South African Bodybuilding and Fitness

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An area dedicated to sharing the science and knowledge behind advanced diets and nutritional ideas.
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By Bigfitness
Calorie Counting 101

If you are new to the losing fat section of the forum then it will not take long for someone to tell you that in order to lose fat one must eat less calories than one's body burns in a day. To do this one must have an accurate count of calories consumed. This guide will go over the basics of counting calories. It will not cover how many calories a day one should consume or what macronutrient ratio is optimal for fat loss. That can be found here:
Calculating Calories and Macronutrients

Logging foods: In the old days bodybuilders would use a pen and paper to log everything they ate and calculate the calories and macronutrients consumed by hand. This method will still work but it's the 21st century and we have more time efficient ways to do it. I will link the 2 most popular online food logging websites. Both of these sites have apps for smartphones. They are both free.

Whether you choose fitday, myfitnesspal, another website/app, or use pen and paper, the principles of counting will remain the same. You must log everything you consume in a day that contains calories. This includes liquids and/or supplements that contain calories. Some people also log calorie free foods (gum, diet soda, black coffee, etc). Since they do not contain any calories, this is optional. They may however contain something that you want to track (vitamins, minerals, sodium).

Weighing foods: You must weigh your foods! Do not estimate! Weigh everything on a kitchen scale. Preferably a digital scale that weighs in grams. Only liquids can be measured by volume. On a package of oatmeal the label will usually say that a serving size is ½ cup. It will also have 40g in parentheses. Use a scale to weigh out 40 grams. You will find that if you dump oats into a ½ cup measuring cup that it won’t always equal 40 grams. This becomes more important with calorically dense food such as peanut butter. 1 tablespoon is usually 100 calories, however one can easily put 2-3 “tablespoons” worth of peanut butter on the end of a normal kitchen spoon. Instead weigh the peanut butter according to how many grams are in a serving. The same goes for scoopers found in supplements. One scoop of whey does not always equal 1 serving. Always weigh your whey! Here are some links to a couple of kitchen scales for purchase: Digital Kitchen Scale or Kitchen Scale

Handling foods with no nutritional information: Sometimes fruits, vegetables, and meats do not come with nutritional information. The USDA has a comprehensive list of nearly all fruits, vegetables, and many different cuts of meats in grams.

Using myfitnesspal you can simply search the fruit, vegetable, or meat with “usda” afterwards to obtain the same nutritional information. When weighing meat, ALWAYS WEIGH IT RAW. The nutritional facts are based on the raw weight of meat unless packaging specifically states otherwise. This is true for just about any food you cook.

Dining out: When dining out, attempt to find nutritional information on the restaurant you are at. Many larger chains have all that information available. Know that this is somewhat of an estimate as they are not weighing things to the gram in the kitchen. They also might be liberal with ingredients like butter and oil which can add up quickly. If the restaurant does not provide nutritional information for their meals, attempt to deconstruct your meal and track it piece by piece. Bring a food scale to a restaurant if you must. If you want to ensure absolute accuracy, don’t eat out.

Accuracy: Accept the fact that you will never be 100% accurate. The FDA allows for up to a 20% margin of error with nutritional information. You must simply do the best you can possibly do to not let that margin grow any larger by estimating what you have eaten. Along these lines you will find products that claim to be zero calories like mustard, cooking spray, and many others. They actually have somewhere between 0-5 calories per serving. Because of rounding they can claim zero on the label. If you want to be precise, count them as 5 calories a serving. This is increasingly important if you consume these products frequently.

Once you have a solid idea of what your daily/weekly consumption is like, it is easy to manipulate calories to fulfill whatever your goals may be. Before you decide that you need to increase or decrease calories to help accomplish goals, ask yourself “Am I tracking everything correctly?” Are you drinking something with calories and not counting it? Are you weighing everything to the gram? Are you having cheat days/meals that you are not tracking? If you answer yes to any of these then your caloric goals may be correct, you are simply not meeting them.

Tips:Here are some tips that I personally like to use in my own tracking of calories:

When weighing condiments I zero the scale with the container sitting on the scale. I apply the condiments to my food. I then put the container back on the scale. It will read a negative number in grams. That is how much condiment I used. This does not work for aerosols like pam or whip cream.

If I am on a cut and am going out to eat at a restaurant with no nutritional information, I reconstruct the meal in myfitnesspal and add 10% to the caloric total. This is in case I underestimated. Research shows humans are notorious at underestimating what they eat. In the rare case I overestimated the calories contained in the meal, I can enjoy a small extra deficit for the day.

Myfitnesspal lets you enter in your own foods. If something is not in their database you can add it. I get my burritos from Chipotle the same way every time. They have all their nutritional information listed on their website. After I determine the values of my burrito I create the food in MFP and don’t have to bother with it next time. The same goes for Subway.

If you want to weigh liquids, this site will help you based on what liquid you are weighing

Final thoughts: Counting calories is in my opinion the best thing one can do to help lose weight. This guide was written to help you be as close to 100% accurate as possible. Some of you might not like the idea of bringing a food scale to a restaurant or weighing condiments. These things aren’t musts. If you don’t want to do them then you must accept that you will be less accurate than if you had. If you are a bodybuilder preparing for a competition then you will want to be as accurate as humanly possible. If you are a gym rat with no real deadlines and don’t mind if your cut takes a few weeks longer than planned, feel free to be a little less strict. If you find you are not losing weight despite the fact that your caloric intake is low enough that you should be, then you need to start doing things like weighing condiments. Only then can you be truly sure it is time to lower calories.

Hope this helps! Feel free to add your own tips below and I can add them to the main article.
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By Rolan
Thank you bigfitness, this is a marvelous article and should really help anyone who is serious about Calories. I personally use myfitnesspal to track my calories and can honestly say it's the best app for the job.
User avatar
By Mikebloom
Bigfitness, thanks a lot for this wonderful post. I usually make use of the BMR calculator but it seems I will reconsider using the one you mentioned. Thanks for this. Calories are the major concern for anyone that cares to gain or loss weight. I am going to share this post with some friends too! :D
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