Counting Calories: A No-BS Guide

Counting calories, tracking your intake, watching portions and serving sizes… while it’s something we talk about a lot in the health and fitness realm, it’s not easily understood as some may believe.

As someone working in the industry, I sometimes forget that many of the concepts and ideas that seem simple to me are often foreign to others.  For instance, I’ve gotten emails with basic questions such as “should I use a kitchen scale or measuring cups?” or “Should I count macros, calories, or both?”  I’ve even gotten the “do calories even matter as long as I’m eating clean?” That one always gives me the lol’s.

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Before we go any further, I figure I’d better explain why I’m writing this piece.

This is strictly for those who have questions about counting calories, or about how to track their intake.  There are some very strong beliefs about whether or not you should track your intake.

I realize that the majority of my work is based around making this fitness lifestyle easier and more laid-back than the average, frustrated bro who thinks he has to eat nothing but chicken and brown rice 10 times per day.

I also realize tracking your calorie intake can seem cumbersome and that it has potential to become an obsession (for those who have extreme personalities).  I used to be that extreme person, but I woke up and wrote my Fat Loss Cheat Sheet.

Also, I’m writing this to serve as a resource for my clients and for those who email with questions about tracking their intake.

Let’s dive in.

What is a Calorie?

To put it simply, a calorie is nothing but a measurement of heat (energy) equal to 4.1868 joules.  The formal definition: quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1°C under standard conditions.

What are Macronutrients?

When working with individuals, as I set up their calorie guidelines, I emphasize the importance of hitting their macronutrients by the end of the day – as long as this happens, I generally don’t care too much how it gets done (within reason, of course).

The 4 macronutrients are protein, carbohydrate, fat, and alcohol.

Below is the amount of calories for every gram of each macronutrient.

Protein: 4 calories
Carbohydrate: 4 calories
Fat: 9 calories
Alcohol: 7 calories

How to Read a Nutritional Label

Below is an image of a typical nutritional label. I’ve left out the micronutrient profiles at the bottom because that’s beyond the scope of this article. The first step in accurately tracking your intake is knowing how to read a label.

The first macro you see is the total amount of fat in one serving (8 ounces/240 milliliters), which includes saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans-fat.

Below that, you’ll see total carbohydrate, which includes sugars as well as dietary fiber.

And finally at the bottom, you’ll see protein.

In this example, we have 13 grams of fat, 31 grams of carbohydrate and 5 grams of protein.

So in this case, the label reads 260 calories.  But how did they arrive at that total?

Simple math:
13 (grams of fat) X 9 (amount of calories per gram) = 117 calories.
Since carbs and protein have an equal amount of calories per gram, just add them together first.  31+5 = 36
36×4 = 144
144+117 = 261 calories.

Should I Count Macros or Calories?

This question is easy.  I never recommend tracking calories – macros only.  Why?  Because if you land the macros, you’re sure to be within the calorie range I’ve provided.

Allow me to illustrate my point.

Let’s say you’re aiming for a diet of 2000 calories with the following macros:

200g protein
165g carbohydrate
60g fat

200 + 165 = 365.  365×4 = 1,460 calories
60×9 = 540 calories
1,460 + 540 = 2000 calories

So when I am tracking, I simply set my total calories, and then determine the macro composition.  Once I know that – all I focus on is meeting the macro requirements.

If you’re on a diet of 2000 calories, all you need to worry about is the macro composition.

Should I use Scale Weight or Measuring Cups?

I’ve found that weighing your intake is much more accurate than measuring cups.  It’s fairly easy to err when using measuring cups because of density differences, air pockets (when scooping protein powder, oats, or other dry goods), and the tendency to use a rounded scoop.

When looking at peanut butter, for instance, the label reads 2tbsp as one serving.  If you’ve ever actually measured this out, 2tbsp is not a lot.  It’s actually pretty easy to get more than you think – and even when you make sure to level it off, when weighed out on a scale, it’s often more than the amount suggested on the label.

Leigh Peele has a great video demonstrating how easy it is to overshoot your numbers using a measuring cup for oats and a tablespoon for peanut butter.

After watching that – I hope you may reconsider measuring with spoons and cups and begin using a kitchen scale for accurate measurements.

Should I Weigh Meat Raw or Cooked?

