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Calorie Counting: Challenges of the Numbers Game

By Dina Griffin

mzCounting calories has long been considered the primary approach to assessing food intake and calorie needs, especially for those desiring weight loss. You have heard it is as simple as “calories in, calories out” for losing (and managing) weight, but if it were really that easy, then why do so many athletes fail or give up after trying calorie counting?

A big part of the lack of success is due to the “numbers” or quantitative aspects. Let us examine some of the issues so you better understand the inherent challenges.

Accuracy... or not
First of all, in order to track calories, you have to be accurate in tracking every morsel of food and calorie-laden drop of liquid you put in your body. For this to work, you must measure or weigh every ingredient in every meal and snack. When you dine out, you need to have the tools with you to quantify what you eat and you better record it in the moment, lest you forget when you go to log your information later. If you have a restaurant’s nutritional information, you probably should check with the manager to make sure recipes have not changed from when the data were printed. You also have to adjust for when you order without the dressing or the sauce on the side, except how do you know exactly what to change? Then comes time to confess...are you being honest with your food intake? Did you forget anything? Many studies have shown that we tend to under-report rather than over-report our actual food intake. Even if you can devote time and attention to being as precise as possible, the process is very time-consuming, detailed, and quite frankly overwhelming.

Another challenge involved in calorie counting is what you use to record your information. You may choose books, smartphone apps, and web-based databases to log your foods. Do you know where these resources retrieve their information? Some may not be current. Some do not contain an exact match of what you are eating and then you must choose a similar food, which can add a second level of error if you didn’t eat the exact quantity and type of food to begin with.

Most of the calorie trackers use a formula to calculate your energy needs based on data such as age, weight, gender and activity level. These data points are a starting point for determining calorie needs, but for triathletes, our needs can vary significantly day to day based on training sessions and training cycle. The calorie programs are not good enough to determine your specific needs every day. In addition, the “calories burned” calculators can be in the range of 30 percent off in their estimations of your expenditure. It is true that there are some calculators that will use your heart rate, power output, and other individual data to determine calories burned, but there simply is no 100 percent accuracy level that can be achieved.

Lost in numbers
Even when you understand all of the above issues and you still measure, log, and enter your foods eaten, what do all the numbers tell you? How do you know what to look for in order to make adjustments towards your goals? I often hear from athletes frustrations such as “I am eating less than the calories I am supposed to, but why I am not losing weight?” or “If I am only eating 15 percent fat calories, shouldn’t I be losing weight?” 

This is where we have to move on and examine things like where you are in your training cycle, quality of your nutrition, nutrient timing through your day and around your training sessions, energy levels and hunger levels. We have to move away from the “I just burned 1000 calories so I can eat whatever I want” mentality. All of these pieces may seem at first like more work, but once you see and learn there are simple and sustainable ways to achieve your goals without having to count calories, you will never return to the number crunching of calorie counting!

Dina Griffin, MS, RD, CSSD is a sport dietitian for Fuel4mance, a nutrition consulting and coaching company based in Colorado. She works with a diverse range of athletes, including those who have diabetes. Learn more about her at