Why Isn't Calorie Counting Working?

Why Isn't Calorie Counting Working?

Trying CICO and not seeing results after a couple of weeks? We have some ideas.

Reducing your calorie intake relative to calories burned on a daily basis (calories in, calories out, aka CICO) is widely accepted as the most consistent method for weight loss. And given it's based on the immutable laws of thermodynamics, there's good reason.

However, there are several pitfalls we've observed in our own wellness journey that can trip you up, and may have you feeling you're doing everything right but still not seeing results on the scale.

Standard disclaimer: these observations are provided for informational purposes only and are not medical advice. Please consult your physician before implementing any new diet or nutritional plan.

Now let's get into it.

Here's a handful of common calorie-count dieting mistakes to make sure you're avoiding:

Not weighing yourself at a consistent time each day.

Your weight can naturally fluctuate 5-10 lbs per day or more based on water intake, whether you've recently sweat heavily during a workout, eaten a meal, or (ahem) visited the restroom.

To get an accurate depiction of your weight trend, it's vital you weigh yourself at a consistent time of day and with the same scale.

We find first thing in the morning to be best, when your stomach is empty and since that time is relatively consistent each day. It also helps to make it part of your morning routine so you don't forget.

Picking too high of a target for calorie intake.

If you're using one of the online Target Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) calculators to determine your calorie intake target, it may be leading you to shoot too high (sorry).

The issue with that approach, in my experience, is the "activity level" portion of the calculation which can weigh heavily on the output. The reality is most of us have a tendency to overestimate both the duration and intensity of our physical activity.

The result is setting a target that is too high and leads to minimal caloric deficit.

Instead, we prefer to use a simple Base Metabolic Rate (BMR) calculation to inform our target daily calorie intake. The BMR is essentially the calories your body burns each day on essential metabolic processes (eating, breathing, digesting, etc).

There are many of these calculators available for free online, and they generally all use the same formula. You'll notice there's no fudge factor for perceived activity level, just your basic physical metrics.

When we're looking to "cut", we just use the BMR output as the daily calorie intake target. Any calories burned (daily movement / walking + any deliberate exercise) then constitute our daily deficit. At the same time, we can have confidence that we are consuming enough calories to avoid putting our body in "starvation mode."

Underestimating your portion size.

If you feel you've got your weighing down and are picking the right daily calorie target, let's determine whether you're accurately counting calorie intake.

My Fitness Pal and various other apps make this easy; however, you really need to pay attention to the serving sizes that are assumed and keep yourself honest.

The best way to do this is to buy a simple food scale (you can get decent ones for under $20) and literally weigh everything you eat for a couple of weeks. You might be surprised how big that ribeye actually is.

After a week or two of weighing, you'll start to get a natural feel for how much everything weighs more or less by sight and can adjust accordingly.

Not tracking hidden calories from condiments.

It's annoying, but yes, hidden calories from things like cream in your coffee or barbecue sauce on your chicken can sabotage your caloric deficit.

Each of these can easily be 50 calories here, 30 calories there, which adds up to hundreds of calories over the course of the day.

Ideally, you should track these additions just like you track all of your meals (and you will likely find yourself naturally reducing their application as a result), or just cut them out altogether.

Some other factors to consider.

While not strictly necessary for weight loss, there is a couple of other factors we've found to have a meaningful impact on our results:

  • Stay hydrated: Target half your body weight in ounces of water each day. We like to add fresh lemon juice or sip coconut water as well to mix things up (and give yourself I nice kick of Vitamin C or electrolytes).
  • Get your gut health in order: There's increasing evidence of a link between gut health and support for weight loss. Eating plenty of plant fiber and getting a daily dose of probiotics will help. For the probiotics, we're naturally partial to our coconut water kefir, which handily also helps with hydration, but there are other good brands on the market, or you can even ferment your own if you're feeling in the DIY mood.
  • Get your 10,000 steps a day: Getting a baseline of 10,000 steps (walking, jogging, crawling, whatever) puts you in a very good position to keep metabolism high and has a host of other long-term health benefits. No gym membership or fancy equipment required.

What is working and not working for you? Drop us a note, we always love to hear from you and are more than happy to help any way we can.

- Jen & Ben

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