If you’re looking at most labels, let’s say a label on the back of some frozen chicken breasts, the calories/macros by weight are, unless otherwise stated, meant to represent the raw state.

As an example, on the chicken breast label, it’s likely to read something like the following:

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Serving Size: 112g (4oz)
Total Fat: ~1-3 grams (it varies depending on how lean the cut is)
Carbohydrate
: 0 grams
Protein: ~22 grams

These macros pertain to the raw, thawed, water-drained chicken breast.  The same applies to other cuts of meat (beef, pork) and fish.

But what about fatty cuts of beef and pork?

Due to the differences in every cut of meat, it’s impossible to know exactly what the macro composition is.  In fact, it’s impossible to know the exact macro composition of anything as the calorie totals on packages and in the USDA databases are merely very good, educated estimates.  Nothing is exactly 100 calories.

No steak has exactly 22g protein per serving.  Sometimes, it’s more or less due to the amount of fat present within the serving.

So, in general, when weighing these portions out, be mindful of how much fat is present and if you’re a bit concerned, trim some of it off.  I will touch on some databases further down the article to get an idea of how much fat is in certain cuts if there is no nutritional label provided.

I know many people weigh out their portions cooked, but this can become problematic due to the way the food is prepared.  If a food is steamed/baked, it’s going to retain more water than if it’s cooked on an open flame where much of the water runs off.  Or what if you’re the person who loves their meat burnt to a crisp?

That chunk of char is sure to weigh far less than the baked version.  If you’re going off of the macros suggested for cooked chicken, the results in weight can be much different due to how they were cooked.

100g of baked chicken will contain less protein than 100g of grilled, blackened (dry) chicken.  So in fact, while you’re eating the same post-cooked weight – there will be a difference in calories.

How Do I Portion Out an Awesome Recipe?

While it may seem cumbersome, it’s not too difficult if you were to plan ahead.  What you’ll need to do first off is figure out how many servings you’re making.  Then, you need to determine how much of each ingredient is going into the recipe for said servings.

Once you’ve determined the amount of ingredients, you then will have to weigh out each individually and record it.  After you know the macros for each ingredient, add them all up and divide it by 4 to determine how much will be in each serving.

Cook, and prepare your dish, then separate into 4 equally sized portions.  Just remember it’s not going to be completely accurate, but it’s close enough.

If you want to be super anal about it – you can add the entire finished product to the food scale and divide it out accordingly.

So let’s say the finished dish of pasta and meat sauce (or whatever) totals to 2000 grams.  You’d simply separate it into four 500-gram servings.

An easy example of how I do this can be seen in my pumpkin cheesecake recipe at the bottom of this article: Your Healthy Diet: It Doesn’t Have to be Boring.

What About When I’m Eating Out?

This one can be tough – most of the restaurant chains these days have a calorie guide to use.  Every fast food chain I’ve been to seem to have their nutritional info in sight.  In ‘N Out Burger has the calorie contents of their burgers and fries on their menu inside.

So in general, it’s fairly easy to keep track when eating at a chain restaurant as they have the money and resources to track, record and print the calorie data of their food menu for all of us to see.

But what about small, mom and pop restaurants?

Yeah, this one is not so easy.  Whenever I eat out here in Nashville, it’s almost always a small sushi joint or café – hardly ever a chain restaurant.

I really know of no way to accurately track your intake at these places because it’s impossible to know how they’re preparing, how much butter they use in their sauce, etc.  You can always ask how they’re preparing their food, but I never do – I simply try to make leaner choices when I can – those leaner choices being non-fried foods, soups and sauces that are not cream-based, etc.

Should I Account for Veggies When Tracking my intake?

I personally don’t because I only eat a handful of green veggies daily, so it’s not that big of a deal and the calorie impact is minimal.

Most people, aside from those who can manage to eat truckloads of cruciferous veggies on a daily basis, can get away with not including these into their macro numbers.

If you’re counting and want to accurately track your intake – I’d still include them into your carbohydrate totals for numbers sake.

Other vegetables such as peas, carrots, corn, etc. should definitely be included in your carbohydrate totals as they’re more carbohydrate dense than green veggies.

Calorie and Macronutrient Databases – How to Use Them

Here are a few that I’ve used and a few that seem to be fairly accurate.

USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
Calorie King
FitDay – very popular but I’ve never used it.
Livestrong – I was referred to this one by a reader. You can actually plug in your height, weight, age, and goals to get a decent starting point for maintenance intake.  I haven’t played around with it much, but it looks good.

First of all – despite all the technology available to us, and considering a majority of my full-time work is spent using computers and fancy gadgets, I’ve never been keen on tracking my intake using online trackers.

I’ve always used a pen and notebook in the kitchen.  It always seemed cumbersome to login to my computer to track my intake when I could do it by hand when preparing my meals.

However, if you wish to utilize such resources, these tools are great and have many benefits.

One of the main benefits to having these databases is for when you’re buying produce or meat from the deli.  I’ve yet to find a butcher slapping a sticker detailing the macro composition on the steak he just cut for me.  So what do you do?

Simple – just refer to the USDA database or CalorieKing.

Here’s an example from CalorieKing when figuring out the macronutrient content of a banana.

As you’ll notice – it reads: Fresh Fruits: Banana, raw*

On the serving size, instead of choosing the size of the banana, I use the dropdown menu and select either ounces or grams, then weigh out the raw banana and calculate accordingly.

So, in a sense, this is the same as reading a label – and is a good substitute when a label isn’t available.

Won’t This Calorie-Counting Thing Make Me Crazy?

Yes. I mean no. Well, maybe.  Depending on your personality, it could eventually.  I would never recommend someone continue counting calories forever, unless it was absolutely pertinent to them maintaining their weight loss efforts.

I also advise and require all clients to track their intake while working with me because it allows us to monitor progress and make adjustments when necessary.  It’s hard to make changes when you have no records to work from.

However, once you’ve tracked your intake for a while – you’ll have an idea of how much you’re eating on a daily basis.  Plus, if you’re like me and eat the same foods daily, it becomes pretty easy to never track a calorie again.

Attention: This Guide Is Not Complete

If you still have questions, ideas, suggestions for making this more thorough – please email me or respond with your questions in the comments.  I’ll go back and update the resource as needed.

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60 thoughts on “Counting Calories: A No-BS Guide”

  1. Since you had written this and assuming continue education, would you say this is still accurate on your views of how to handle nutrition? 11/2016

  2. I stumbled upon this site after having my first child and wanting to get back in shape and discovering Jessie Hilgenberg and the IIFYM. I was so confused by hitting you macros and calories because I was thinking of them as 2 seperate goals. I knew my calorie goal was 2200 and set my macros by that but then as i tried to plan my meals i could never get my days set because i would try to meet my 550 calorie meal and my 3 main micros as seperate things… I cant even explain it right… Reading this article made everything click. The macros are the calories. Im not a dummy but it took you breaking it down the way you did for me to get it. Definitely gonna read your other articles. Thanks for the light-bulb moment!!

  3. So with counting macronutrients you should still eat quality and quantity of food right? Also, what about frequency, should meals and/or snacks be ate throughout 2-3 hour intervals to keep blood sugar levels regulated? Or just as long as the macros are met it doesn’t matter how much or the times you eat ?

  4. Hey JC, is there any way to estimate calories if I do not cook? My family wishes for me to eat whatever they cook, although I can choose how much to eat (portion control), but not what, how should I go about it if I still wish to be a bodybuilder whilst putting family first?

  5. I’m a recently ‘converted’ macro counter (much happier running things this way) and have always wondered about the protein content in legumes, more specifically frozen green/petite peas. I’m curious what everyone’s take on it is.

    Assuming a similar carb portion size of frozen petite peas vs cooked brown rice (numbers taken from My Fitness Pal) we’d get:

    Peas:
    300 kcal
    60g carbs
    3g fat
    25g protein

    Rice:
    325 kcal
    67g carbs
    3g fat
    8g protein

    I follow a simplified leangains protocol and generally don’t count trace proteins in my starchy carb sources (per rippedbody.jp), but 3x the amount of protein within the green peas is pretty notable.

    My general policy is to make things easy and just cut the protein count in half, and proceed to hit my protein needs with meats (has overall worked just fine with good cutting results), but I was curious what you all thought.

    Thanks!

  6. Hi

    Interesting article and I see where you are coming from but I don’t understand why it is any easier to track macros instead of calories?

    I weigh most food and record it all in an app called fat secret (it has a UK food database which is handy for me being English :)) which counts both the calories and total macros anyway so I just look at both.

