The Official Newsletter of
updated September 10, 2012

Science Backs 
Calorie Counting

by Ron Brown, Ph.D., author of The Body Fat Guide 

"Ron Brown is a certified fitness trainer who doesn't have an inch of flab on his body. He'll tell you what you can do to become fit and trim too." 
Washington DC

THE LARGEST obstacle that prevents people in our society from managing their weight cannot be blamed on our abundant food supply or labor-saving devices, nor can it be blamed on people's character traits such as laziness and apathy. Although these may be contributing factors, the largest obstacle to effective and long-term weight management in our society is the influence of the quick-fix diet industry. In promoting its commercial quick-fix products, this multi-billion-dollar industry deliberately discourages people from learning to master the most fundamental rule of weight management: To manage your weight, you must properly balance the calories you eat and burn each day. 

You can't manage what you don't measure, whether it's the money you earn and spend, or the calories you eat and burn. Nevertheless, most quick-fix solutions promise results without calorie counting. No wonder they fail so often. As advertising campaigns for quick-fix solutions rage within the media, and as people debate which unbalanced and restricted diet is best to follow for losing weight (high-protein, low-carb, low-fat, etc.), or which type of exercise machine is best, or which pill or surgical procedure is the most popular, science has already provided us with the answer to effective weight management, but unfortunately, hardly anyone is listening. 

Scientific Evidence

Hundreds of scientific studies on weight control have been conducted over the past 35 years, but, according to Baker and Kirschenbaum (1998), only a few have focused on the most promising of all behavioral techniques that has been scientifically shown to be successful in weight management: self-monitoring one's calorie intake. Self-monitoring the amount of food one eats has been shown by researchers to be related to weight change in experimental subjects, while not monitoring at all was unrelated to weight change in subjects.

Self-monitoring devices described by researchers include paper-and-pencil methods, such as keeping a Food and Activity Journal to record entries of calories consumed and burned each day. Electronic devices and software such as organizers, calculators, hand-held computers, and spreadsheets may also be used. 

Monitoring the calories consumed in one’s diet and burned in activity is one of the "3 M’s" of a weight management solution that this article’s author has developed as a professional fitness trainer and author of a best-selling book on weight management, The Body Fat Guide (Brown, 1999). The 3 M’s of weight management are: 

  1. Measure changes in body composition. 
  2. Monitor diet and activity. 
  3. Modify energy balance—the balance between calorie intake and calorie expenditures. 

These three components form an interactive relationship to create a total solution, as illustrated in the author’s Weight Management Triangle.  As this article points out, scientific research supports the principles of self-monitoring employed in this weight management solution.

Kirchenbaum and Baker (1993) found that subjects do better in losing weight during weeks when they monitor their calories more consistently than they do during weeks when they monitor less consistently. The researchers concluded that weight management interventions should focus less on weight loss, which is merely the product of target behaviors (eating and physical activity), and more on self-monitoring, which has been shown to improve target behaviors that result in weight loss.

A study published in the November 2005 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (Berkowitz et al., 2005) found that participants who consistently monitored what they ate lost more than twice as much weight as those who only kept track occasionally, even though all participants took an appetite suppressant and received group therapy in behavior modification. Other studies found that subjects lost more weight the more they recorded their food intake (Hollis et al., 2008; Kong et al., 2012).

Self-monitoring bodyweight is just as important as monitoring calorie intake. A Duke University research study found that people who lose a large amount of weight track both their bodyweight and diet (Los Angeles Times, 2007). Another study (Wing et al., 2007) showed that daily bodyweight weighing increased dietary restraint in subjects, and self-monitoring bodyweight was identified as a successful weight maintenance strategy among members of the National Weight Control Registry (Wing & Phelan, 2005; Butryn et et al., 2007). A review of 22 weight-loss studies between 1993 and 2009 involving three types of self-monitoring, diet, exercise, and bodyweight, found a significant and consistent association between all three types of self-monitoring and weight loss (Burke, Wang, & Sevick, 2011). 

Calorie Counting Basics

The world's largest controlled study of weight-loss methods, published in The New England Journal of Medicine (Sacks et al., 2009), reported that the type of diet a person chooses to lose weight was found not to be as important as simply cutting calories. Calorie counting is the reality check most people need to take effective control of their weight. If people could ignore calorie counting and manage their weight by feel alone, they wouldn't have a weight problem in the first place. Relying on restricted and unbalanced diets instead of calorie counting is a dead end because a restricted or unbalanced diet cannot be maintained for long periods of time. Most of these diets are followed by immediate rebounds in weight.

