I’m detail orientated by nature. To me, numbers make sense, they’re easy to analyse, observe and present an easy way to spot patterns or causation. I’ve written in the past about self quantification and the advantages this can bring to someone interested in physical or aesthetic improvement and to a large extent, I still agree with many aspects of this school of thought.
However, as with most theories, it has limitations.
The main issue is that the data we can gather in respect of our bodies are estimates, at best. We simply cannot accurately measure the majority of systems that occur daily within our physiology – calorie and energy expenditure is a prime example of this. The idea that this can be boiled down to a function of height, weight and body-fat percentage can seem a bit simplistic. Consider, your week so far. Has every day been an exact mirror of the previous one? I’ll guess not. Some days you’re on your feet, others constrained to a desk, you might be stressed, overtired or sore from a training session the previous evening – all will affect your energy balance and immediately throw your estimates of ‘maintenance’ requirements into touch. By extension, it’s incorrect to assume that every day you need to eat the same way but despite this, many people blindly follow calorie requirements and macronutrient ratios to the tee, eating the same calories and macros day in, day out.
The issue is complicated further when you consider thermodynamics. Traditional dietary dogma relates to the concept of calories in vs calories out. Although this overall concept is binding (if you exceed energy requirements you’ll gain weight etc) it is too simplistic when applied to the human body. The first law assumes a closed system, one with no interactions with its external environment – not the human body. The second law is more relevant, it discusses, at the most simplistic level, that a system is open, interacts with an environment and can run on a spectrum of efficiencies. When you count calories, you do so by assuming a 4/4/9 split of calories from respective macronutrients. These are physical calories, what is obtained from the food in a closed study. Put these foods in the human body and things can change. Protein is often used as the main example as it has a high thermic effect of metabolism. The standard value is 4kcal/gram, some studies suggest that actually you could actually only obtain 3.2kcal/gram. Assume you consume 1g protein per pound, a 200lb male would assume 800kcal from protein alone, accounting for the variance this could actually be between 640 and 800kcal. Extrapolate this across a week and you could be getting between 4480kcal and 5600kcal from protein alone. Considering that carbohydrate and fat also have varying efficiencies and immediately despite your best efforts, you could be completely wrong and even this is assuming that the calories listed on the food you’re eating are precisely accurate, not the averages that they actually are. Further to this, the whole body can run at different efficiencies, remove carbohydrates and your metabolism becomes less efficient (think of driving a car constantly in 2nd gear – it needs more fuel to cover the same distance), equally, remove carbohydrates and add them in large boluses and metabolism becomes more inefficient still.
So we consume an uncertain amount of energy from food, an amount that will depend on macronutrient mix and type of food and we metabolise it at varying rates depending on time, temperature, the state of your body – to name but a few. In summary, calorie counting is arbitrary and really tells us nothing, it’s just a way of recording how much and what we ate, nothing more.
Is calorie counting bad? Not necessarily. After all, as long as you’re using an outcome based decision process, you’ll always head in the right direction. However, when it falls down is when you let these numbers override intuition, a situation that seems to happen a lot with advocates of this approach. It’s better to be in tune with your body, observe how you respond, notice how things feel and adapt to the reactions. Not only is this liberating, it’s also more likely to work in the long term and in many respects – more accurate. If you can manipulate the way you look and perform without counting calories and going by feel then you’ve reached a true level of mastery over your body. Remember, even the most precise weighing and measuring can be wrong because we don’t know enough to get it right, a more accurate method is to respond to physical cues (hunger, what you look like and how you feel) and roll with the punches. Each day is different, by extension each week is different and we have no accurate way of knowing what how what our bodies are doing and when.
Blinded by numbers
Have you ever forced down a meal because you’ve not met your macros? Slammed carbs around training, despite looking soft in the mirror, because you NEED to get in your ‘training day calories’? What about spent days on end in a deprived stupor because you need to hit a certain deficit in a certain time to lose ‘x’ % body-fat.
All the above are examples of letting precision over-rule your intuition. You have to consider that eating far past the point of hunger on a regular basis may only serve to prime the environment for fat gain and under-eating to the point of feeling weak and deprived may send cortisol spiralling and actually slow, even prevent fat-loss. Our bodies and metabolisms are highly complex and adaptive, try to force something too much and you’ll likely get a result you don’t want.
If you pay attention, you’re body gives you all the feedback you need, you just need to listen. If you’re trying to get leaner, are you looking leaner week by week, month by month? If not, it doesn’t matter what your calorie spreadsheet says. Are you waking up holding water? macronutrient ratios aside, you’re eating too many carbs. Have you been adding strength while looking lean in the mirror? No matter how many calories you’re consuming, you shouldn’t change a thing.
