You’ve heard this a million times: eat fewer calories than you burn, and you’ll lose weight. This is an oversimplified approach to weight loss that sounds easier than it is. Many who believe in the “calorie in, calorie out” plan end up focusing too much on counting calories instead of eating healthy. The question is, does counting calories have such a significant impact on weight loss?
We’ll take a closer look at calories, and then we’ll discuss the right and wrong ways of counting calories.
What are Calories?
A calorie is a unit of energy, which comes from a variety of sources. Technically, all foods have calories, from carbohydrates to fats or proteins, and all of these sources are essential. Our body needs calories or energy to function. According to an article in the Journal of Nutrition, a calorie is the “amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water from 0 to 1 degree Celsius.”
However, calories are also called kilojoules, which is a unit used by physicists. A calorie is equivalent to 4.18 joules, while 1 joule is 0.000239006 of a calorie. However, nutrition-wise, a calorie is 1,000 of these calories, which are also called dietary calories.
So what does this all mean? A calorie is a unit of measurement that measures the amount of energy contained in the food we eat. The food we eat fuels our bodies. Healthy eating provides calories plus vital nutrients that help keep us healthy.
Now you may be thinking, if we need calories to survive, why do calories make us gain weight? Here’s why – if you consume more calories than you burn, these calories are converted to fat and stored. This is where counting calories come in. But before we go into details about that, let’s understand the different types of food and their calorie content.
Calories in Different Types of Food
Different types of food offer varying amounts of calories or levels of energy. Protein, carbs, and fat offer varying amounts of calories, and understanding this is key to succeeding in weight loss.
Carbohydrates and protein both offer four calories per gram, while fat has nine calories per gram. This is why experts will tell you to stay away from fats and stick to protein or carbs. To complicate this matter, each of these macronutrients has various sub-types, which can have different amounts of calories.
For example, fat can either come from saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats. According to experts, you should choose foods higher in monounsaturated fats instead of trans and saturated fat. Polyunsaturated fat are also considered healthy, and experts recommend getting three to ten percent of your calories from these fats.
Carbohydrates are also not equal in terms of their caloric content. So-called refined carbs, such as those found in white rice, pasta, cookies, cakes, pizza dough, pastries, burger buns, and pancakes, are ’empty calories.’ On the other hand, grain products, such as those made from whole grains, offer better nutrition.
Although a calorie is a calorie no matter where it is from, experts agree that some calories offer more health benefits compared to others. For instance, calories in protein can help with building and maintaining muscle, which is valuable for weight loss.
Gaining more muscle by getting your calories from protein can help you remain active and succeed in your workout program. The same principle applies to calories found in fiber, which helps you feel full and satisfied throughout the day. As such, you eat less and burn more.
How Your Body Uses Calories
Calories matter for many reasons. Not only does your body need calories to stay active, but its very function depends on the energy it gets from the food you eat. Three bodily functions require energy: metabolism, digestion, and physical activity.
Metabolism includes all the essential functions your body needs to perform, including providing energy to your brain, kidneys, lungs, and nervous system. The amount of energy necessary to support these functions is called your basal metabolic rate. This makes up the majority of your energy requirements per day.
Digestion is another essential body function that relies on the number of calories you consume. Part of the calories you consume will digest and metabolize food. The process is called the thermic effect of food, which determines the amount of energy needed to breakdown various foods.
A Closer Look at ‘Empty Calories’
Empty calories are those that offer significant energy but little or no nutritional value. These are the types of calories you want to stay clear from if you intend to lose weight. Foods that have empty calories have no antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, fiber, or amino acids to offer and only give you an energy spike.
There are two primary sources of empty calories:
- Added sugars: These are found in sweeteners in beverages or foods. These sugars are high in calories but have nothing else to offer. Examples include high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose. Beverages with this kind of sugars include fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, and soda.
- Solid fats: They’re often added to industrial food processing or during the preparation of certain foods. An excellent example of solid fat is butter. Other examples include ribs, bacon, hot dogs, cheese, pizza, and sausages.
Although these two sources of empty calories make foods and drink tastier, they are among the number one cause of obesity in the world. So if you don’t want to jeopardize your diet, these are the foods to remove from your diet altogether.
Counting Calories and Weight Loss
You may have heard that calorie counting is not an effective way to lose weight, but this false. As you may have understood in our brief overview, it is easy to understand how important calorie counting is for weight loss.
Numerous studies show that, when people eat more calories than they burn, the result is an inevitable-weight gain. The facts are clear – the only way to successful weight loss is to pay attention to your caloric intake. The question is: how do you count calories correctly?
First, you need to know what your daily energy needs are or, in short, the number of calories required per day. Don’t worry; you won’t need to get out your calculator and crunch the numbers. You can find many online calculators to do the math for you.
These calorie counters use a formula called the Mifflin St. Jeor equation that calculates your resting metabolic rate. Then, different variables are considered, including your gender, age, activity level, height, and weight goal. With all this information, you can calculate your daily calorie intake required to lose weight.
The way the calculator works may sound complicated, but it’s pretty straight forward. Let’s assume you are a female with a sedentary lifestyle, and the calculator suggests you eat 1,200 calories a day to lose weight.
The problem is you don’t feel like you can cut down your food intake to reach that amount. The solution is to burn excess calories by doing a workout. Depending on the excess calories you need to burn, there are several ways you can make this work:
- Eat 1,300 calories and just take a short walk to burn the extra 100
- Eat 1,400 calories but then do a high-intensity workout to burn the excess 200 calories
- Eat 1,500 calories but then do at least 45 minutes vigorous exercise daily to burn the excess 300
Do’s and Don’ts in Counting Calories
Once you figure out the number of calories you need to reach your weight loss goals, there are a few things you want to remember.
