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How to Count Calories to Lose Weight

To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn. Even with all the diet plans out there, weight management still comes down to the calories you take in versus those you burn off during activity.

Popular fad diets may promise you that not eating carbohydrates (carbs) or eating a pile of grapefruit is the secret to weight loss. But it really comes down to eating fewer calories than your body is using if you want to lose weight. Calorie counting is one way to tackle this problem, and is commonly used for weight loss. This is a detailed guide about counting calories, explaining everything you need to know.

What Are Calories?

Calories are the energy in food. Your body has a constant demand for energy and uses the calories from food to keep working. Energy from calories fuels your every action, from fidgeting to marathon running.

Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are the types of nutrients that have calories and are the main energy sources for your body. No matter where they come from, the calories you eat are either converted to physical energy or stored within your body as fat.

These stored calories will stay in your body as fat unless you use them up. You can do this by cutting how many calories you take in so that your body must draw on reserves for energy. Or you can add more physical activity so that you burn more calories.

Why Calories Count?

It’s quite common to hear that calories don’t matter and calorie counting is a waste of time.

However, when it comes to your weight, calories do count.

This is a fact that has been proven time and time again in scientific experiments called overfeeding studies.

These studies ask people to deliberately overeat and subsequently measure the impact on their weight and health.

All overfeeding studies have found that, when people eat more calories than they burn off, they gain weight.

This simple fact means that counting calories and limiting your intake can be effective to prevent weight gain or lose weight, as long as you manage to stick to it.

One review found that weight loss programs that included calorie counting led to an average of around 7 lbs. (3.3 kg) more weight loss than those that didn’t.

How Many Calories Should You Eat?

How many calories you need depends on factors like gender, age, weight and activity level.

For example, a 25-year-old male athlete will need more calories than a 70-year-old woman who doesn’t exercise.

If you are trying to lose weight, you will need to create a calorie deficit by eating less than your body burns off.

Use this calculator (opens in new tab) to determine how many calories you should eat per day.

This calculator is based on the Mifflin-St Jeor equation, which is an accurate way to estimate calorie needs.

The Quality of Your Diet Still Matters

Calories are useful for tracking how much you eat, but they don’t tell you much about the quality of your diet.

When it comes to foods and the human body, a calorie is not necessarily a calorie.

For example, 100 calories of broccoli will affect your health differently than 100 calories of french fries.

This is important because your overall diet and the types of foods you eat have an effect on your health.

Additionally, the effects of different foods on hunger, appetite hormones and the amount of calories you burn can vary considerably.

It is best to base your diet on high-quality foods from plants or animals that have been minimally processed.

High-quality foods not only provide health benefits, but they also make it a lot easier to consume fewer calories in the long run.

Why it may seem like calories don‘t matter for weight loss

Biologically speaking, creating a calorie deficit is necessary for weight loss.

Still, many people claim that when you’re trying to lose weight, what you eat is more important than how much you eat.

This claim is generally fueled by studies in which participants on low carb diets appeared to lose more weight than those on high carb diets, despite eating as many or even more total calories.

At first glance, these studies seem to suggest that a calorie deficit is not needed for weight loss. They are often used as proof that calorie counting is useless.

However, several other factors may influence the results of these studies. Plus, low carb diets in addition to being difficult to sustain, the evidence does not support them.

The best ways to keep track of what you eat

If you’re interested in counting calories, there are several ways to go about it.

All involve recording what you eat, whether on paper, online, or in a mobile app.

According to studies, the method you pick does not really matter, so it’s most effective to pick the one you personally prefer.

Here are five of the best online calorie-counting websites and apps.

Using scales and measuring cups can also be beneficial for helping you measure food portions more accurately.

You might also want to try using the following visual guidelines to estimate your portion sizes. They’re less accurate but useful if you have limited access to a scale or measuring cups:

  ● 1 cup: a baseball or your closed fist (appropriate for raw or cooked vegetables)

  ● 3 ounces (90 grams): a deck of cards or the size and thickness of the palm of your hand minus the fingers (appropriate for measuring meat, poultry, and fish)

  ● 1 tablespoon (15 mL): a lipstick or the size of your thumb (can measure nut spreads)

  ● 1 teaspoon (5 mL): your fingertip (can be used to measure oils and other fats)

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that counting calories only allows you to evaluate your diet from a quantity perspective. It says very little about the qualityof what you eat.

When it comes to health, 100 calories from apples will affect your health differently than 100 calories from donuts.

