How to Count Calories?

by Marixie Ann Obsioma, MT, undergrad MD on August 6, 2019
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To count calories or not is the question you battle every time you want to lose weight. Of course, you’ll have little voices in your head and on your social media pages telling you that the key to losing weight is cutting out practically almost everything you enjoy on a regular basis. Perhaps the problem here is that you focus more on shedding off pounds rather than improving overall health.

You may not enjoy tracking the calories every food item offers. It’s more difficult than it sounds. It is also harder to wax poetic about measuring and recording everything you eat. As you flip over a box of crackers to check its nutritional value for what feels like the hundredth time, you may find yourself reconsidering your life choices. Why are you doing this? Is this worth it? Actually, it is! Counting calories can be healthy! Read on to know why and how it works and the tips you can follow to do it correctly.

What’s A Calorie?

A dietary calorie refers to the amount of energy needed to increase the temperature of 1-kilogram water by 1°C.

Calories are usually used to describe the amount of energy you get from foods and beverages. You use them to perform basic body functions like breathing and thinking, as well as daily physical activities like walking, talking, and eating. The amount of energy provided by foods is recorded in kilocalories (kcal), but people prefer to simplify it to just “calories.”

Any excess will be stored as fat, and consistently eating more calories than you burn will cause you to gain weight over time.

Why Do You Need Calories?

If you are thinking why calories are important, here’s a quick overview of how the body uses them. It starts with what you eat. Food is where the body gets the calories it needs to function properly. After digestion, these subunits can either be used to build tissues or to provide your body with enough energy for its immediate needs.

The amount of energy your body gets would greatly depend on its source:

  • Carbohydrates and proteins contain 4 calories each per gram
  • Alcohol has 7 calories per gram
  • Fat provides 9 calories per gram

Metabolizing these nutrients will produce calories that can be used to power three main processes (1, 2):

1. Basic Metabolism

The body will use most calories to provide energy to your brain, heart, lungs, and kidneys. The amount needed to support these basic functions is referred to as your basic metabolic rate (BMR). This makes up the biggest proportion of your total daily requirements (1).

2. Digestion

The body will use part of the calories to help you digest and metabolize foods. This is called the thermic effect of food (TEF), which may vary depending on what you eat. Protein, for example, requires more energy to be digested, while fat demands the least. Approximately 10-15% of the calories you get from foods will be used to support the TEF (3).

3. Physical Activity

The rest of the remaining calories will fuel your physical activity. This includes your daily tasks and exercises. The count of calories needed to cover this category may vary on a daily basis and from one person to another.

Benefits of Counting Calories

1. It Can Help You Lose Weight

It is quite common to hear that calories do not really matter and counting them is just a waste of time. However, when it comes to weight, calories do count. This fact has been proven through several overfeeding studies. They asked people to overeat and measured its impact on their weight and health.

All studies have found that consuming more calories than what you can burn may cause weight gain (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). This just means that counting calories and restricting your intake can effectively help you prevent weight gain or lose weight. One review proved that weight loss programs, which included calorie counting led to approximately 7 pounds more weight loss than those that didn’t (12).

2. It Decreases Your Risks of Chronic Diseases

Experts say that people who are overweight or obese are at more risk of developing chronic diseases problems. Counting calories will you keep health problems at bay.

3. It Increases Your Mindfulness

We often eat on autopilot. We eat even if we are not that hungry. We indulge because the food tastes good or probably because we are bored.

When you start tracking your food, you become more aware of the choices you were unconsciously making. This leads to making better, more intentional choices in the future. It will help you check which eating patterns you need to modify to maintain a healthy weight (13).

4. It Will Encourage You to Eat Smaller Portions

Controlling your calorie intake is not only about restricting your diet. It encourages you to eat the right amount of healthy foods. While it is not very easy to eat healthy at all times, portion control can greatly help.

Counting calories will help you focus on your serving sizes. When you record your intake, you will be inspired to a good variety of foods too.

5. It Can Improve Your Personality

Calorie-conscious people are more fit, lean, and healthy. Someone who is conscious of his or her caloric intake is more likely to look younger too.

6. It is Cheap

Yes, it is cheap to count calories! You don’t have to sign up for an expensive weight loss plan. All you need is a free or cheap extensive app and nutritional labels for you to be able to count everything that goes in!

How to Effectively Weight and Measure Your Portion Sizes?

Portion sizes have increased, and in some restaurants, one meal can double or triple what an average person needs in one sitting. When you view large servings of foods as the norm, you can easily gain weight. This is often referred to as portion distortion (14, 15, 16).