So what, exactly, is it about self-monitoring through calorie counting that makes it so effective? Experience shows it is difficult for a dieter to judge precisely when they have reached their calorie intake allowance just by guessing. However, if the dieter receives a clear signal that they have reached their calorie intake allowance, it is relatively easier for them to stop eating. On the other hand, without that information, it is just as easy for them to continue eating right past their allowance! 

There is a right way and a wrong way to employ calorie counting as an effective self-monitoring technique in weight management. Korotitsch and Nelson-Gray (1999) emphasize that proper training of the subject in monitoring the target behavior improves self-monitoring. In weight management, the subject must be trained to refer to calorie tables of foods eaten, and the subject must also make reasonably accurate estimates of portion sizes. Measuring cups and food scales are employed when possible, and the subject is instructed in how to read food labels listing nutritional information. A technique often used by dieticians to assist subjects in estimating portion sizes is to have subjects compare a portion of food to a deck of playing cards or to a tennis ball (Brown, 1999).

Additionally, the subject must be trained to make calorie expenditure estimates based on the subject’s perceived rate of exertion or activity intensity level. For example, walking at a brisk pace of 3.5 mph ( 5.6 km/h) for 30 minutes usually burns an amount of calories that is equivalent to the subject’s bodyweight in pounds (Brown, 1999).

The accuracy of data collected by self-monitoring may be judged by several criteria (Korotitsch & Nelson-Gray, 1999). One criteria is a comparison of the subject’s data to a mechanical measuring device. For example, the subject’s estimate of calories burned at a comfortable walking speed outdoors may be compared to the calorie amount electronically displayed while walking on a treadmill.

Another judging criteria is a comparison of the subject’s data to some other behavioral byproduct. For example, if the subject’s estimated net calorie loss over a period of time is accurate, a corresponding decrease in body fat should be measured. Each net loss of 3,500 calories should result in a loss of one pound of body fat. Therefore, if a subject claims to have self-recorded a net loss of 3,500 calories, but a loss of only half a pound of body fat is measured, this may indicate that the subject needs to improve the accuracy of their self-monitored calorie estimates. Additionally, should the subject’s calorie estimates prove accurate, attention must be paid to possible confounds that could distort the corresponding weight measurement, such as variable amounts of gastrointestinal contents, water retention and skeletal muscle loss (Brown, 1999).


Calorie Blunters

There is another reason why subjects’ self-monitored estimates may not appear accurate: noncompliance with consistent self-monitoring. For example, Wilson and Vitousek (1999) describe how so-called "diet-resistant" obese patients, who reported far lower calorie intake estimates than could be verified by the amount of weight they lost, were discovered to have reported only 50% of their actual calorie intake. This trend to underreport eating was seen even in non-obese subjects.

Kirchenbaum and Baker (1993) label people who have traits that lead to inconsistent self-monitoring as "blunters." Blunters avoid threatening information under stressful conditions. Therefore, blunters are likely to fail to record an excessive amount of ingested calories if it jeopardizes their weight-loss goals. On the other hand, people who utilize this same sort of threatening information in an effective coping style are labeled by these researchers as "monitors." Monitors might record the excess of ingested calories and adjust their eating plan to make up for this excess by reducing the amount of calories eaten at subsequent meals (See: How to Rescue a Blown Diet).

As effective as self-monitoring has been show by research to be for losing weight, maintaining one’s weight loss presents a completely different challenge that is not as well researched. When one’s goal is simply to lose weight, accuracy of self-monitored estimates is not always crucial (Kirchenbaum & Baker, 1993). As long as one correctly guesses that one is eating fewer calories than are burned each day, bodyweight is bound to be lost.  However, the situation is more exacting when one’s goal is to maintain weight loss. The number of calories one eats must exactly match the number of calories one burns, else excess calorie intake will be stored as body fat and increase one’s bodyweight (Brown, 1999). How can such a precise balance of calories be ensured by self-monitoring? 

