying right?
The overall goal is to create a calorie deficit
A calorie deficit means that you are consuming LESS calories than you are expending. So, if you eat 2,000 calories in a day but you expend 2,200 calories, then you are in a deficit of 200 calories.
For now, we are just going to focus on the consumption side of the equation e.g. what you are eating. We will look at the calorie expenditure side of the equation later on in Steps 5 and 6 e.g. what you are burning.
It is your calorie consumption relative to your calorie expenditure that determines any change in body weight. Put simply, if you consume less calories than you expend each day, you will lose fat.
In theory this is simple. ‘Eat less and move more’. The hard part is actually putting it into practice.
So, how do you actually create a calorie deficit?
Firstly - track your current food for a week
This first step is working out how many calories you are CURRENTLY consuming.
You can do this by using food tracking software, our favourite is My Fitness Pal (you can download it here (just get the free version) - https://www.myfitnesspal.com/account/create
Then after your next meal, input the food you just ate by manually searching the food on the app or scanning the food’s barcode, then inputting the amount of that food e.g 1 tablespoon or 50 grams. Make sure you include every single bit of food if it was a meal.
Say you have just made an omelette, this would look like:-
½ teaspoon olive oil
3 medium sized eggs
1 cup spinach
1 teaspoon aioli
For the first week of tracking your food, all you have to do is track what you are already eating. This is going to give us your ‘maintenance’ calories, meaning the amount of calories that you need each day to remain exactly the same e.g. what you are currently eating at the moment.
So in this first week don’t change anything that you have been usually eating.
However, what we generally find is that the simple fact of tracking your food will undoubtedly make you more aware of what you are eating and will be an eye opener for how calorie dense a lot of foods actually are.
The best way to learn is just to start tracking and see how you get on. A few tips to help you on MyFitness Pal:-
Make sure you specify quantities that match what you’re actually eating, scan barcodes whenever possible and choose items with a green tick from the database. Don’t eyeball serving sizes, especially for calorie dense foods like peanut butter, oil or cheese. With meat, specify the cut and whether it is raw or cooked, and the same for rice and grains.
You can save meals that you eat frequently so you can quickly add them each time. If you have a meal that gives you multiple servings (like a bulk cook), then add all the ingredients to the meal and divide ‘1 serving’ by the number of serves e.g for a meal where you get 4 serves, you would add 0.25 of the meal as a serving size.
Quick add calories
If you can’t find the food you are searching for or if you really don’t know how many calories are in that food, you can add just some calories by themselves (without attaching it to any food). This will always be an educated guess, so try to minimise how often you’re doing this at least initially.
If you ate similarly to the day before, you can duplicate your previous day onto your current day then make any small changes that you need to.
Or at least as you go. Try to avoid getting to the end of the day and then inputting everything, as things are going to get overlooked and you’ll end up with inaccurate data.
Secondly - deduct 200-300 calories from your maintenance calories
After a week, look at your average calorie intake. To find this, head to the nutrition tab and change ‘day view’ to ‘week view’. Set the date to yesterday then scroll down to see your daily average over the last 7 days. This is your ‘maintenance calories’.
Remember, we lose fat by creating a calorie deficit (calories out > calories in). So we need to deduct some calories off what you are currently eating.
A general rule is to reduce your current calories by 200-300 calories a day. Again, this doesn’t seem like much, but over a week that adds up to a total calorie deficit of 1400-2100 calories.
Your daily deficit needs to be large enough that it results in a consistent deficit of calories, but not so much that it results in excessive hunger or restriction straight off the bat.
And that’s it! Remember that a calorie deficit is the fundamental principle that applies to any change in body composition. No exceptions.
Intermittent fasting and a calorie deficit
So now that you understand how a calorie deficit works, let's put it in the context of a popular approach.
You may have heard of ‘16/8’ fasting, which is where you fast for 16 hours then eat for 8 hours e.g. only eat between 12pm until 8pm every day.
What is really going on here?
If someone all of a sudden cuts the amount of hours per day that they eat in by 50%, chances are they are going to eat less right? For most people, 16/8 is basically skipping breakfast and not grazing after dinner. Which consequently reduces calorie intake so most likely creates a deficit.