Generally, we aren’t good at estimating how much we eat (17, 18, 19, 20). Calorie counting can help you prevent overeating by giving you a clear understanding of how much you are really consuming. However, for it to work, you have to record your portion sizes correctly. Here are some tips on how you can do it effectively:

  • Scales: The most accurate way to know how much you are eating is to weigh your food. However, this isn’t always practical and is time-consuming.
  • Measuring Cups: Standard volume measures are easier to use than scales, but still time-consuming.
  • Comparisons: Using comparisons to common items is relatively fast and easy especially if you are not at home. However, this is less accurate.

Calorie counting is not an exact science, even when you weigh and measure portion sizes. You just have to record your intake as accurately as possible.

You should be more careful in recording items that are high in fat or sugar like ice cream, pizza, and oils. Under-recording these foods can cause a huge difference between your recorded and actual intake. To improve your estimations, use scales, in the beginning, to give you a better idea of what portion looks like. This can help you be more accurate, even after you stop using them (21).

3 Best Calorie Counter Apps and Websites to Use When Counting Calories

1. MyFitnessPal

MyFitnessPal is one of the most popular calorie counters available now. It can track your weight can help calculate your suggested daily calorie intake. It also features a winning food journal and an exercise log.

Its homepage will show you a clear picture of how much calories you’ve already consumed and the remaining recommended intake. It also shows the count of calories you’ve burned by exercising. You can sync this with other fitness tracking device. This app will help track your progress and offers chat forums with other users, where you can find tips, recipes, and personal success stories.

It has a very extensive nutrition database, storing more than 5 million foods. You can check out their recipes and create custom dishes too! Also, it has a barcode scanner that allows you to easily enter the nutrition information of some packaged foods. It has a free version, but most features can be accessed in the premium version, which is just a little over $4 per month.

2. Lose It!

This is yet another health tracker that features an easy-to-use food journal and exercise log. You can connect this to a pedometer and other fitness devices. Based on your age, height, weight, and goals, this can customize recommendations for your calorie intake.

It also features a comprehensive food database. The food journal is very user-friendly. Adding new foods is not complicated too. It also has a barcode scanner for packaged foods. Unlike other apps, Lose It has a tab called “challenges.” This allows you to join dietary challenges or make your own. With a membership fee of only $3.33 per month, you can enjoy the full features of this app!

3. FatSecret

Are you looking for a free calorie counter? FatSecret is the answer! Just like other premium apps, this includes a food journal, exercise log, weight chart, nutrition database, and healthy recipes. It also has a barcode scanner for packaged foods.

FatSecret can show you your total calorie intake, including the breakdown of carbohydrates, fat, and protein on a daily and monthly basis! This feature may be more convenient to track your overall progress. This counter is very easy to use. It also has a chat community where you can ask for help, get recipes and more.

More Tips to Succeed With Calorie Counting

  • Be Ready: Before starting, get a calorie counting app or an online tool. Decide how you will measure or estimate your portion sizes and make a meal plan.
  • Check Food Labels: Food labels can offer you a lot of information useful for calorie counting. Be sure to check the recommended portion size on the package.
  • Avoid Temptations: Get rid of junk foods. This will help you choose healthier snacks and make it easier to hit your targets.
  • Take It Slow: Don’t’ cut calories too low. Although you will lose weight faster, it can make you feel upset and you’ll less likely stick to your weight loss plan.
  • Fuel Your Workout: Most successful weight loss programs would include both diet and exercise. Make sure to eat enough to give you energy for exercise.
  • Write Down Everything: If it goes in your mouth, it should be written down. Make this habit your rule for calorie counting.
  • Get A Tool That Fits Your Lifestyle: While online tools work for most people who are always on the go, other dieters who are not tech savvy prefer to use pens and papers. Do whatever is easier for you.

Take-Home Message

Calories do count, especially when it comes to weight loss and optimal health. Although it does not suit everyone, you may still find that counting calories is an effective way to keep off excess weight and be healthy.

Be sure to build your menu around minimally processed foods. Choose those that are nutrient-packed. Do not just base your choices on calories. Invest in a good app to help you reach your goals.

References:

(1) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3302369/
(2) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3401553/
(3) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC524030/
(4) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15534429
(5) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16836744
(6) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16039676
(7) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1414963
(8) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1415004
(9) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22629311
(10) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7598063
(11) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22215165
(12) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24636238
(13) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3233993/
(14) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16963346
(15) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26702602
(16) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25865660
(17) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17197279
(18) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19594967
(19) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15251058
(20) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12396160
(21) //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15250844


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