We’ve all seen the headlines: Counting calories isn’t the key to weight loss. All you have to do is eat better. Or shift your mindset. Or establish better habits. Or whatever is popular by the time you read this.
For me, this argument is more personal than most fitness-industry food fights. If calorie counting didn’t work, I’d still be overweight. I lost 40 pounds in three months, and contrary to everything you’ve heard about long-term sustainability, I’ve kept the weight off.
I don’t say this to make an n=1 argument in favor of something that works for me, and has worked for my clients, and for other trainers and their clients as well—especially when the consensus is that someone trying to lose weight should focus on anything but counting calories.
So let’s start with a premise most of us can agree on: Weight loss isn’t a binary choice. You can help your client eat better, shift her mindset, establish better habits, and also count calories, if you think it will help.
If you accept the most basic fact of weight management—that calories in and out are all that matters—the logic behind counting is inarguable. “What’s measured can be managed,” says researcher and trainer Eric Helms, PhD.
But, Helms adds, it’s also important to understand when counting calories is unlikely to work. “You have to meet someone where they’re at,” he says. “A lot of people don’t know the difference between protein, fat, and carbs.”
How do you figure out where to begin with a new client? How can you assess what they know and don’t know without forcing them to take a pop quiz?
That’s why I came up with this five-step guide to evaluating and educating your clients. Your goal is to help them get from wherever they are now (most likely Step 1 or 2) to the end of the continuum, or as far as they’re interested in going.
Step 1: Lay the Foundation
“The first thing you feel out is their level of knowledge,” says physique coach Bryan Krahn. “Do they know what a calorie is?”
You can’t expect them to recite the dictionary definition (the amount of energy it takes to increase the temperature of a gram of water by one degree Celsius), but they should understand why calories matter.
Even if they know, you don’t want them to proceed to counting unless they’ve adopted these habits:
- Follow a consistent meal schedule
- Eat whole or minimally processed foods most of the time
- Eat slowly, and stop eating when satisfied, but not stuffed
- Read nutrition labels and observe serving sizes and calorie content
Don’t look for perfection, or anything close to it, so much as an understanding that these are all important to long-term weight control.
Meanwhile, as your client works on these habits and behaviors, you’ll want to know what effect they’re having on her weight. Is it going up? Down? Staying the same? For most clients, you’ll recommend regular self-weighing.
If she’s uncomfortable weighing herself, ask if she’s intimidated by the scale itself, or if she just doesn’t like the idea of sharing her weight with you. If it’s the latter, ask her to update you on whether the number is changing, and if so, in which direction.
But if it’s a problem with knowing the number at all, you have a couple of options. You can try girth measurements; she can take them herself if she’s not comfortable with you doing them. Just steer clear of using the mirror as a progress marker. It’s too subjective, and thus too easy for your client to see something that may or may not be there.
Once your client has mastered these skills, and you’ve monitored her progress long enough to know if they’re working for her, it’s time for Step 2.
Step 2: Learn to Count
Now you’ll have your client start to track calories, but without any specific target. Call it calorie counting 101. You want him to try it for at least a couple of weeks, although a month would be better.
The easiest way is to have him use My Fitness Pal to log everything he eats. You can also suggest buying a scale to weigh foods before cooking them, if you think the client is ready for it.
Ask him to be as accurate as possible without stressing over each morsel. Again, the goal isn’t perfection, or to impose a permanent way of life on your client. It’s to develop a skill.
“A lot of trainers view calorie counting as this thing you just do forever, until you’ve hit your goal,” Helms says. Clients will get frustrated and stop counting. When they stop counting, they may stop doing lots of things, like reading food labels and exercising portion control. “Then, invariably, the trainer blames it on them, when it was just an unrealistic expectation in the first place.”
You can preempt that resistance by helping your client gain confidence in his new skills. Find out what foods make him feel happy, energized, and satiated with minimal calories. At the same time, come up with a list of foods he’ll want to avoid, the ones that make him feel worse, or that he can’t have without overindulging. You aren’t trying to demonize foods or food groups, which creates unnecessary anxiety, so much as figure out which ones make it easier or harder to reach his goals.
Two ways to tell if your client has mastered this step:
- When he deviates from his routine, he can get right back to it.
- When he’s having a meal out, he can estimate the calories based on the portion size and ingredients. (This applies mostly to clients who use a food scale at home.)
A client who masters these skills can skip over the next two steps and go to intuitive eating in Step 5.
However, if the client wants to continue tracking calories, and apply them to a physique or performance goal, take him to Step 3.
Step 3: Set Numerical Goals
This is where a lot of coaches begin with their clients. It might even work, especially if you get a client who understands nutrition basics and is highly motivated.
But if you’re looking for a reason why calorie counting so often fails, here you are. A client who only vaguely understands the information on a nutrition label and has never tried to add it all up isn’t likely to succeed without the introductory steps I just described.
Your challenge here is to come up with a calorie target for your client. You’ll start with an estimation of her energy needs—an easy task if she maintained a steady weight over several weeks of calorie logging in Step 2. Whatever her daily average was, that’s what she needs for energy balance. If she gained or lost a little weight, adjust accordingly.