A different approach
Obviously the above doesn’t surmise a concise method. There’s the obvious problem that if you always adjust what you do day by day and it DOESN’T work, you won’t know why. It’s all very well saying ‘I want to gain lean weight but I’m gaining too much fat, I’ll eat less’ if you can’t quantify what you eat in some way, after all, subject to the above you’ll eat differently every day.
The problem with meticulous tracking is that it drives you to be led by numbers, given that your body is an undulating system, it’s a gross-oversimplification of a vastly complex mechanism to assume these numbers actually matter. If you convince yourself your maintenance is 3000kcal and plan everything around that number, you can easily make decisions on a daily basis that fly in the face of logic. If you’re trying to lose fat but are never hungry, you’re probably eating too much but may continue to do so because you’re in a theoretical deficit. The same applies to the converse, if you’re eating to the point of nausea just so you’re over maintenance you’re likely on the quick road to fat gain.
The key therefore, is to let hunger cues, appearance, performance and how you feel drive your eating decisions while still recording the process. In order to do this; record what you eat, after you’ve eaten it and don’t plan meals, determine quantity by what you FEEL and the results of your actions. At the end of each day, you’ll still be able to review how many calories, grams of protein and foods you eat but the way in which you arrived at these will be entirely different. Equally, what we do with this information will change, it’s merely a record of a process that allows us to make changes going forward. The calories you ingest subject to your arbitrary maintenance doesn’t really matter that much. It may seem like a simple erratum but one that can vastly improve your understanding of how you respond to adjustments in real time.
For this to work there are a few crucial pre-reqs in order for this approach to work:
1) You must eat slowly and stop eating when you no longer feel hungry/have the physical desire to eat
2) You must eat unprocessed food
3) You must make sure you’re eating within a confidence interval of 500kcal from your formula predicted amount consistently
4) You must be using the PropaneProtocol or CarbBackloading
Eating too fast will bypass satiety cues, the last thing you want is to shovel food down before your body has even recognised the calories. Highly processed food also bypasses satiety cues, this doesn’t mean that you have to go Paleo, more that you should minimise the amounts of processing in your foods (make you’re own pizza rather than buying the frozen variety). Pay attention to WHY you’re eating, is it because of physiological or psychological want? Again, choosing unprocessed foods and limiting additives and chemicals will help you to distinguish between the two. If you eat within a 1000kcal bracket over and under your formula determined calories, you’re unlikely to get things too wrong, this just allows you to regulate things by feel while still respecting the general principles, for example, if a calorie formula suggests 2800kcal per day and you eat several hundred calories over/under each day letting hunger dictate the fluctuations you’ll get equal or better results. This is more a check to ensure people don’t vastly under or over eat, it’s a way of ensuring we’re in the right ballpark and then making it more accurate for your physiology.
Micro and macro managing to progress
When using this method its imperative to use checkpoints to assess how things are going. My ‘micro’ checkpoint, is each morning. At this point I can pretty effectively judge how well what I did yesterday worked. I consider:
1) How do I look: is my skin tight or slack? has definition blurred somewhat or am I looking as lean or leaner?
2) Do my muscles feel full and hard to the touch or soft and stringy?
3) What is my weight doing? Is it up or down from the previous day?
I note down my weight, maybe how I feel if there’s anything exceptional (stomach discomfort/mental fog) and take a progress photo in the same place with the same lighting.
The answer to all of these questions together with the picture will in essence give me a result of either continue as normal or make a change. Let’s say definition has blurred somewhat, but my muscles feel quite hard to the touch. I can discern that I got more than enough carbs and calories the previous day, I need less today – even if I’m training. Equally, If my muscles feel soft to the touch and definition isn’t as sharp as it has been I’ll add more carbs and maybe fat. I consider what I did the previous day, did I eat until I felt full? If so, I need to make some changes, choose less dense foods or make the meals less viscous to allow myself to still run on intuition. If I eat past satiety on that day then I know the system didn’t fail, I just need to eat less carbs and calories for the next couple of days until tightness returns.
With repeated application you can develop certain conclusions, maybe you work best with paleo style foods and can only eat as much as you’d like with less dense sources or maybe you need to bypass satiety cues somewhat to help you get in more food and throw in sugary cereal or some pastry. Maybe you even look better the next day if you chow down on pizza and ice cream rather than rice and chicken. You’ll also develop lines of causation: I eat a large bowl of rice and a few donuts last night and looked lean and tight today – I’ll know I got things right given what my body needed and how it responded on that day so I’m starting to get it right. This takes time though, at first you may get it wrong maybe even gain some fat or not progress in the gym but you’ll still learn – if you follow your bodies cues but gain fat look back over your records, how much were you eating? You obviously need to check yourself a little more and finish eating just short of feeling full. Ultimately, aim to look good as often as possible, if you look watery – eat less, if strength stagnates for more than a few weeks – add a pastry or two.
