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Calorie Counting is Not Necessary, Part I

By Bob Seebohar

Did I get your attention yet? I am hoping you are at least mildly intrigued and I encourage you to be skeptical.  Please promise me you will be open-minded though. I have learned a great deal from the endurance athletes whom I have been fortunate to work with over the years and the overall consensus that I have received over and over again has led me to develop my second mantra, “simple is sustainable.”  I firmly believe that trying to follow a certain amount of calories per day sets athletes up for failure and doesn’t give them permission to listen to their bodies.  If you are the calorie counter that I am referring to, I hope to take you from the “dark side” to a state of enlightenment, so to speak.

Physiology of Calorie Counting
The infamous energy balance equation states that calories in equals calories out.  It highlights the calories consumed through carbohydrate, protein, fat and alcohol while the calories expended fall into the categories of resting metabolic rate (RMR), exercise, the thermic effect of food and lifestyle/occupational activity.  This equation is beneficial for teaching athletes about the various components of calorie intake and expenditure but it does nothing to help devise a daily eating program that is both sustainable and enjoyable.  Think about it, if you knew your RMR, calories that you burn through exercise and lifestyle/occupation and estimated your thermic effect of food that you eat, what does that really give you?  You end up with a total number that is still an estimate in addition to trying to figure what to do with that number.  

For example, after a good amount of time and energy trying to figure out the total calories that you burn in a day, how do you then figure how much food to eat to support this?  How do you determine the amount of carbohydrate, protein and fat?  There are some great methods to make a great attempt at this but it is still an estimation and one that does not empower you to listen to your body.  Additionally, keep in mind that each macronutrient has a different metabolic effect on the body so increasing carbohydrates one day and lowering them the next could have a significant impact on how you feel, especially since your training sessions are different on a daily basis.  What about rest days?  Your energy expenditure obviously changes so wouldn’t it make sense to alter your daily calorie intake for rest days?  Of course it would but that begs the question, “why even bother?”  How many daily calorie budgets do you really need?  Is it worth it?  Absolutely not.

Plugging in all of your numbers into the energy balance equation simply reinforces the need of being a slave to numbers.  I understand that some triathletes enjoy their quantitative data that they receive from their heart rate monitors, power measuring devices and GPS units but the simple fact is that there comes a time where you have to trust your body and instinct.  Don’t get me wrong, I am all for reading nutrition facts labels for the purpose of making good choices, not for the purpose of adding more numbers to your already stressful life.

Stay tuned for part two of this article in next week’s Multisport Zone – Bob will describe the psychological associations of calorie counting.

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a sport dietitian and elite triathlon coach. He traveled to the 2008 Summer Olympics as the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Dietitian and the personal Sport Dietitian for the 2008 Olympic Triathlon Team. He has served as head coach for Sarah Haskins, 2008 Olympian, was a performance team member (sport dietitian and strength coach) for Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon bronze medalist. He is the current coach of Jasmine Oeinck, 2009 Elite National Champion.

Bob's new book, Metabolic Efficiency Training: Teaching the Body to Burn More Fat, will teach athletes how to structure their nutrition and training program throughout the year to maximize their body's ability to use fat as energy and improve body composition.  For more information and to order the book, visit or contact Bob at