The Hidden Benefits of Tracking Your Calories

Digital painting of a barbarian man using an app to track his calories.

I hated the idea of tracking calories. It felt too forced and robotic. I wanted to develop a more intuitive way of eating a good diet. I think most people do. They want to be able to listen to their appetites. They want to be able to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. That’s perfectly reasonable.

I didn’t realize that tracking my calories would improve my intuition. After spending few months logging every single food I ate, I went back to eating intuitively, and I was dramatically better at it. I had a deeper understanding of what was in the food I ate, how it made me feel, how it affected my digestion, and how it affected my weight.

Tracking my calories for a few months made me better at eating forever.

What Logging My Food Taught Me About My Diet

One of the main benefits of tracking your calories is that it makes you more conscious of what you eat, when you eat, and how much you eat. You don’t even need an app for that. You could jot it all down in a notebook.

That taught me quite a few things about my diet:

  • I would often skip or delay meals. That would drive my hunger higher and force me to eat bigger meals to catch up. My digestive system didn’t like that. Everything went smoother when I got into a good rhythm and stuck with it.
  • I was eating far more fat than I realized. That isn’t inherently bad, but I was in the midst of gaining 70 pounds of muscle, and carbs tend to be better for bulking than fat (full explanation). I started focusing on eating more fruits, grains, legumes, and vegetables. The extra fibre further improved my digestion.
  • I wasn’t eating very much in the morning. My appetite revs up slowly over the course of the day. That isn’t necessarily a problem, but it was causing me to fall behind on calories, often forcing me to eat a huge meal before bed. When I ate huge meals before bed, I got so hot and sweaty that I had trouble falling asleep afterwards (full explanation).
  • Logging the food I was eating made me want to choose healthier foods. Those healthier choices turned into habits. Those habits remained when I stopped tracking my calories.

None of this had anything to do with tracking calories or macros. I learned all of it just from logging the food I was eating.

What Tracking My Calories Taught Me About My Metabolism

There’s this myth that it’s easy to figure out how many calories we burn. Some of the variables are easy to understand: bigger people burn more than smaller people, active people burn more than sedentary people, and muscle burns more than fat.

There’s quite a bit more to it than that. There’s genetic variation in organ size and activity. If your heart is bigger and beats faster, you can burn hundreds more calories per day, especially if you’re out of shape. If you make that heart fitter, your resting heart rate will drop, reducing the number of calories you burn per day. No calorie estimators take any of that into account (full explanation).

What surprised me was that my calorie needs kept changing. When I first started bulking, I could gain weight on 3000 calories per day, but that weight gain slowed, and after a few weeks, it died. I had to start adding more calories to my diet. 3200, then 3400, and then 3600. When my calories climbed over 4000, the bulk started to feel impossible to sustain.

The same thing happened in reverse when I was cutting. At first, I could cut on 3200 calories, but I had to keep gradually adjusting my calorie intake downwards.

Having an adaptive metabolism is common, but different people’s metabolisms adapt at different rates (more on that here). Mine seemed to be especially adaptive.

Modern Calorie Trackers are Incredible

I used the free calorie tracker that MyFitnessPal offered. It wasn’t very good, but this was almost 10 years ago, and there wasn’t anything better. The calorie estimations were off, the app didn’t track micronutrients, and the daily calorie targets didn’t automatically correct themselves when I stopped gaining/losing weight. Even then, spending a few months tracking my calories changed my relationship with food forever.

Here are my results after 3 months of tracking my calories:

A before/after photo of Shane Duquette losing 20 pounds

Now, the calorie trackers are incredible. My favourite is MacroFactor (full review here). I’ve tested it myself, and we’ve used it with hundreds of clients over the past three years, both while cutting and bulking. It’s far easier to use, much better at tracking calories, it tracks micronutrients, and the calorie targets automatically adjust based on your weigh-ins. It’s incredible.

I don’t need to track my calories anymore, but I like plugging in my diet now and then to see if I’m eating enough of each vitamin and mineral. Using it for just a brief period of time can teach you lessons that you can keep forever. Perhaps you notice your diet is low in a mineral you’ve never even heard of (such as selenium). Maybe fixing that issue is as simple as eating a couple of Brazil nuts every day.


I avoided tracking my calories because it felt forced and unintuitive. I didn’t realize that going through the effort of tracking my calories for a few months would teach me lessons that I still benefit from today, nearly ten years later.

You don’t need to track your calories now, and you definitely don’t need to track them forever, but you should probably give it a try at some point.

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