Counting Calories: How to Lose Weight or Gain Muscle Simply by Tracking Your Calories

Not only is it important to eat right, but it could also be just as important to know how much you’re eating.

If you’ve been trying to lose weight–or gain muscle mass–and you’re not seeing results, chances are you’ve been working with one hand tied behind your back.

When beginning a weight loss goal, the go-to methods employed are pretty common.  Reducing portion sizes and cutting out certain foods altogether are usually at the top of the list.

Sure, skipping bread at dinner and only eating half your meals works.  For a while anyway. But eventually we hit a big, mean wall called a plateau.  A plateau, in this case, is a halt in weight loss.  By eating those smaller portion sizes and omitting certain foods altogether, you’ve reduced your calories.

When the plateau hits, you need to reduce calories even further to get the scale moving in a downward direction again.  Instead of just guessing how many calories you’re cutting out of your daily intake, you can implement calorie counting, and in turn, save yourself a lot of frustration and guesswork.

Counting Basics

Calculate – To begin, you will need to calculate the amount of calories you need to consume daily to meet your weight loss goal.  To do this you need to know your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), or amount of calories you burn daily.

No doubt you’ve seen “2000” calories bandied about as the normal daily intake for an average adult to maintain their weight.  But this number is not a “one-size-fits-all” because your maintenance calories (TDEE) completely depends on your body weight.

So then the popular “1200” calorie diet, often tossed around as the ideal intake for weight loss, is not for everyone either.  You can estimate your TDEE here by multiplying your current weight by the following numbers, based on activity level:

  • Sedentary (little physical activity): 12-14 cals per pound of body weight
  • Moderately Active (light-moderate exercise 3-5 times/week): 14-16 cals per pound
  • Highly Active (active job & intense exercise): 16-18 cals per pound

Example TDEE calculation: 135 (my weight in lbs) X 16 (moderate activity) = 2160 (total daily cals needed to maintain current weight)

Putting TDEE to Use – WEIGHT LOSS:

Weekly weight loss should be no more than 1 pound a week.  This is usually recommended to help preserve muscle mass.  When we lose weight too quickly, muscle tends to be burned off even more so than when taking it more slowly.

Another legitimate reason to ease into a deficit is to leave yourself room to reduce calories when you hit a plateau.  If you start eating 1200 calories a day–because it’s the “in” thing to do–you’re not going to be able to go much lower in calories when your weight loss stalls, because it’s more difficult to sustain your health at such a low intake.  And let’s face it, you’ll be ready to gnaw your arm off.  And both your legs.

In order to lose a pound a week we would deduct 500 calories from your TDEE.  Here’s why: 1 pound of fat = 3500 calories.  And if you divide 3500 by 7 (days), you are left with a 500 calorie daily deficit.

So, using my TDEE as an example, I would subtract 500 from 2160, and I would start my weight loss calories at 1660 per day.  But this number isn’t fool proof.  You have to remember that your TDEE is an estimate.

When you first enter a caloric deficit it is not unusual to have anywhere from 4-8, or even 10 pounds come off in the first week.  This is your body letting go of extra water weight.

After this initial water loss, you will then see a true weight loss number emerge.  If in the next couple weeks you are still losing upwards of 4+ lbs each week, you would then add calories to your daily intake to reduce your deficit.

If you did not losing anything initially, you are not in a deficit, and would deduct more calories from your daily intake.  Don’t do anything crazy like subtracting another 500 per day.  I would go with an additional 100 per day, and go from there.  The goal here is to play around with your calorie intake until you are losing ~1lb-.5lb a week.

Now this is not exactly a linear process 100% of the time.  Sometimes after the first week’s water-weight loss, you may not see any change in the scale.  But it is recommended to stay with the same calorie intake and give it 2-3 weeks to see a change, then adjust cals accordingly.  (This did happen to me once.  It took 3 weeks for the scale to start moving, but it finally did.)

There might be a week where you lose 2 lbs, and the next week 1lb.  It’s just the nature of the game.  So I guess what I’m saying here is, before you declare you’ve run into the brick wall known as a plateau, give it a little time.

One more thing to note: Do not deduct calories burned from exercise.  This has already been accounted for in the initial calculation, not to mention it’s difficult to get an accurate estimate of calories burned anyway.  It doesn’t matter what kind of calorie tracking gadget you have, it will just be an exercise in futility.

Putting TDEE to Use – WEIGHT GAIN:

If you are trying to gain weight or, more specifically, put on muscle, you will need to increase your calories by 250-500 a day.  I tend to lean more to the conservative side and only increase by 250 a day.  This can help keep fat gain to a minimum, while gaining muscle.

No matter what you do, though, when gaining weight you will gain both muscle and fat (assuming you are weight training).  Going with a surplus of 250 calories per day would then put my daily intake at 2410.  Eating at this surplus would mean a weight gain of ~2 pounds per month, or .5 pounds a week.

This would then be treated the same as the deficit above, in that, if the scale isn’t moving, or it is moving in the opposite direction, the calories are adjusted accordingly.  But do note, when first upping your calories, there will be a 2-6 pound increase in your weight, initially.  Again, just as with the deficit, this is simply water weight, so don’t panic.

There is a learning curve with this, so a fair amount of patience will go a long way when first starting out.  Eventually you will get to know your body and your activity level, and all of this becomes easier.

Count – Now that you’ve calculated your calorie goal, it’s time to count those calories.  The best way to track your calories is with a digital food scale.  You want to weigh everything you eat.

Weigh meats before cooking (if possible) and frozen foods in their frozen state.

