Should I count my net calories or total calories?

When it comes to weight loss, the most important number to pay attention to is calories. Specifically, you need to create a calorie deficit, meaning you consume fewer calories than you burn each day. This causes your body to dip into its fat stores for energy, resulting in weight loss. But should you count total calories or net calories to most accurately track your deficit? Here’s a quick overview of each approach:

Counting Total Calories

Counting your total calorie intake for the day is the more straightforward method. You simply add up all the calories from the foods, drinks and snacks you consume. The advantage is you don’t need to do any complicated math to tally your calorie intake. However, this approach doesn’t take into account the calories you burn from exercise and other daily movement. So it may overestimate your actual calorie intake if you are very active.

Counting Net Calories

Net calories refer to your total calories consumed minus the calories burned through exercise and normal daily activity. For example, if you consumed 2,000 calories but burned 500 calories through a workout, your net calorie intake would be 1,500 calories. The advantage of this method is it provides a more accurate picture of your true calorie balance for the day. However, it requires tracking your exercise calories burned, which can be complicated.

How to Decide Which to Use

So which calorie counting approach is better for weight loss? Here are some tips:

  • If you are sedentary, counting total calories will likely be sufficient since your activity calories will be minimal.
  • If you exercise moderately (30-60 minutes a day), you may want to count net calories for more accuracy.
  • If you are very active or training for an event, net calories will be important to ensure you eat enough to fuel your workouts.
  • If counting net calories, use a fitness tracker or online calculator to estimate your burned calories rather than eating back all the calories your machine reports.
  • Consider your lifestyle – if tracking net calories feels like too much work, opt for total calories instead.

Total Calorie Tracking Tips

Here are some tips for accurately tracking your total calorie intake:

  • Use a calorie counting app to look up the calories for all foods and drinks.
  • Weigh foods on a kitchen scale for portion accuracy.
  • Log calories as you eat throughout the day.
  • Include every bite of food, small tastes, and liquid calories.
  • Read nutrition labels carefully and track serving sizes.
  • For packaged foods, go with the higher calorie listing when a range is given.

Apps like MyFitnessPal or Lose It make tracking total calories easy by having huge databases of food and recipes already logged. Going by package labels and weighing portions will ensure your counts are as precise as possible.

calorie counting tips

  • Use measuring cups and spoons for foods without a label.
  • Check calorie counts online if you eat out and don’t know the calories.
  • Log a few go-to meals in advance to easily insert them into your log.
  • Input home-cooked recipes by adding up the calories for each ingredient.
  • When in doubt, overestimate calories to be on the safe side.

Net Calorie Tracking Tips

To track net calories, you’ll need to follow these steps:

  1. Calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR) – the calories your body burns at rest – using an online calculator.
  2. Track your total calories consumed as described in the previous section.
  3. Calculate your exercise calories burned using a tracking device or online calculator.
  4. Subtract your exercise calories from your total calories consumed to get your net calories for the day.

Some tips for determining exercise calories:

  • Use a heart rate monitor along with an activity calculator to estimate calorie burn.
  • Wearing a fitness tracker will provide calorie estimates based on your movement and heart rate.
  • Stick to calculators from reputable sources and use the more conservative estimates.
  • Track BMR calories burned in addition to exercise calories.

Should You Eat Back Exercise Calories?

A common question when counting net calories is whether or not to eat back the calories burned during exercise. Here are some guidelines:

  • Eat back about 30-50% of hard workout calories like running or lifting weights.
  • Don’t eat back low intensity workout calories like yoga or walking.
  • On heavy training days, eat back more calories if needed to fuel your workouts and recovery.
  • If trying to lose weight, err on the side of eating slightly fewer exercise calories.

The reason you may not want to eat back all exercise calories is that activity trackers tend to overestimate calorie burn. So if you eat it all back, you could erase your deficit.

Example Daily Calorie Tracking

Here is an example of how to track net versus total calories for a day:

Total Calories

Meal Food Calories
Breakfast Oatmeal 300
Banana 105
Coffee 50
Lunch Tuna sandwich 400
Yogurt 150
Dinner Chicken stir fry 550
Rice 200
Snacks Protein bar 200
Popcorn 120
Total 2075

Without accounting for exercise, this person consumed 2,075 calories for the day.

Net Calories

Description Calories
Total calories consumed 2075
Morning walk (30 min) -150
Afternoon jog (45 min) -350
Weightlifting workout (60 min) -250
Net Calories 1325

By subtracting 750 exercise calories from the total 2075 consumed, this person has a net intake of only 1325 calories for the day.

Pros and Cons of Each Approach

Let’s summarize the key advantages and disadvantages of tracking total vs net calories:

Total Calories:


  • Simple to calculate.
  • No guesswork estimating calories burned.
  • Accounts for all food intake.


  • Doesn’t account for high activity levels.
  • Calorie deficit may be overestimated.

Net Calories:


  • Accounts for exercise calories burned.
  • Provides a more accurate deficit picture.
  • Better for active lifestyles.


  • Harder to accurately track burned calories.
  • More time consuming to calculate.
  • Higher chance of user error.


In summary, while tracking total calories is simpler, going with net calories is likely to provide a more accurate view of your true daily calorie balance if you are very active. It ultimately comes down to choosing the method that you will be able to track consistently and that fits best with your lifestyle and goals.

The most important thing, regardless of which method you choose, is accuracy. Underestimating calorie intake or overestimating burn can sabotage your weight loss efforts. Invest in a food scale, use a tracking app diligently, and be conservative in your calorie burn estimates. Consistency is also key – stick with your tracking every single day.

As long as you are able to maintain a consistent daily calorie deficit through your preferred tracking approach, you should see successful weight loss over time. Don’t get hung up on total vs net calories – pick the method that works best for your needs and commit to accurate tracking.

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