Therefore, it’s important to avoid picking foods solely based on their calorie content. Instead, make sure you also consider their vitamin and mineral content as well.

You can do this by filling your diet with whole, minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nut/seeds and beans/legumes.

How to reduce calorie intake

Although decreasing the number of calories you consume can be effective for weight loss, cutting calories without considering which foods you eat isn’t a sustainable way to lose weight.

For example, choosing more nutrient-dense foods — think whole grains, nuts, vegetables, and fruits — benefits your health more than opting for nutrient-poor ones like soda, donuts, and candy.

For this reason, it’s highly recommended to make a few other changes to your diet and lifestyle that can help you maintain a calorie deficit in the long run without feeling hungry or deprived.

Here are 5 simple strategies that may help you lose weight.

1. Eat more protein: When it comes to losing weight, protein is incredibly important.

Studies show that increasing your intake of protein may help keep you full and curb your appetite.

Protein may also help fight cravings. According to some research, high protein snacks help enhance feelings of fullness while decreasing hunger and appetite.

In addition to promoting weight loss, some research suggests that maintaining a high protein diet may prevent or reduce weight regain and help maintain muscle mass.

Therefore, if you want to achieve long-lasting, sustainable weight loss, consider increasing your protein intake by eating more eggs, meat, poultry, tofu, nuts, seeds, or legumes.

2. Limit sugary drinks: Another relatively easy change you can make is to limit your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, including sodas, fruit juices, chocolate milk, and other drinks with added sugar.

Your brain doesn’t register liquid calories the same way it does solid calories, so they affect your feelings of hunger and fullness less significantly.

Additionally, studies associate drinking sugary beverages with an increased risk of obesity.

The harmful effects of sugar also go far beyond weight gain. In fact, added sugar may contribute to other health issues, including heart disease, liver problems, and type 2 diabetes.

3. Drink more water:One simple thing you can do for your health is to drink more water.

Adequate hydration is associated with improved brain health and weight management, as well as a reduced kidney stone risk.

What’s more, drinking water immediately before meals may reduce hunger and help you eat fewer calories.

When combined with a healthy diet, drinking more water — especially before meals — appears to be helpful if you need to lose weight. Try other unsweetened beverages like coffee, tea, and sparkling water to meet your hydration needs.

4. Exercise: Calorie restriction, especially significant calorie restriction, may slow your metabolic rate and increase appetite. Plus, cutting calories too severely may lead to muscle loss, which can harm your overall health and lower your metabolic rate.

Resistance-training activities like weightlifting have been shown to limit muscle loss, which may help minimize metabolic changes during long-term calorie restriction.

If you can’t get to a gym, consider doing bodyweight exercises, such as pushups, squats, and sit-ups, at home.

Cardio exercises, such as walking, swimming, or jogging, are also important — both for increasing weight loss and supporting overall health.

Additionally, exercise has a variety of other benefits that go beyond weight loss, such as increased longevity, enhanced energy levels, improved mental health, and a decreased risk of chronic disease.

5. Reduce your intake of refined carbs and ultra-processed foods: The term “refined carbs” refers to grains that have lost their bran and germ, including white bread, pasta, crackers, and white rice. It also includes sugar and other sweeteners.

Refined grains typically lack fiber, which supports weight loss by decreasing your appetite and increasing feelings of fullness.

Eating fewer carbs, including fewer refined carbs, may also promote weight loss by altering levels of specific hormones that regulate your appetite, such as peptide YY.

While a low carb or ketogenic diet definitely isn’t right for everyone, replacing refined carbs with a variety of nutrient-dense, fiber-rich carb sources — such as whole grains, root vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes — may be beneficial.

It’s also best to avoid ultra-processed foods, which include fast food, packaged snacks, candies, and sugary beverages. These items not only pack refined carbs but also preservatives, sugars, unhealthy fats, salt, and other ingredients you should limit in your diet.

The bottom line

In order to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn.

Some people are able to do this without actually counting calories. Others find that counting calories is an effective way to consciously create and maintain this deficit.

Those interested in giving calorie counting a try should keep in mind that not all calories are the same when it comes to impact on health, as well as other factors that affect weight loss such as appetite and hormones.

Therefore, make sure to build your menu around minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods and rather than base your food choices on calories alone.

Additionally, keep in mind that counting calories could contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food, especially for those with a history of eating disorders.

If you find that tracking your calorie intake triggers any negative feelings like guilt or shame, consider other practices instead, such as intuitive eating.

Talk with a healthcare professional to help determine is calorie counting is right for you and your needs.

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