One answer would be to employ a criteria for self-monitoring accuracy previously mentioned. That is, one must consistently employ daily weighing, or even better, body composition analysis, to indicate changes in body fat and lean body mass levels associated with self-monitored data. The association between monitored diet and exercise behavior with one’s body composition analysis is found in the Weight Management Triangle. By examining this association, the self-monitor can properly modify calorie intake and calorie expenditures in order to stabilize weight. The modification of one’s calorie intake and expenditures in this manner determines one’s energy balance, the third part of the Weight Management Triangle.

All this weighing, measuring and self-monitoring on a daily basis has been criticized by some as promoting obsessive preoccupation with food and bodyweight (Kirchenbaum & Baker, 1993), and of encouraging the development of eating disorders. Yet, a classic study of behavior modification in the treatment of anorexia nervosa (Agras, Barlow, Chapin, Abel & Leitenberg, 1974) notes that overweight people eat less food if they receive precise caloric feedback, while anorexic patients in treatment eat more food if given precise caloric feedback. Feedback of this nature tended to cause both types of disturbed eating behaviors to normalize. This may explain why restaurants have been reluctant to prominently display calories in their menus—it may make customers less inclined to overeat, which would reduce sales revenue. Nevertheless, the 2010 U.S. healthcare law now requires chain restaurants to post calories to customers.

In conclusion, self-monitoring holds much promise for providing solutions to our society’s weight management problems. The population needs to be educated in techniques of self-monitoring such as calorie counting. More importantly, the population needs to free itself from the grasp of the quick-fix diet industry so that people can stop wasting time and money on ineffective solutions that fail to provide long-term benefits to their health.


Agras, W. S., Barlow, D. H., Chapin, H. N., Abel, G. G., & Leitenberg, H. (1974). Behavior modification of anorexia nervosa. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 30, 279286.

Baker, R. C., & Kirschenbaum, D. S. (1993). Self-monitoring may be necessary for successful weight control. Behavior Therapy, 24, 377394.

Baker, R. C., & Kirschenbaum, D. S. (1998). Weight control during the holidays: Highly consistent self-monitoring as a potentially useful coping mechanism. Health Psychology, 17, 367370.

Berkowitz, R. I., Cato, R. K., Hesson, L. A., Kaplan, R., Osei, S. Y., Phelan, S., Sarwer, D. B., Stunkard, A. J., Wadden, T. A., & Womble, L. G. (2005). Randomized trial of lifestyle modification and pharmacotherapy for obesity. New England Journal of Medicine, 353, 21112120.

Brown, R. (1999). The body fat guide (2nd ed.). Kitchener, ON, Canada: HealthStyle.

Burke, L. E., Wang, J., & Sevick, M. A. (2011). Self-monitoring in weight loss: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111, 92102. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2010.10.008

Butryn, M. L., Phelan, S., Hill, J. O., Wing, R. R. (2007). 
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Hollis, J. F., Gullion, C. M., Stevens, V. J., Brantely, P. J., Appel, L. J., Are, J. D., ... & Svetkey, L. P. (2008). Weight loss during the intensive intervention phase of the weight-loss maintenance trial. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35, 118126.

Kong, A., Beresford, A. A., Alfano, C. M., Foster-Schubert, K. E., Neuhouser, M. L., Johnson, D. B.,...McTiernan, A. (2012). Self-monitoring and eating-related behaviors are associated with 12-month weight loss in postmenopausal overweight-to-obese women. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Published online July, 2012.

Korotitsch, W. J., & Nelson-Gray, R. O. (1999). An overview of self-monitoring research in assessment and treatment. Psychological Assessment, 11, 415425.

Los Angeles Times. (2007, October 29). Research on weight gain and eating patterns.

Sacks, F. M., Bray, G. A., Carey, V. J, Smith, S. R., Ryan, D. H., et al. (2009). Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. New England Journal of Medicine, 360, 859873.

Wilson, G. T., & Vitousek, K. M. (1999). Self-monitoring in the assessment of eating disorders. Psychological Assessment, 11, 480489.

Wing, R. R., Tate, D. F., Gorin, A. A., Raynor, H. A., Fava, J. L., & Machan, J. (2007). STOP Regain: Are there negative effects of daily weighting? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75(5), 715.

Wing, R. R., (2005). Long-term weight loss maintenance. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 82, 222S225S.

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