Of Calories And Counting

Doesn't look very tasty, actually.

Long time no post, eh? I’ve been a bit of a world traveler with stories to tell about Central America. One of the things I didn’t get a lot of is calories while I was on vacation. Perhaps in line with Seth Robert’s Shangri-La Diet, the flavors of the food I was eating wasn’t what I was used to. They were novel and as a result I didn’t really crave them. I came home below 9% body fat, my lowest ever. A perfect time to bulk and test a recomp system…a report for later.

I digress…calories. I wasn’t getting many. How many should you be getting? How many ARE you getting? Well, that depends.This post is mostly inspired by a line I saw on another trainer’s Facebook wall. As a rule, trainers don’t hang out with other trainers unless they’re employed by the same company or work opposite ends of town. Perhaps like family, the closer trainers are to one another, the less they get along. I wish this person well in their business efforts, but I took special notice of this statement, regarding a new resting metabolic rate calculator:

Everyone that has had their RMR tested here thus far has found out that they should be eating more.

The first question you should be asking is: More than what? Specifically, concerns with such a statement are the following:

1. People don’t know what they’re eating

In my decade’s long love affair with this business, I can count on 2 hands the number of people who have stepped into my door for advice knowing EXACTLY what they were eating on a daily basis. Without a food journal, people tend not to count little handfuls of whatever they find at the office as “food” and caloric drinks tend not to be included in this mental storehouse.

2. People underestimate how much they’re eating

The fact is that not only do most people not know, they frequently and drastically underestimate their intake. I appreciate a handful of studies that take people to task, locking them in a metabolic ward and feeding them exactly how much they claimed to have been eating. The shocker? They lose weight. Of course they did.

3. Considering the former, how can knowing RMR give you anything but noise?

Since people don’t know how much they eat, RMR is one bit of noisy data. It is also a fluctuating number, depending on food intake, on the macronutrient split of your diet, on your activity, on changes in body mass and composition…this is not a Ronco product. It is NOT set it and forget it. To get an idea of how many steps are involved, take a look at John Berardi’s writeup on determining RMR here. Also, note that there is a multiplication factor involved; depending on who you ask, they either think office work is “strenuous work” or nap time.

So taking into account all of those factors, how is it possible to say for sure that a client needs more calories? It’s not. Depending on a person’s goals they might NEED more calories, but considering the vast majority of clients showing up for our services are looking to feel better or lose weight, recommending more calories is irrelevant for the former and the polar opposite of what is necessary for the latter.

Calories matter. However, what matters first is food quality (not bodybuilder “clean” foods but rather reducing processed food and increasing protein, fat, and fiber) and personal preference. From there, depending on the goals of the trainee, calories can be adjusted. But without all of the above, the RMR is just noise.

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7 thoughts on “Of Calories And Counting

  1. So much craziness surrounds the topic of diet, especially so of weight loss and weight gain. Imagine if it *were* (even remotely) possible to accurately calculate a subject’s R/BMR…and, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that a calorie, regardless of its source, imparted upon the body the same metabolic/hormonal “hit” across the board. Then what? Weigh-and-measure hell wouldn’t even come close to describing the madness that would ensue. Again, we (the public) have to understand and acknowledge the limits of the mathematical tools we choose to utilize; in this case, the R/BMR “tool” is about as useful as a dial-less caliper.

    Nice to have you back, by the way -

    • Keith,

      I agree wholeheartedly. It’s important to understand that neither of us are saying calories *don’t* matter, but for the vast majority of the average person’s goals, moving to a paleo diet with 90% adherence would get them there. I think Berardi calls this “level 1″ and notes that a lot of his highly competitive athletes never move beyond this.

      For the sake of argument right back, I think if someone is a total novice, some level of tracking is good. As I pointed out, people often and drastically underestimate what they eat. This could be merely keeping a food journal for 2 weeks at the start or just tracking protein. Eventually, people get really good at eyeballing portions and have some ideas about energy density.

      A nice parallel, I feel, is autoregulation. Tell a novice to “do what feels best and strong” and they’re going to do lots of bench presses and curls. Getting a sense of all this takes some practice, and eventually being in tune with yourself enough to go by feel (with some process cues).

      • No doubt; assess, evaluate, and implement a successful action plan, no matter how “elementary” that plan may seem to those of us who are (relatively) “in the know”. I’m certainly guilty of having jumped all into the deep-ended nutrition discussion with someone before, only to have them stop me to ask, after a long-winded insulin/leptin spiel, “now, what exactly is the difference between protein and carbohydrates?”. So basically all I accomplished was to reinforce this person’s notion that proper diet is some kind of black, hoo-doo art. Bleh. Not one of my finest moments.

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