(Quick and dirty math to estimate a maintenance number: Add up all the calories for the monitoring period. Add 3,500 for each pound lost, or subtract 3,500 for each pound gained. Divide by the number of days you monitored.)
The next task is to create a model of what a day of eating might look like. If the client’s goal is to lose weight, the model should allow for an energy deficit while sticking to foods she likes. (You should have a pretty good idea of what those are by now.) You can also recommend protein targets if you think your client is ready for it.
What you can’t do is prescribe a specific meal plan unless you’re an RD. (Precision Nutrition cofounder John Berardi, PhD, offered a complete rundown of the rules in this PTDC article: Can Personal Trainers Give Diet and Nutrition Advice to Clients?).
Make sure you give your client some day-to-day wiggle room; the last thing you want is for her to strive for some imaginary “perfect” number. “You’re not doing any better by being perfect,” Helms says, for three important reasons:
- You can only estimate calorie intake; nutrition labels aren’t accurate enough for anything more.
- You don’t know your client’s energy expenditure, and don’t have the technology for more than an educated guess.
- It’s not healthy to count every grain of rice “so you hit exactly 346 grams of carbs, as opposed to 340 or 348,” Helms says.
As I said earlier, counting calories and building healthy habits aren’t mutually exclusive. You still need to encourage clients not to eat when they’re not hungry; otherwise, they may be tempted to squeeze in an extra meal at the end of the day because they “have calories left.”
Also encourage the serenity prayer approach to diet strategies: Control what they can, and accept what they can’t. That’s especially true when eating in restaurants and on special occasions. If they have no control over their food choices, the next best thing is to eat slowly and stop when satisfied.
READ ALSO: Five Ways to Help Your Clients Lose Weight
Step 3.5: Take a Break
Let’s say your client has been dieting for several months without a slip-up. But you’re picking up on some warning signs. Maybe the quality of his workouts is starting to decline. Or he tells you he’s having trouble sleeping. Or he seems to be under more stress than usual. Or you notice he’s getting obsessive about food and calories.
This could be a good time to take a time-out. The goal, Helms says, is to “have a break before the break is forced on you.”
For most clients, this can be as simple as asking them to practice eating with their new, healthier habits, but without the “training wheels” of a numerical goal.
For more advanced clients, like physique competitors or athletes with weight-class goals, you could have them increase their daily calories so they’re in energy balance instead of a deficit.
A diet break doesn’t have to be reactive. You can plan for it by looking ahead to a holiday or vacation week, or any other time when the client wouldn’t have much control over her diet to begin with. By making that break part of the program, you can have it both ways: The client gets a week without the stress of tracking everything she eats, but she also gets the sense of control that comes from sticking to the plan.
She’ll feel better about herself, and also find it easier to get back to the diet the next week.
Step 4: Find a Balance
A weight-loss plan is only as good as your client’s ability to keep the weight off. If you don’t take steps to help your client get comfortable at her new weight, and to manage the residual hunger that follows a successful diet, the weight will come back.
Your first move is to increase daily calories to a maintenance level for the new weight. Have her weigh herself regularly, but with the understanding that a slight bump in scale weight is normal and expected. (In addition to having more food in her intestines, she’ll probably eat more carbs, which will increase glycogen in the muscles and liver, which will in turn increase water weight.)
If her weight stabilizes after two weeks, you’ve probably found the right energy intake for maintenance.
In my experience, this is typically a hard time for clients. They’ve achieved a short-term weight-loss goal, but they’re probably tired of counting calories and other parts of the process, and they’re especially tired of feeling hungry.
And yet, somehow, you have to convince that client to maintain a regular meal schedule and trust her hunger signals. Ideally, she’ll get hungry before a meal, feel satisfied after eating (but without stuffing herself), and not think constantly about food between meals.
That’s when you know it’s time to move on to Step 5.
Step 5: Eat Intuitively
It’s a great feeling not to count calories. But it’s also scary. There’s a relatively narrow path to weight maintenance, and so many potential detours and dead ends along the way. “It’s leaving a highly precise structure to kind of the unknown,” Krahn says.
Or, as Helms says, it’s like going from laps in a pool to free-ocean swimming.
“You’re going to screw this up, and invariably gain some weight back,” Krahn adds. “But if you have that skill of counting calories, you can always go back to it, and things will correct very quickly.”
That said, the goal is for your client to keep that skill in reserve, and to succeed with the non-counting skills and habits he’s developed along the way. A big part of it, Krahn says, is following his own rules, whatever they happen to be. That means the same number of meals each day, at about the same times. Going to bed and waking up on a consistent schedule. Drinking about the same amount of water. And, of course, continuing the training program you’ve set up while staying active outside the gym.
Another Way to Look at It
Can calorie counting be a pain? Absolutely. Is it the only way to coach clients? Far from it.
But when you follow these five steps, counting calories can be the most efficient and effective way to help clients lose weight.
Done properly, it can also be the most efficient and effective way to ensure your clients never have to count calories again.