    On another note, you mention that you eat the same thing every day. Would you mind giving us an example of a daily meal plan? Including your macros of course 🙂

  7. Hey JC!

    About a month ago I got a job in door to door lead generation (essentially the outside equivalent of what you used to do over the phone) Im “on my feet” at the office for2-3 hours a day and “in the field” walking door to door 6-8 hours a day. I was training 2 days a week but am switching to three.

    Would you rate my activity level as active or very active when determining maintenance. (I am cutting)

    Obviously nothings set in stone, but I’m just curious to what your initial impression is, as a more experienced coach.

    -Chris

  8. What advice do you have for someone wanting to start counting their macros? If you have no “skeleton” of what you typically eat, what is the best way to try and start counting your macros? Like during the day if you see they are way off, how do you know how to adjust these numbers? Also, how long should you give your macronutrients a try? I am unsure on my percentages completely or what my goals should be. I eat paleo, will that change it drastically?

    • umm, this article is all about counting your macros. I don’t really know how to answer this because I explain to count macros instead of calories in the article.

      percentages don’t really matter… and you can still count your macros when consuming a paleo diet.

  9. So in reference to what you said here

    “Should I Count Macros or Calories?
    This question is easy. I never recommend tracking calories – macros only. Why? Because if you land the macros, you’re sure to be within the calorie range I’ve provided.
    Allow me to illustrate my point.
    Let’s say you’re aiming for a diet of 2000 calories with the following macros:
    200g protein
    165g carbohydrate
    60g fat
    200 + 165 = 365. 365×4 = 1,460 calories
    60×9 = 540 calories
    1,460 + 540 = 2000 calories
    So when I am tracking, I simply set my total calories, and then determine the macro composition. Once I know that – all I focus on is meeting the macro requirements.
    If you’re on a diet of 2000 calories, all you need to worry about is the macro composition”

    ___________________________________________________________________

    When trying to hit you macros/tracking them, are you just paying attention to get those GRAMS in for each macro?

  10. JC,

    This is kind of an unrelated question but not really. I was wondering how many calories are in one serving of the pumpkin cheesecake recipe that you cited in your article on BB.com? Cheesecake is my one guilty pleasure and I absolutely love pumpkin too. My birthday’s coming up in about six weeks and I wanted to try to replicate the recipe at home in lieu of a traditional birthday cake. Just wondering.

    Also, I don’t track my calories per say but I do read labels – particularly after having children – I feel I have to be somewhat of a more responsible and educated food consumer since I’m feeding two growing boys.

    I have an estimate of what I eat meal to meal but I don’t write anything down. I always use measuring cups b/c they are easier to clean than a food scale and take up less space in my kitchen, lol.

    I don’t know I just don’t see the point of tracking my every calorie – it seems like a lot of extra work to me. Besides, I’m kind of in maintenance mode at this point so I’m not on a strict restrictive diet to lose tons of weight and/or body fat. Everyone’s different though, whatever works for you.

    • just follow the recipe, and divide the totals by however many slices you make.

      I wrote this guide for those having questions – not to convince anyone to be counting or not.

  11. Brave man JC – it is one of my pet hates. I cannot accept that calorie counting is acceptable (on an ongoing basis) for anybody apart from those who rely on their bodies to make a living (e.g. athletes, models, bodybuilders etc).
    It is not a way that I would like to live. I understand that it can help many reach their short term fat loss goals and weight watcher clubs grow in popularity. But in the long term, it always will be more sustainable and flexible to eat a well balance diet. Live by the mirror instead?

  12. This is a great article! It’s so frustrating to try to count calories, and you hear sooo many mixed reviews about whether you should concentrate more on calories or on the content of your diet. The great part about this post is that you tell us how to synthesize that, and concentrate just on the macros of your diet. Thanks!

  13. Nice article! For those who don’t like tracking macros, I’ve always found it easier to just track calories and protein (min. 1g/lb bodyweight). Then I just use common sense food selection to ballpark my macros (fattier meats/foods on rest days and low-fat meats/high-carb foods on workout days). That way you only really have to worry about tracking two numbers…

    • while these are generally good guidelines for maintenance, I usually employ a more detailed plan when it comes to muscle gain, recomposition/strength maintenance on a diet.

      But I’ve used the method you suggested with great success.

