Your Guide to Counting Calories Properly
This story is part of 12 Days of Tips to help you get the most out of your tech, home and health this holiday season.
Interest in counting calories goes hand-in-hand with New Year’s resolutions. If you want to “finally get fit” in 2023, counting calories is a good place to start. But there’s some controversy over whether counting calories is a good way to get healthy or lose weight. Some experts argue that counting calories can lead to dietary restriction beyond what is healthy and encourages disordered eating. Other experts say that counting calories is an efficient and effective approach to losing weight.
When one thing is certain, there is no “best” approach to health or weight loss. Just as some people benefit from HIIT training, while others get fit from running — and others don’t like structured exercise at all — some people will thrive at counting calories and others won’t.
This guide to counting calories covers how it can help with health goals, when it works and when it doesn’t, and exactly how to get started. Also, here is our list of the best fitness trackers, best healthy meal delivery services, and best home exercise equipment.
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Counting calories to lose weight and gain weight
Weight management is simply a game of calorie intake and calorie expenditure. A calorie is a unit of measurement that describes how much energy a particular food or drink has. The same unit of measure is used to describe how much energy you expend in a day (calories burned).
To lose weight you must burn more calories than you expend, and to gain weight you must consume more calories than you expend. If you’re interested in changing your weight one way or another, you need to create a calorie deficit or surplus — and to make sure you’re staying in your desired surplus or deficit, you need to keep track of the calories you’re eating and burn. You can create the calorie balance you want by counting the calories you eat and burn.
Say you want to lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks (one pound a week). One pound of body fat is equivalent to approximately 3,500 calories, although there can be variations from person to person depending on body fat density and how your body composition changes over time.
Based on the 3,500 calorie estimate, you need to create a 3,500 calorie deficit each week to lose that one pound. You can do this in different ways:
Reduce your calorie consumption by 500 calories per day. Increase or intensify your workout to burn 500 calories a day. A mixture of both, e.g
The end result of all weight loss programs is a change in your calorie balance through diet and exercise, although this end result can be masked by other tactics such as intermittent fasting or food group exclusion.
Counting calories can help you make healthier food choices.
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When counting calories works and when it doesn’t
Counting calories is not for everyone. Also no kind of food tracking or logging. Some people just want to eat and enjoy without worrying about calorie count. Some people don’t have the time or energy to count calories (that’s probably most of us), and others have health goals that don’t involve counting calories.
Calorie counting works when:
Your focus is solely on weight loss or gain You want a simple, no-frills way to keep track of your diet
Counting calories is not the best method when:
You want to change your body composition (macro tracking is a better approach to body recomposition). You want or need to keep track of micronutrients like certain vitamins or minerals at unhealthy levels, you’re not sure how many calories you need to be consuming
This is how you start counting calories properly
The first thing to do is determine how many calories you need each day. Counting them will do you no good if you eat too little or too much. The absolute best way to determine your daily calorie intake is to work with a registered dietitian, doctor, or certified nutritionist who can consider your weight, height, medical history, and goals for an ideal daily calorie count.
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However, if seeing a pro is out of the question, you can use an online calorie calculator like this one from Mayo Clinic to find out. Most calorie calculators use the same formula, the Mifflin-St Jeor equation, which accounts for gender, height, weight, age, and activity level. As the disclaimer on the Mayo Clinic Calorie Calculator says, other factors affect your daily calorie needs as well. Pregnancy, illness and work also contribute to this.
Once you have your number, you can start counting your calories. To create a deficit, eat fewer calories than your maintenance number, and to create a surplus, eat more. You can keep track of it in a journal with pen and paper or use a calorie counting app.
The See How You Eat Food Journal app focuses on photography rather than journaling words. This is a great approach to food journaling if you forget to write down the details.
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Logging of packaged foods
Counting calories in packaged foods is easy: just look at the nutrition label and note the number of calories. Don’t forget portion sizes, though – if you eat two servings, you double the calorie count stated on the label.
Log fresh food
Tracking fresh food is a bit more difficult than tracking packaged food because there is usually no label. But it’s easy to find calorie data online. You can search virtually any food in the FDA’s FoodCentral database to find complete nutritional information. Most food tracking apps also have huge databases of foods. So don’t let the lack of nutritional labeling discourage you from eating fresh foods.
Log restaurant meals
Tracking the calories in restaurant meals can be difficult if the restaurant isn’t a chain. In 2018, the FDA mandated that all restaurants with more than 20 locations must disclose calorie information for all menu items, making it easy enough if you’re eating at a regional or national chain restaurant. Local restaurants aren’t required to disclose calorie counts, but if you ask your waiter, chances are he’ll find out.
Don’t forget to log your coffee!
Don’t forget to count the calories in the beverages you drink throughout the day. Unless you only drink plain water and non-caloric beverages (including black coffee and tea with no sweeteners or milk), your beverages contribute to your daily caloric intake. Be sure to count the calories from the creamer in your coffee, sports drinks, alcohol, sodas, and juices.
Calories cannot tell you anything about the quality of your diet
While calories are useful for intentional weight loss or weight gain, they tell you nothing about micronutrients. The quality of your diet is arguably just as important as the number of calories you eat each day: where your calories come from makes a huge difference in your overall health. A calorie is more than a simple measure of how food affects your overall health.
A 100-calorie serving of almonds has a very different effect on your body than, say, a 100-calorie Twinkie. Almonds have fiber, protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, while a Twinkie has mostly sugar and saturated fat. A handful of almonds gives you lasting energy; A Twinkie is likely to cause your blood sugar to spike and crash — and those are just the short-term effects.
Over the long term, almonds offer health benefits like blood sugar control and lower cholesterol levels. Many of the ingredients in Twinkies — sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated oils, to name a few — have been linked to an increased risk of chronic disease.
You can eat a lot more fruits and vegetables for the same number of calories in a candy bar.
The great thing, however, is that filling your diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats should naturally limit your calorie intake. You’ll get full with fewer calories because nutritious foods tend to be lower in calories than sugary, fatty, or processed foods.
If you are interested in health, want to ward off chronic diseases, stay fit and age healthily, it is best to pay attention to both your calorie intake and the quality of your food.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions about a medical condition or health goals.