16/8 fasting is much easier to adopt as a permanent lifestyle change than some other ‘diets’, but it's still not for everyone. If you love breakfast, then you're going to hate this.
5/2 (2 days per week of REALLY low calories) is another fasting approach. It follows the same concept as 16/8, but this time it's your weekly total calorie intake being manipulated. If someone eats drastically less for 2 days per week, then they are going to eat less total weekly calories even if they eat normally the other 5 days. Simple right?
This is now your filter to apply to any fad ‘weight loss’ approach. Once you understand they all work through the same mechanism (caloric restriction) you realise that there can be a better, less restrictive way for you as an individual.
Practices to help you stick to your calorie targets
So, you have the hang of tracking and you now have your overall calorie deficit target to aim for every day.
Now the hard part … actually doing it. Here are some practices that will help you stick to your targets.
Online supermarket shop once a week
Get in the habit of doing one big shop each week. Bonus points if you do it online. This will help you for two reasons:-
1 - it means that you will have to do some planning around what your meals and snacks are going to be for the coming week. This in of itself is one of the biggest determinants of how successful your week will be. If you are getting to 6pm without knowing what dinner is, planning ahead of time will make a huge difference.
2 - it means less time temptation and better control over your environment. You know when you pop into the supermarket to buy one thing but end up coming out with your whole shopping bag full? Every time you go to the supermarket, you’re unnecessarily increasing the likelihood that these ‘less of’ foods will creep into your nutrition.
We absolutely love doing our weekly supermarket shop online. It is so easy and it is much less tempting to grab a packet of chips online. You can save a grocery list so you can add the same staples to your cart each week with one click, and when you want something in particular you have to go out of your way to search and add it. Rather than just having it catch your eye and end up in the trolley.
Adjust your meals around your budget
This practice means that you can stick to your calorie target while still having a life.
Think of this as a way to balance your finances. If you’re going to ‘spend’ more on Saturday night for example, you might ‘spend’ a little less on Friday night and Saturday morning. In this case, your ‘spending’ is your caloric intake.
Having concrete numbers to aim for allows you to incorporate flexibility into your intake, and therefore your food choices. No more ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, ‘cheating’ on your diet or starting again Monday. Just your caloric budget.
Approach this proactively rather than reactively. If you know what you are planning on doing, make calorie adjustments ahead of time.
Say you know you are going out to dinner on Friday night, make some smart tweaks to what you eat that day so that you can still go out to dinner without being overly restrictive. For example, combine your breakfast and lunch together or have one less snack. This means that your overall calorie intake will be lower than usual before dinner so that your dinner can be higher in calories (which as you are eating out is inevitable).
Being able to adjust when you need to will be crucial to you actually sticking to your targets and not feeling like you are on a ‘diet’. Consistency trumps everything (more on that below), and in order to be consistent you need to be able to incorporate flexibility.
This is going to be particularly useful on the weekends when we generally have more varied meals and are more likely to have more drinks and nibbles. Remember the calorie deficit. If you are creating a consistent 200 calorie deficit during the weekdays, then have an extra 1,000 calorie meal (basically any McDonalds combo, a big bag of chips, 8 or so beers), then there goes your deficit for that week.
Example - Kate budgeting on a Saturday
If I know I’m going out on a Saturday night, during the day on Saturday I will eat a bit less than I normally would. I would have an extra coffee in the morning (total 2-3 coffees) so that I wasn’t as hungry until lunch time, then have a BIG smoothie for lunch. In the afternoon I would have a few pieces of fruit and maybe one lean source of protein like some Sunfed bacon.
Overall, this would mean that my calories would be pretty low for the day, so I then have more leeway for a nice dinner out and some drinks. Depending on how many drinks I had, they would still most likely put me over my calories for the day, but I would be significantly less over compared to if I had just had my usual breakfast / lunch / snacks that day.
Don’t get too caught up in trying to get this perfect, because you won’t. You’re simply adjusting your intake proactively around periods when it’s likely to be higher, in order to mitigate the overall calorie spike and still remain in a weekly deficit.
