The Ultimate Guide to Calorie Counting the Right Way

counting calories 101

The number one rule to losing weight is to create a calorie deficit where you consume fewer calories than your body burns. It’s as simple as that. Unfortunately, the whole process of creating a calorie deficit isn’t always as easy as it seems and some common mistakes can quickly derail success. This is particularly true if you don’t know how many calories you consume or burn daily. Calorie counting is an effective way to tackle this problem. It is commonly used to aid with weight loss and is scientifically proven to work. In this article, we have you covered, explaining everything you need to know about counting calories to make it work for you.

But First, What is a Calorie?

A calorie is a unit of measurement, just like inches and pounds. They describe the amount of energy your body receives from what you eat and drink. For example, 1g of protein is 4 calories. However, calories can also be used to describe how much energy your body needs to perform a physical task, such as breathing, thinking, heart-beating, etc. For example, someone who is 150 lbs. would typically burn 100 calories per mile during a walk.

The energy that comes from food is typically recorded in kilocalories but are called calories for short. For example, a carrot contains approximately 25,000 calories but people would say it has 25 calories (kcal). Every food item and beverage has a calorie count, but not all calories are created equal. So, even if two things contain the same number of calories, the nutritional value may vary drastically.

What is the Purpose of Calorie Counting?

The purpose of counting calories is simple: to reach a weight loss goal or to maintain weight. It is a time-tested method for losing weight, as it allows you to become aware of the amount of calories you eat each day so you can make any necessary changes to your eating patterns to stay on track of obtaining your goals. For example, you may notice from your calorie counting that you eat too many calories to lose weight, consume too many calorie-dense foods, have large portions or have one meal each day that significantly increases your calorie intake. Without calorie counting, it can be difficult – if not impossible – to notice these patterns.

What is a Calorie Deficit?

This brings us to another topic: calorie deficit. A calorie deficit is when your body burns more calories than it consumes. As you consume calories, your body uses what it needs to meet your immediate energy needs and stores any excess for future use. Some of these calories are stored as glycogen in your liver and muscles, and the rest are stored as fat. So, if you get more calories than your body needs, you gain weight from the stored excess.

However, creating a calorie deficit means that your body is burning some of your stored calories for energy (mostly from body fat), which allows for weight loss. 

Quality Calories Aid Weight Loss

From a black-and-white perspective, the main goal of calorie counting is to ensure you consume fewer calories than your body burns, regardless as to where the calories come from. But for your health and to ensure healthy weight loss, you’ll also want to consider the quality of your calories. This will allow you to get the nutrients your mind and body need to thrive, while also giving your body food to burn for fuel.  For example, consuming 100 calories from vegetables will be significantly better for you than eating 100 calories from candy. Those 100 calories of candy won’t fill you up and diminish your hunger the same way 100 calories of vegetables would. As a result, this may also cause you to overeat later on in the day and prevent you from achieving your calorie deficit.

Therefore, the quality of your calories is also important as it can affect various factors that play into your weight loss, such as the speed of your metabolism, hunger, hormone levels and appetite. 

Why Counting Calories Works

You don’t have to count calories to lose weight but it is certainly a helpful tool for doing so. Studies have even confirmed that those who monitor their food consumption, physical activity and body weight achieve greater weight loss. This is because counting calories brings awareness and knowledge that you wouldn’t have otherwise. This awareness and knowledge allow you to make well-informed decisions regarding your food and physical activity. For example:

  • Counting calories allows you to identify any eating patterns that need to be adjusted to lose weight successfully
  • Being aware of the foods you eat can give you a baseline to work with in regards to what you should eat next or how much physical activity you need to do to achieve a calorie deficit
  • Tracking your calories keeps you accountable for your choices, motivating you to keep going.
  • Calorie counting helps you combat overeating by giving you a better understanding of how much food/calories you are eating (and in comparison to how much you need)

Tips For Calorie Counting The Best Way

Calorie counting can be as simple as writing down how many calories the food items you consume are, but it can also be as complicated as researching the nutritional value of every food item as you eat it. Fortunately, many helpful tools and tips can make the entire experience a total breeze. So, whether you’re tracking your calories  on paper, in your iPhone notes or an app, these are the tips you’ll want to consider:

  • Get prepared ahead of time: download your apps, get your notepad ready, etc.
  • Aim to get the majority of your calories from healthy, high-quality food sources, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nut, seeds, beans and legumes
  • Avoid drinking your calories (ie: eat your fruit instead of blending them up)
  • Make sure to record your intake as accurately as you can
  • Read the labels to get the proper food portion based on the calories provided (that box of granola may say 200 calories but it may only be 200 calories for 1/3 cup and not the entire box)
  • Be most careful when recording items that are high in fat and/or sugar, as under-recording these foods can cause a big difference and inaccurate calorie deficient amount
  • Get used to using a scale to portion control properly. You can also use measuring cups and spoons or portion-size estimates, such as:
    • 1 cup of vegetables is about the size of a closed fist
    • ½ cup of pasta is around the size of a rounded handful
    • 1 serving of fresh fruit is around the size of a tennis ball
    • 3 ounces (90 gram) of meat is approximately the size and thickness of the palm of your hand
    • 1 serving of fish (3 ounces or 90 grams) is around the size of a checkbook
    • 1.5 ounces of cheese is around the size of your thumb
    • 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of nut spreads is approximately the size of your thumb
    • 1 teaspoon (5 mL) of oils is approximately the size of your fingertip
  • Use calorie counting apps, such as Fitness App, that allow you to scan the barcode and track your calories, nutrition and goals quickly and accurately
  • Eat smaller portions when consuming higher-calorie foods
  • Make a meal plan to help you eat quality, nutritious food sources
  • Learn how to read food labels, as they contain an abundance of useful information that will help you with calorie counting and nutritional value, and the portion size
  • Remove any temptation by getting rid of junk food and replacing it with healthier snacks before getting started
  • Avoid cutting calories too low, whether by eating too few or exercising too much, as this can be bad for your health and ultimately, your end goal
  • Track your exercise: Don’t forget to accurately record any exercise that you do as it can free up some calories for you to chow down on and still have a calorie deficit.
  • Aim for a daily walk each day or 10,000 steps

Understanding calories and knowing how many you consume and burn each day can be the key to meeting your weight loss goals. Many studies show that keeping track of your food intake and physical activity are effective ways to help lose weight because it gives you the knowledge needed to stay on track. And as the old saying goes, knowledge is power.

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