For foods with nutrition labels, the serving sizes can be found in units of measure (cups/tbsps.) and units of weight (grams/oz).  It is best to go with the units of weight, more specifically grams, whenever possible.  This ensures greater accuracy in counting the calories a serving contains.

Counting Caveats:

Trusting the serving size is not always fool proof.

I’ve weighed protein bars whose serving size for the entire bar is listed as 60 grams; some have weighed in at upwards of 70 grams.

According to the package, one bar contains 200 calories in that 60 gram serving.  But in actuality the bar that weighed in at 70 grams contains 233 calories.  If I went blindly by the package and just tracked 200 calories, I would be unwittingly consuming extra calories not accounted for.

Just because a nutrition label tells you the measured serving = the weighed serving, it isn’t necessarily so.  Weigh everything to ensure accuracy. 

This seems a little over the top and borders on obsessive, but imagine these discrepancies happening with several things you eat regularly, and at an even larger difference in calories.  It adds up.  And it hinders your weight loss progress.

A few other things in this counting business can hinder progress as well.  You should be weighing your condiments (mayo, ketchup, bbq sauce, etc.), coffee creamer, and protein powder (don’t depend on that scoop – go by the weight).

You know those licks, bites and tastes you take while cooking or preparing a meal?  Yeah, those count, too.

How to Track Your Calories FatSecretTrack – Now that you’ve weighed and accounted for the calories in that protein bar, you could write it down–along with everything else you’ve eaten for the day–or you could use a handy app that will make things simpler.

The most popular tracking app I know of is MyFitnessPal.  I personally use FatSecret (pictured on the right) just because I’m used to the setup.

With these apps, you are able to track calories for all your meals, plus snacks.  You enter a food item and the amount you’ve eaten, then the app calculates everything for you.  Each food entered is broken down to show the amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and fat (macronutrients) they contain.

There is just one caveat with this as well.  Sometimes the nutrition info for a food item in the app has the wrong information listed.  This is simple human error, or old information that hasn’t been updated.

Your 200 calorie protein bar (weighed on your trusty food scale) could be listed in MyFitnessPal as containing 190 calories.  Add this discrepancy to the weight discrepancy from before and there’s another 10 cals not accounted for.

Remember, it adds up.  Not every item you track with your counting app will be listed wrong, but do double-check to ensure accuracy.

Advanced Counting

Macros (Macronutrients)Macronutrients, referenced above, are types of foods required in large quantities in the human diet.  These include protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

Paying attention to the amount of each macronutrient you consume can make a big difference in successfully losing or gaining weight.

  • Protein:  Proteins are the building blocks that help make up muscle, skin, hair, bone, and just about every other body part or tissue.  The building blocks of proteins are amino acids.  Not all proteins are created equal, however.  There are essential amino acids, which you must obtain from food.  And then there are amino acids that are made in your system.  Animal products are more likely to contain complete proteins, while fruits, veggies, grains, and seeds are missing one or more essential amino acids.  So keep in mind, if you are a vegetarian, you should eat a wide variety of foods to get the aminos your body needs.

1 gram of protein = 4 calories.  Recommended daily protein intake is 1 gram per pound of body weight, but you could get by on .8 grams per pound.  I put this into practice and I saw just as much muscle growth on .8 as I did with 1 gram, but I wouldn’t go any lower than that.  At my body weight, .8 grams per pound puts me at 108 grams of protein daily.

  • Fat:  Fats are essential to the health of the human body.  Fats play an integral part in healthy cell function as well as maintaining healthy hair and skin.  Without fat, fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K could not be absorbed and used by the body.  Fats also aid in the healthy function of the brain and heart.  Cutting fat out of your diet is a quick fix, but it could also be detrimental to your weight loss, or muscle gain, progress.  Without fat, the production of hormones that directly affect these processes would be hindered.  Instead of slashing the amount of fat you eat, calculate what your body needs for the benefit of your health and your goals.

 1 gram of fat = 9 calories.  Recommended daily fat intake is at least .45 grams per pound of body weight.  At this intake, your hormones will stay on an even keel, your energy will remain balanced, and your overall health will benefit.  At my body weight, .45 grams per pound puts me at about 61 grams of fat daily.

  • Carbohydrates:  Carbohydrates can be an important part of the diet.  Carbohydrates are beneficial to glucose production in the body.  Glucose is converted to energy, and in turn, keeps regular bodily functions running at peak performance.  Natural or minimally processed carbohydrates are healthier than their highly processed counterparts.  Foods such as whole grains, fruits, veggies, and beans are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.  Foods with a higher fiber content will digest more slowly and keep you sated longer.

1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories.  In my experience, taking in anything less than 100 grams of carbohydrates per day leaves me drained of energy.  There is no hard and fast rule as to a recommended intake.  I do find focusing on the protein and fat intake first, then filling in remaining calories with carbs, or even any combination of all 3 macros, works very well.

The Equation of Success

Your TDEE +/- Your Goal Physique + Tracking Cals + Hard Work = SUCCESS!

Go out and count, track, conquer.  And hopefully the scale moves in the direction you want it to.  If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments or email me through my Contact page.  Please leave any first-hand experiences you might have with this as well.  Happy counting!


7 thoughts on “Counting Calories: How to Lose Weight or Gain Muscle Simply by Tracking Your Calories

    1. So your TDEE is the amount of energy you expend in one day. Now if you are burning 1500-2500 cals just in training, then something with your calculation of 1900 TDEE is off, and/or you’re not burning that much in training. Remember, calorie burning estimates are not always dependable. What activity number did you use to calculate your TDEE? Also, knowing your height and weight would help me better understand your numbers and help you start at the calories that will best suit you. 🙂

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