Don’t overthink it, and don’t go overboard with excessive restriction, as typically that will lead to excessive indulgence and a net result of too many calories. There’s a happy middle ground with this approach, which you will learn with time and practice.
Control your environment
If you have foods that you are trying to have less of in your house, you are going to eat them eventually. Next time when you buy a packet of chips at the supermarket, treat those chips like you are eating them right there and then. We are very good at convincing ourselves otherwise in the moment, but typically they disappear pretty fast.
Now this isn’t to tell you to go to your pantry and get rid of absolutely everything that you don’t consider ‘healthy’. It is simply saying that if you have those ‘less of’ foods in the house, it is much harder not to eat them vs. not having them there in the first place.
If you are going to have some treats, plan it so that those treats are only available for a period of time e.g. we often buy ice cream in the weekends, but we wouldn’t buy that ice cream at the start of the week and have it in the fridge during the week to have whenever we feel like it. Make it a mindful, deliberate decision to buy XYZ because that’s what you feel like and you’ve factored it into your overall calories.
An uncontrolled environment leads to more mindless overindulgence, which is not as satisfying as a deliberate decision and is more prone to leaving you with food guilt or frustration with yourself.
If you don’t have the level of control over your environment that you would like (kids, significant others etc.) then take as many steps as you can to move toward it. Put tempting things you can’t remove entirely out of sight for example. Other times, this may involve a conversation with a partner or friend around helping you by making these foods less prevalent on their end.
Know your triggers
Most of us can attribute our off-track eating to a few specific causes;
Socialising (often involving alcohol
Poorly controlled environments
Certain routines (like your Netflix + ice cream, or tea + biscuits)
Identifying what causes most of your excessive calorie intake is the first step in putting strategies into place for improving it. These are not just “I’ll be more disciplined” but rather specific strategies to address your specific triggers with your eating.
Examples could include volunteering yourself as the sober driver, taking a brisk 15 minute walk in the evenings to clear your head (rather than grazing), removing some foods from the house completely or changing your daily routine to remove the catalyst.
Make smart substitutions
Sometimes, it can be difficult to know where to start with removing excess calories from your diet. Here are some starting tips;
Swap full fat cheese, coconut milk/cream and milk for reduced fat or light versions
Change full sugar to reduced/zero sugar for condiments, syrups, sweeteners and soda
Use leaner cuts of meat over higher fat options
Use more herbs, spices, stocks and strong condiments (mustard, balsamic vinegar etc) over butter, aioli, mayo etc for flavour
Have protein bars, casein custards, sugar free jellies, and yoghurt/berry bowls for satisfying sweet cravings
Overall consistency trumps everything
This is extremely important to understand. Consistency is going to be the biggest factor in whether you lose fat or not.
It is better to do one thing 80% of the time, than do three, four or five things 20% of the time. It’s what you do every day that counts, not what you do occasionally.
This applies to a lot of things in life, but it especially applies to your nutrition.
Whatever you do, don’t try to do everything at once! Be kind to yourself, recognise that you can’t be perfect all the time and give yourself leeway to muck up. Don’t think that you have ruined everything because you had McDonalds once. That is one meal out of approximately 21 meals in a week. One meal isn’t going to make you gain fat overnight, nor is it going to ruin all your efforts up until that point.
Be patient, understand that fat loss is not a linear process nor does it happen exceptionally quickly. If it does then it’s cause for concern and a reevaluation of your approach. You are in this to create lasting change, the foundation of which is being able to execute your approach consistently over time. Nothing is more important than this.
STEP 3 CHECKLIST
🗹 Have you worked out your ‘maintenance’ calories by tracking food for a week?
🗹 Are you eating 200-300 less calories each day?
🗹 Are you consistently eating 200-300 less calories, especially on the weekends?
So, we have looked at the calories IN side of the equation. We now know how to monitor what calories we consume by tracking our food accurately.
We can help ourselves create a calorie deficit consistently by:-
Only going to the supermarket once a week
Adjusting our budget
Controlling our environment
Knowing our triggers
Making smart substitutions
Now, in addition to creating a calorie deficit, there is one more thing that you need to do consistently in relation to the calories IN side of the equation. Stay tuned for Step 4.