When it comes to weight loss, most people think about calories: counting and limiting them to stay below a certain number every day. While there are many factors that contribute to weight gain, increased daily calorie intake is often considered the top reason why you fail to maintain a healthy weight.
With this, many people turn to counting calories as a way to lose weight. However, the concept of counting calories is not as simple and effective as you think it is. While it’s an important practice to consider for weight loss, a successful and sustainable weight loss plan requires more than just counting and tracking calories.
In this post, we will discuss what exactly calories are, why calorie counting matters, and several facts about counting calories and weight loss that you should know to make your calorie counting efforts work for you.
What are calories?
Calories, sometimes called “big” calories or kcal, are the basic unit used to measure the amount of energy we consume from food. That energy is stored in chemical bonds of carbs, fats, proteins, and all other substances that make up your food. The body converts most of the calories from food into energy to support metabolism and other basic bodily functions.
Out of the three macronutrients, fat contains the highest amount of calories per gram at 9 calories, while carbohydrate and protein only yield 4 calories per gram. In other words, you can consume twice as many carbs and protein as fat for fewer calories.
Why is calorie counting important?
The more calories you eat, the more energy you will have to support your bodily functions and daily activities. But you will also have higher calories to burn through exercise. When you consume more calories than what your body needs or uses, the excess calories are stored as glycogen or fat for later use.
In order to lose weight, you need to aim for a calorie deficit. It basically happens when you consume fewer calories than you’re burning or you burn more calories than you’re taking in. However, eating fewer calories or burning more regularly does not necessarily lead to a healthy weight loss.
How do I calculate calories to lose weight?
The number of calories a person should ideally consume per day depends on age, sex, weight, height, activity level, and target weight. The usual 2,000-calorie basis you see on most nutrition labels is just a ballpark figure, so you would need to determine your ideal calorie intake.
We’ve listed three online tools you can use to help you determine your ideal calorie intake to reach your desired body weight in a certain amount of time or maintain weight:
- National Institutes of Health (NIH) Body Weight Planner
- National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Body Weight Planner
- Forbes Health Calorie Calculator
To track your calorie intake, you can use a free calorie counting app on iPhone and Android like Calorie Counter by FatSecret, Lose It!, MyFitnessPal, MyNetDiary, and ControlMyWeight.
What you need to know about counting calories
All calories are not the same
Yes, the 160 calories you get from eating a small bag of potato chips aren’t the same as the 160 calories from an apple and banana. Therefore, you can’t say that it’s okay to just grab that junk food for snacks since they are just the same, calorie-wise.
I’m sure you’ve already heard of the term “empty calories,” which pertain to calorie-dense foods and drinks with no significant amount of nutrients in them. It is associated with foods and drinks that source most of its calorie content from sugar and fat, therefore outweighing the calories from other nutrients like protein and fiber.
In other words, calories are not created equal. Both quantity and quality matter, so you should aim to eat foods and drinks that are rich in protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. As long as you’re incorporating as many nutrient-dense foods as you can in your diet, counting how many calories you consume and burn in a day can go a long way in losing weight. Otherwise, you will become at risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and various nutritional deficiencies.
Sugar-free and low-fat don’t always mean healthy
People have the tendency to choose packaged foods that are sugar-free, low-fat, or lite over their regular variants, probably because they seem to contain fewer calories. The same goes with low-calorie variants that look healthier, but in reality, might not do good for your overall health and may even cause you to gain weight.
However, reducing certain ingredients in foods and drinks can highly affect its taste and texture. And to solve that issue, food manufacturers pour in ingredients like sugar, salt, sweeteners, flour, and thickeners that add a lot of calories. Still, not all products with reduced sugar, fat, or calories are necessarily unhealthy.
Before buying fat-free, low-calorie, and similar foods and drinks, make sure that the ingredient list isn’t loaded with sugars and other additives. Look at the serving sizes and check if it actually has lower calories than the regular variant. It’s better to eat a 300-calorie slice of New York cheesecake than three scoops of low-fat ice cream that can add up to 400 calories, depending on the flavor.
Your body absorbs every calorie in food
This may come as a surprise, but the number of calories you eat isn’t necessarily the same as the number of calories your body absorbs for storage and energy use. There are several factors affecting the way our body absorbs and processes calories: the gut microbiome, metabolism, and the type of food you eat.
There are trillions of microorganisms in your gut that, according to studies, influence how many calories your body absorbs from food as well as how it processes them. Research confirms that people who are naturally thin contain different types of microorganisms in their gut compared to those who are overweight and obese.
Depending on many factors like age, sex, and body composition, your basal metabolic rate (BMR) or the rate at which your body burns calories can be naturally slow or fast. This is something we can’t fully control, but there are several ways to boost our overall metabolism, such as building muscle mass, eating smaller meals, packing on protein, and eating enough calories.
Your food choices also have a huge impact on your calorie intake not only because of the numbers, but also because of the quality of the food. Studies show that people who consumed ultra-processed foods tend to gain more weight than people who consumed unprocessed foods, regardless of calorie content. The difference comes from a faster rate of eating and higher food consumption, which then increases overall calorie intake.
Figures on nutrition labels can be inaccurate
The amount of calories you see on nutrition labels isn’t necessarily the same as what you’re taking into your body. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows food manufacturers to be off by up to 20% from the actual number. This means that you might think that you’re eating a 200-calorie serving of chips, but you might be actually taking in up to 240 calories.
While the slight differences may not exactly ruin your diet, they may add up quickly, especially if you consume a lot of packaged foods and drinks. Most experts recommend using calorie counter apps to count calories and eating unprocessed and whole foods more often. But whether you eat fewer calories than your ideal intake or not, it’s more important to consider the quality and serving sizes of food as well as the calories burned through physical activity.
Is calorie counting a good way to lose weight?
While calorie counting isn’t the only key to losing weight, it is one of the most basic steps in maintaining your current weight and achieving your body goals. Some of the most effective ways to track and count calories are to keep a food journal, use a calorie counter app, and create a personalized meal plan based on your needs and goals.
Along with these techniques, it’s important to practice healthy eating and lifestyle habits to make a big difference in your weight management efforts. The best ways you can do to achieve your goal weight faster is to practice mindful eating, eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and unprocessed foods, try meal planning, exercise more often, and consult a health care professional to carefully assess and map out your weight loss plan.
At Beltline Health, our main goal is to help people struggling with their weight and other weight-related health conditions by providing professional guidance in evaluating each individual’s status, needs, and goals, and offering scientifically backed solutions to slowly get you to your ideal weight and lifestyle.
If you’re planning to count calories to help you get started on your weight loss journey, make sure to register for our free weight loss online seminar today. Visit our website to schedule a consultation with one of our nutrition experts or call us at (470) 419-4380 to know more about our services.