weight loss

Ask the RD: Net vs Total Calorie Counting

I’ll begin this week’s Ask the RD post with a bit of a prelude to add context to the question; information and my opinion on calorie counting.

Calorie counting is the act of tracking one’s dietary intake to measure energy consumption. In order to do so, knowledge of portion sizes eaten, and the equivalent caloric number is needed. Many people (including clients of mine) use a food tracker such as My Fitness Pal to record their intake and determine how many calories they have eaten in a day when working towards a body composition goal.

Based on information submitted by the user (sex, height, weight), My Fitness Pal will generate a recommended calorie level (total calories). If the user enters their physical activities, the calorie goal will be adjusted to reflect this (net calories).

In general,  I don’t promote calorie counting, but I do think it can have a place under certain circumstances:

  1. For someone who has reached a plateau in their weight change goals, calorie counting (and accompanying weighing & measuring of food) can help ensure portion sizes are appropriate to support weight loss/gain.
  2. For someone who has reached their healthy weight range and is interested in weight loss for vanity purposes. At this point, natural hunger cues will make further weight loss a challenge, so calorie counting can be used temporarily to restrict food intake.

Q: I’m tracking my food intake and exercise using My Fitness Pal. Should I eat according to net calories or total calories?

A: With regards to using the total or net calorie goal in My Fitness Pal, I recommend going with total calories. The main reasons being that:

  1. It supports a consistent daily intake that can make changes easier to implement in the future as progress stalls.
  2. Activity energy expenditure calculators are a good reference tool, but not always the most accurate because there are so many factors involved (body composition, temperature, heart rate). They have a tendency to overestimate energy expenditure as you get more fit too.
  3. If you are exercising for relatively similar amounts of time and intensity on a regular basis, I think its fine to assume a general daily calorie expenditure from exercise and then eat according to total calories. An exception would be in the case of someone who is doing extreme levels of activity some days (eg marathon runners) who will likely need to increase their intake to meet energy needs on those high activity days.

Photo by Jessica @ Flickr.com

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