Should you count calories or count portions?

Dear Tom,

I recently read Bill Phillip’s book, “Body For Life,” and he says that you don’t need to count calories and that instead, you should count “portions.” I read your article on calculating calories and you seem to advocate strictly keeping track of calories. Do you really think it’s necessary to count calories every day? Isn’t that unrealistic?

Bill Phillips makes a very good point about counting portions instead of calories. He’s right that trying to count every single calorie – in the literal sense – can drive you crazy and probably is NOT realistic as a lifestyle for the long term.

Phillips wrote,

“There aren’t many people who can keep track of their calorie intake for an extended period of time. As an alternative, I recommend counting ‘portions.’ A portion of food is roughly equal to the size of your clenched fist or the palm of your hand. Each portion of protein or carbohydrate typically contains between 100 and 150 calories. For example, one chicken breast is approximately one portion of protein, and one medium-sized baked potato is approximately one portion of carbohydrate.”

I agree with Mr. Phillips for the most part. However, I do feel that it’s very important for you develop an understanding of and a respect for the law of calorie balance. It’s one thing to count portions instead of calories – it’s another altogether to deny that calories matter.

Is it necessary to count calories to lose weight? No. But it IS necessary to eat fewer calories then you burn in order to lose weight. If you guess, how can you be sure you have the calorie deficit you need to lose weight?

I believe that it’s an important part of nutrition education to learn how many calories are in the foods that you eat on a regular basis and how many calories are in the foods you eat when you dine out at restaurants. You have a huge advantage if you know at least a ballpark figure of how many calories you’re consuming compared to people who just “wing it” and guess.

Calories do count! Any diet program that tells you, “calories don’t count” or you can “eat all you want and still lose weight” (if you eat certain foods or take certain diet pills), is a diet you should avoid.

The law of calorie balance is an unbreakable law of physics: Energy in versus energy out dictates whether you will gain, lose or maintain your weight.

To maintain your weight, you must consume the same number of calories you burn up. To gain weight (muscle), you must consume more calories than you burn up. To lose body weight, you must burn more calories than you consume every day. Yes, calories do count!

If you eat more calories than your body can utilize, you’re going to gain fat, period. If you only count portions and haven’t the slightest clue how many calories you’re taking in, it’s a lot more likely that you’ll eat more calories than you realize. (Or you might take in fewer calories than you should and trigger the dreaded “starvation mode” which causes your metabolism to shut down)

So how do you balance practicality and realistic expectations with a nutrition program that gets results?

Here’s a solution that is a happy medium: Create a menu using an EXCEL spreadsheet or your favorite nutrition software. Crunch all the numbers including calories, protein, carbs and fats. Once you have your daily menu, stick it on your refrigerator and you now have an eating “goal” for the day, including a caloric target.

That is my definition of “counting calories” — creating a menu plan you can use as a daily guide, not necessarily writing down every morsel of food you eat for the rest of your life.

If you get bored eating the same thing every day, you can easily exchange foods using your sample menu as a template, or create two or three sample menus.

Using this method, you really only have to count calories once: Count your calories in the beginning when you’re starting a new, healthier lifestyle, in order to gain a familiarity with all of the staple foods you eat on a daily basis. After you’ve got a knack for calories from this initial discipline of menu planning, then you can estimate portions in the future and get a pretty good (and educated) ballpark figure.

For more information on calories (including how many you should eat based on your age, activity and individual characteristics) and for even more practical fat loss techniques that strip off body fat fast, check out my ebook, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle at www.burnthefat.com