  14. I find that it just makes me feel better knowing exactly what im getting in my diet, especially for the macros. I use the phone app myfitnesspal and it works well. A buddy of mine flew in this last weekend and I stopped tracking, ate everything in site, high calorie dense foods and after the fourth day he was here I noticed a slight pot belly I was developing and now I feel like and look like crap, so for me it’s just easier to keep tracking forever. It’s really not hard once you get used to it. Diet app and a scale and focus and I can do anything

  15. Measuring cups are for fluid ounces or volume measurements not the weight of food so it’s not one or the other. So if you have an 8 ounce cup of peanut butter , oats, or milk etc. it does not mean it weighs 8 ounces. Therefore when measuring tsp. of peanut butter they are using a volume measurement so your numbers will be skewed if you think it’s the same as weight. So of course 8oz of steak does not mean it’s equal to an 8oz cup. Hope this helps.

  16. I’ve been calorie counting for last 3 week as I’m on a fat loss phase. I don’t like it, but it’s a necessary evil. This the first time I’ve ever counted veggies in my calorie intake. I eat about 400-500g with my two largest meals per day (usually coniferous veg, or green beans) , so the cals add up. I’m hoping to get better results this time. I was underestimating my cals previously due to not counting veggies. I thinking using a food scale is must if you want accurate results.

    I use fitday.com. It’s quick, and easy, plus you can customize your foods. The cooked meat food selections really help as well.

  17. Great article JC. My one caution is for anyone who tends to obsess, the measuring scale should only be used for the short term – otherwise they often end up being a slave to it much past the time of them reaching their fitness goals.

    Dieting for a contest – that’s one thing, but otherwise..use it until you feel comfortable enough to eyeball with pretty good accuracy.

  18. For mom and pop type restaurants, I find a similar dish at a chain restaurant and use that. For example, when I go to a Mexican restaurant I usually get the fajitas. For the nutrition facts, I just use the website for Chili’s.

    As for calorie and macro tracking, lots of people are using the “myfitnesspal” app on their smartphones.

  19. These days my recipe books are on the bookshelf and I’m preparing a recipe from an online source, so my laptop is usually in the kitchen. So it’s easy to use an online tracker. Plus, when I want to recreate the recipe, I can see precisely what changes to the recipe I made that day.

  20. About time someone addressed this! Good going JC, can’t go wrong to be precise and approximate when appropriate, just gotta use some sense.

    At the risk of sounding like a troll, hater or whatever, does anyone else do an internal facepalm when they see a forum post or magazine article quoting an amount of calories to at least one decimal place? Even the nerdiest of us would be lucky to be within 5% of our targets in reality, never mind a tenth or hundredth of a calorie.

  21. Awesome article, JC. I stopped counting calories as soon as I found out that my calorie and macronutrient numbers weren’t 100% anyway. It got old fast.

  22. Hi JC, I feel that if you want to make counting calories even easier, you should include a guide for your readers to estimate portion sizes by eyeballing it.

    In other words, they should easily be able to estimate the amount of calories in, say, a fist-sized (3.5oz) size of cooked chicken.

    I feel that it trumps having to count the amount of calories by breaking down the amount of each macronutrient. A general estimation would go a long way in helping people be aware of how much they actually are eating.

    • that’s why I said after a while of tracking, you’ll know how much you’re eating (without having to measure it all out). Thus there’s no need to track anymore.

  23. What do you do when you trim fat off of a steak or pork? Just assume it’s 100% fat and we they trimmings you do not eat?

    • Sorry to jump in but I think you’re suggesting to weigh the trimmed fat and reduce calories accordingly – if so this would be pretty far out since that far would contain a fair bit of water. Same principle of draining ground beef – what you drain will far outweigh the known fat content

  24. GREAT READ!

    just some suggestions of subjects to touch on:
    Cal free food: a lot of people (myself included) tend to abuse cal free foods thinking they’re literally taking in ZERO cals when in reality its just <5 per serving. for instance per serving diet mountain dew has zero per serving, but 10 per bottle.

    also counting supps into your daily cals. A lot of kids i know don't count their efa's (10 cals per cap) at all for some reason even though some take up to 10 a day. Also bcaa's have cals even though they dont say so (normally 40 cals per serving)

    Also what's your stance on "net-carbs" I never bothered with it (too much hassle), but I'm sure a lot of dieters do.

    Again, great read!

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