This leads me onto Macro checkpoints:
So the goal of micro-checkpoints is to assist your decisions day to day, you strive to look good as often as possible, note your foods and track calories but pay little if any attention to them. A macro-checkpoint occurs less often but is actually more important. I include several. The end of each week, the end of each month and every 8 weeks. I track different things at each:
At the end of each week:
– I calculate my average weight (this irons out any water induced fluctuations)
– I calculate my total calorie intake and estimated weekly surplus/deficit (remember this is just for reference)
– I choose ‘best’ daily progress photo
– I note any deviations, how I’ve felt and how training sessions are going
At the end of each month:
– I compare my average weight in the first and last weeks in the month, noting the difference
– I compare the selected photos from the first and last week
– I outline any deviations from the plan over the month or any abnormal events (away with work/exams etc)
At the end of each 9 week block (3 training cycles)
– I get a biosignature test to measure my skinfold readings
– I test my strength on the 4 main movements (I may go for a 1RM of just compare my top sets at the time)
– I compare photos and weights from the previous 8 week block.
Developing a plan
I can’t simply provide an article saying ‘don’t count calories and get shredded/gain lean mass’ without actually providing some kind of actionable plan. So, here you go:
As mentioned above, I’ll assume you’re using the PropaneProtocol, training a few times a week and therefore cycling macros on training and rest days. If you don’t want to fast, have some coconut oil in coffee when you wake up, maybe some whey isolate and take your vitamin D and then hold off calories until lunch. Personally, I mix a scoop of vanilla isolate into a strong coffee, add a tablespoon of coconut oil and some chocamine – this makes a creamy mocha style drink. I’ll accompany this with a few litres of filtered water on my way to work to wash down a few grams of creatine and green tea caps.
The first meal is fixed, here you are going to pre-plan and count calories I’m afraid, we need to keep some things constant to allow the rest of the plan to work, you have no real need for high calories during this portion of the day but you want to avoid fasting for too long. Optimally, during your training session you’ll dump adrenalin (assuming carbs are kept low), however, if you fast up until the evening your body will likely respond by dumping adrenaline before the session in response to the calorie deficit, you may have experienced a hot, flushed feeling . Your body also starts to restrict energy expenditure when an extreme calorie deficit is sensed. If carbs are kept to a minimum you’ll mimic the metabolic environment of fasting almost exactly so there is no real disadvantage to eating at midday (or earlier) as long as you avoid carbs.
You want around 20% of what you consider to be your maintenance, around 500kcal for most people. You need to make sure this meal is as low carb as possible while still being satiating. Some fatty meat with mixed salad leaves and veg is a good idea, maybe include some fish oil and supplements here if you want. What’s important is make protein and fat equal in grams (40g protein and 40g fat). I like to make a large salad of mixed leaves, spinach, the odd tomato and black olives, with this I’ll have some grass-fed beef or chicken, some fish oil and maybe add some cheese/avocado/olive oil/ coconut oil to balance the macros. I tend to include a multi-vitamin here just to cover my bases.
If you’re training (I’ll assume at around 5-6pm) then have a scoop of whey isolate with MCTs (or coconut oil) and some caffeine, if you can handle, it pre-training. Sip some BCAAs during if you want to, advisable if your session is over 90 minutes or very high volume. Afterwards, have another scoop of whey and add some leucine (3g minimum), have a ripe banana/mango/raisins or dextrose powder. You just want a small bump of carbs to break to ketogenic cycle, the leucine will amplify the insulin spike here.
Up to this point you’ve done a few things: consumed plenty of essential fats, vitamins and minerals, spiked protein synthesis strategically in the AM and around training while adding some slow releasing sources at lunch to ensure a long term anabolic environment and you’ve done all this while keeping calories to a bare minimum.
Now comes the auto-regulating part.
When you get home you’ll likely be pretty hungry, an obvious problem. We don’t want to experience runaway hunger that will cause rushed or overeating. So, before ingesting anything, mix another scoop of whey isolate with some fibre in 1 litre of water. This will attenuate any hunger. You then begin a step-by-step meal approach, this helps to keep things under control.
Meal 1: This must be lean protein and vegetables. Another salad or a stir fry would be good options here. Limit the carbs and keep fats to a minimum
Meal 2: This is the remainder of your protein for the day and a good amount of carbs – sweet potato, white rice, rice cakes, stick to whole foods but keep them high GI. Casein protein powder or cottage cheese would be good choices and get in a good hit of carbs, try to judge this on how you look.
Meal 3: Eat what you like, in moderation. Stop when you’re full.
Don’t plan your meals or concern yourself with how many calories but track what you eat at the end of the day. Make changes as per the above based on how you respond and use the checkpoints as prescribed.
So there you have at. A better way than counting calories? Try it. Let me know what you think.