Is Calorie Counting the Best Way to Manage Your Weight?
What is Calorie Counting?
The premise is simple: We gain weight when the energy we eat exceeds the energy we burn, and we, therefore, store that extra energy.
And unlike the flimsy science behind a lot of fad weight-loss diets, numerous studies — including research published in the American Journal of Physiology, the peer-reviewed BMJ, and the Journal of the American Medical Association — support the idea that we lose weight more effectively when we eat fewer calories than what we burn.
Likewise, if you're on a bulk and you're trying to gain weight, ramping up your caloric intake can help you to achieve your goals faster.
Calorie counting involves:
Establishing your baseline: How many calories do you need to eat each day?
Tracking: How many calories are you eating each day?
Changing your diet: What can you do — based on your goals and your current calorie intake — to reduce or increase your daily calories to lose or gain more weight?
What are Calories?
Calories are simply a measure of the amount of energy stored in your food. Specifically, it's defined by the amount of energy required to heat a gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
Everything you eat holds calories based on what's in the food or beverage. According to the American Council on Exercise:
1 gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories
1 gram of protein has 4 calories
1 gram of fat has 9 calories
How Many Calories Should You Consume?
Every single body is different, based on factors like your current weight and what your goals are. To better manage your weight, you need to figure out how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight and how many calories you need to eat to gain weight on a bulk or lose weight on a cut.
How to Calculate Your Baseline Calorie Intake
There are many ways to calculate how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight, but Harvard researchers suggest a very simple calculation that works for most people:
Step on a bathroom scale
Note your total weight in pounds
Multiply that number by 15
The resulting number is the number of calories you should eat to stay at your current weight level. For example, if you're a 150-pound individual, you'll need to eat roughly 2,250 calories a day to maintain that body weight.
How Many Calories Should You Cut or Add?
Harvard reports that for every pound you want to gain in a week, you should increase your baseline calorie needs by approximately 500 to 1,000 calories. For example, if you are the aforementioned 150-pound individual eating 2,250 calories a day, increasing that to at least 2,750 calories a day will help you gain a pound of body weight in one week.
The opposite is also true: Cutting your caloric intake by 500 to 1,000 calories a day will help you to lose a pound in a week.
If your goal is weight loss, keep in mind that you should aim to lose no more than one or two pounds a week (4-8 pounds in a month).
Is Counting Calories Healthy?
In a world of confusing diet trends and food fads, counting calories offers a very foundational, science-based approach to weight loss and weight gain. But weight loss and weight gain aren't the only metrics for wellness. There are some caveats to remember:
Macronutrients matter: Calories aren't the be-all and end-all. Researchers point out that the quality of your diet is still important, including an emphasis on healthy fats, fiber, and foods high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Less is not better: In an effort to lose weight rapidly, some people might cut their calories too quickly. This can lead to unhealthy side effects, such as a slower metabolism and an increase in mood disorders like anxiety, irritability, and chronic fatigue.
More is not better: Aim for an increase or decrease of 1-2 pounds of body weight each week. Excessive calorie intake is often stored as body fat.
The Best Apps to Help You Count Calories
If you're guesstimating your calorie intake, you're probably wrong. Most people overestimate or underestimate how many calories they eat, including dietary professionals like registered dietitians.
Tracking your actual diet using a calorie-tracking app takes the guesswork out of your dietary journey. Popular free or budget-friendly apps that track calories accurately include:
How to Weigh and Measure Your Portions
Not only do studies show that most of us don't estimate our diet's calories correctly, but we've also become accustomed to larger and larger portion sizes — this normalizes overeating and makes it harder for us to judge how much we're actually consuming.
You don't have to weigh and measure your meal portion sizes forever, but doing it for a few weeks can help you better understand how much you're eating (and how many calories are hiding in each meal). After a while, you'll get used to healthier, better portion control:
Use a kitchen scale: These can be found in many home goods stores for under $20 and can tell you how many grams, pounds, or ounces a specific ingredient uses. Using the previously discussed apps, you can then quickly determine how many calories are in your meal.
Measuring cups: It's easier to use than a kitchen scale, though less accurate. However, it can help you be more accustomed to how much you're eating.
Does Exercise Burn Calories, and Should You Count Those?
Exercise increases your energy expenditure, which in turn affects how many calories you need to eat to gain or lose weight. Plus, muscle-building workouts like weightlifting can increase your metabolism because muscle tissue burns more calories on a day-to-day basis than fat tissues.
If your goal is weight loss, registered dietitians like Elle Penner, RD, recommend using your hunger cues to let you know if you should eat more.
If your goal is weight gain, you should increase your calorie intake to compensate for the calories you burn when working out. Use the American Council on Exercise's exercise calorie calculator or the calculators included in many of the aforementioned calorie-tracking apps.
How to Count Calories: Tips for Calorie Counting Success
If you're new to counting calories, these tips can help you achieve your ideal body weight and optimal health:
Remember that the nutritional value of each calorie also matters: Focus on lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole-grain carbohydrates.
Track your meals until you're comfortable estimating the calories in your regular diet — most of us are bad at this and either overestimate or underestimate how much we're eating.
Reduce your intake of refined or sugary carbohydrates, which can spike your appetite and make it harder to stick with your calorie goals.
Meal prep in advance: Cook your food and portion it out ahead of time so you don't have to worry about meal sizing or using a scale during a busy week.
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