- Remember to track down everything you eat. As we have discussed, every food or beverage you eat contains calories that together make up your daily calorie intake. As such, every piece of food you eat matters.
- Also, track down your intake of the macronutrients in protein, carbs, and fats. It is especially crucial if you are following a low-carb diet. This noting will help you realize which of the macronutrients you need to eat more or less of.
- Don’t guess how much you have eaten. It is too easy to underestimate the number of specific foods we eat, especially when it comes to our favorites. Come up with a reasonable way to measure how much you are eating.
- Don’t rely on your memory and base your notes on what you remember eating. Although it may be possible for you to remember what you ate, the question is will you remember how much you ate?
- Don’t focus too much on tracking calories. As we mentioned, calories are calories, but not all calories are equal. You can get the same amount of calories from two different sources, so focus on making healthy choices as well.
Tips on Measuring Your Portions
Portion distortion is a term used to describe the common habit of viewing large servings as usual. Since how much you eat is equally important to what you eat, you need to determine the number of calories you eat accurately. Getting an accurate estimate of how much you are eating is the first step to counting calories successfully.
Here are some ways you can measure portion sizes:
- Measuring cups are standard and easier to use than a scale. The only disadvantage is that they can be awkward to use for some foods.
- Scales are the most accurate way to measure portion size. However, the downside is weighing everything out can be time-consuming and impractical.
- Comparing the food to everyday items is quick and practical but not as accurate as using scales or measuring cups. For example, you can try the following comparisons below:
- One serving of rice = a handful
- One serving of fresh fruit = the size of a tennis ball
- One teaspoon of olive oil = your fingertip
- Two tablespoons of peanut butter = the size of a ping pong ball
- Two servings of meat = a deck of cards
Remember, there is no scientifically right way to count calories or portions, so what is important is you find a technique and stick to it.
Focus on Quality
The truth is that counting calories are not for everyone. Not everyone can religiously note everything they eat, and those who force themselves to do so only find themselves frustrated. Although counting calories is an excellent way to give you an idea of how much you are eating, it is not a sustainable strategy for weight loss. Here are six reasons why focusing on the quality of your diet is a better idea:
- Calorie counting can lead to food obsession. Some health professionals believe that those who are too rigid in their calorie counting suffer from an eating disorder. The more you obsess about how much you are eating, the higher your chances of developing a negative relationship with food.
- Restricting your body damages your mental health. The more you resist eating that slice of chocolate cake all because it is over your calorie limit, the stronger you’re craving becomes. Food is supposed to be a source of joy, so denying your body food that it enjoys hurts your mental health.
- Your body knows how to regulate itself. Your body instinctively knows how to keep everything balanced and to function correctly. If you learn how to listen to it and follow its lead, you will naturally eat enough and lose weight along the way.
- Counting calories isn’t a sustainable practice. You may initially be able to keep a journal and track down all the calories you eat, but how about when you are stressed out? Or when you are busy? The best diet plan should be something you can continue doing, no matter how busy or tired you are.
- Counting calories are not accurate. You can easily underestimate or overestimate the number of calories you consume.
- Your body fluctuates in its caloric needs. Sticking a number as to how many calories you should eat in a day no matter what is not natural. Sometimes your body needs more calories than usual, and things like health, sleep habits, and specific cycles increase our calorie needs.
Does Counting Calories Work?
Although we don’t recommend going crazy on counting calories, evidence continues to show that counting calories does work. Numerous studies prove that weight loss always results when people eat fewer calories than they burn. This calorie deficit is essential, whether it is from eating fewer protein, carbs, or fats.
For example, in one study, participants who monitored what they ate for 12 weeks lost twice as much as those who didn’t monitor their food intake that closely. Those who didn’t follow their food intake gained weight after 12 weeks.
Counting calories can give you an excellent idea of where you need to improve, including what foods you need to cut down on. Such vital information is valuable if you are starting a weight loss program and gives you an idea of how to proceed.
Monitoring your calories also gives you a sense of responsibility. The thought of having to write down everything you eat may be enough to keep you from overeating. You also get a sense of accountability by writing down what you eat, which may lead to making better health choices in the future.
Tracking down the sources of all your calories is an excellent way to help you identify your eating patterns. If you realize that you tend to snack in the middle of the night or during the day, you know what you need to change.
So the million-dollar question is: do you need to count calories to lose weight? Counting calories is one technique that may work for some but is not for everybody. The critical thing to remember is that, for you to lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit. However, you choose to accomplish that is up to you, and counting calories is just a tool that can get you there.
Starting to Count Calories
The idea of counting calories continues to receive different views from dieters and experts alike. Scientifically speaking, counting calories is a reasonable way to get you started on the right track to weight loss.
If you decide to try this method, first understand how calories are different and where you should be getting most of your calories. Also, remember that calories are essential for body function, so it is impossible to eradicate them from your diet. Then, use an online tool to calculate how many calories you need per day to promote weight loss, and finally, find a practical way to measure portions.
If you believe that counting calories is not for you, don’t worry. Perhaps you can just take a few principles and track your food intake for a week to help you see where you stand. There is no need to stick to a technique that creates a negative relationship with food or takes the joy away from meals. The secret to losing weight does not lie in counting calories, but instead lies in creating a caloric deficit by eating healthy. Whichever road you choose, as long as you stick to it, you will likely reach your weight loss goals.