Counting Calories For Weight Loss
Counting calories for weight loss is the toughest diet to stick with. That’s a fact. But it’s no surprise to most dieters and healthcare professionals. That’s because counting calories is more than just something that dieters have to do — it’s a science. Most people don’t realize that if they want to improve their eating habits, they’ll have to get out their calculators (yes, actual ones) or open up a calorie counter app on their phones and start tracking everything they’re eating in order to know what they should be aiming for in terms of daily calorie intake.
There are a lot of different things you could do to lose weight. But, why not cut corners and save some time? I’m talking about counting calories. Yes, 5 years ago, counting calories was a bit of a chore; but with technology advancing so quickly, everything has changed.
What Is a Calorie?
A calorie is an exact unit of energy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); specifically, it is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram (g) of water by 1 degree Celsius. The “calories” in food are actually kilocalories, or 1,000 of these tiny units. Fats are the most calorie-dense foods we eat, with about 9 kilocalories (kcal) per gram. Carbohydrates and protein each have about 4 kcal per gram. On the most basic level, eating fewer calories than you burn will result in weight loss.
What Is a Calorie Deficit?
“Calorie deficit” is a term you hear a lot any time weight loss is discussed. This is just another way to say you’re burning more calories than you need to maintain your current body weight. “But remember, it’s almost impossible to know exactly how many calories someone needs,” says Simone Wilson, RD, a registered dietitian and owner of Simone Theresa Nutrition in Philadelphia. It depends on variables including gender, age, activity level, and weight. “Whatever equation you use to estimate this, it’s just that — a rough estimate.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a 500-calorie-a-day deficit for weight loss. Over a week, that adds up to 3,500 calories, the amount long believed to equal 1 pound (lb) of fat (though increasingly this math has come into question). The CDC recommends you create a deficit through a mix of getting more activity, like walking, and making food swaps like drinking sparkling water instead of ginger ale.
Does Calorie Counting Work?
The thing is, calorie counting doesn’t account for the fact that calories aren’t interchangeable. The quality of the calories you eat matters just as much if not more than the quantity.
If you’ve ever tried to lose weight you know firsthand that creating (and staying) in a calorie deficit is harder than it may appear. “Often counting calories can lead to eating snack foods that may be in line with your calorie target but leave you hungry soon after,” says Samantha Cassetty, RD, a registered dietitian in private practice and former nutrition director of Good Housekeeping.
“If you’re looking at 500 calories of chocolate cake, that’s not going to have the same effect on your body and how you feel as when you eat a balanced meal that contains different food groups [and the same number of calories],” says Wilson. A chicken breast with brown rice and broccoli might have the same amount of calories as a slice of cake, but the chicken will keep you full and energized for hours because your body digests things like protein and fiber more slowly, while the sugar in the cake can cause blood glucose (sugar) swings that trigger hunger, she says.
What Is Metabolism and Why Does It Matter?
One factor a dieter has little control over is how many calories their body burns at rest. Informally, this is referred to as your metabolism. And when it comes to calorie restriction, the news about metabolism isn’t good: Research shows that restricting calories may cause your body to compensate in other ways. A September 2017 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that “in the short term, a reduction in energy intake is counteracted by mechanisms that reduce metabolic rate and increase calorie intake, ensuring the regaining of lost weight. For example, even a year after dieting, hormonal mechanisms that stimulate appetite are raised.” It might be wise to limit your calorie deficit to something like 250 calories (instead of the usual 500) and lose the weight you want at a slower pace that is easier on the metabolism and more maintainable long term.
Body composition also plays a role here: Muscle burns more calories, even at rest, than fat, according to the Mayo Clinic. Research found that two and a half months of strength training can increase lean weight by 3 lb and reduce fat by 4 lb. So by all means, burn calories doing cardio, but add strength training to the mix as well.
Other Factors That Affect Calorie Consumption
Another thing many people may not consider is that a host of other factors can affect calorie intake. For example, people eat more and choose higher-calorie foods when they don’t sleep enough, according to a November 2016 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Previous research has found that calorie restriction can raise cortisol, a stress hormone that causes cravings for high-calorie foods, according to Today’s Dietitian.
Another major driver of hunger for many people is ultraprocessed food, those manufactured industrially with multiple ingredients and additives. Research published in 2016 in BMJ Open suggests that these foods contribute 89.7 percent of the added sugar in the American diet. And excess sugar, rich in calories, makes it tough to stick to a calorie-controlled diet. When you eat a sugar-filled meal or snack, your blood sugar rises sharply and then crashes, leaving you hungry again just hours after you ate. In an April 2021 study published in Nature Metabolism, people who experienced this blood sugar drop went on to eat 312 more calories on average during the day compared with those who had more stable blood sugar. It’s an eating pattern that can easily sabotage any weight loss effort.
There are many nutrients, on the other hand, that make cutting calories easier. Past research has found that dietary fiber intake is associated with a lower body weight. Other research shows that higher protein diets will leave you feeling fuller and more satisfied for a longer period of time as compared with diets low in protein. The savviest calorie counters include both at every meal and snack. It can be helpful to think of food in terms of its energy density, or the amount of calories it provides in a given volume. One tablespoon (tbsp) of butter, at 96 calories, per the USDA, is a high-energy-density food. Broccoli is a low-energy-density food—you’d need to eat more than 3 cups of the vegetable to get 100 calories. Research shows that diets rich in low-energy-density foods are associated with better diet quality and lower body weight.
Does Calorie Counting Help With Weight Loss?
If you want to achieve a healthy body weight, calorie counting is one possible strategy. “It can help someone build awareness and learn about nutrition,” says Wilson. She says it can help people realize that a tiny amount of peanut butter has the same number of calories as (or more than) a satisfying portion of leafy greens. Both Cassetty and Wilson agree that calorie counting should always go hand in hand with learning about good nutrition.
“Calorie counting can work. If you’re doing it in a way that promotes a calorie deficit, you’ll lose weight. But it doesn’t always promote making the healthiest or most satisfying choices. If you aren’t careful, it can backfire,” says Cassetty.
Remember, counting calories isn’t the only way to lose weight, and it’s not a practice that works for everyone. In particular, people with a history of disordered eating should avoid using this strategy. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that participants who used food monitoring tools experienced more compulsive behavior than those who did not. “Calorie counting is counterproductive for most people,” says Wilson. “When it does work, it’s usually just for the short term.” She advises her clients to learn how to consistently choose balanced meals and snacks that support their goals instead. “If you’re just counting calories your diet is probably going to lack micronutrients,” she adds.
You can make small adjustments to your current diet and lifestyle that add up over time. If you gradually move toward a plant-forward, mostly whole-foods diet based on low-energy-density foods, you’ll slowly slim down if you’re overweight without counting calories.
Calorie Intake and Weight Loss
If the goal is to lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit. This means that you must take in fewer calories than you use.
Put another way, when your calorie intake is lower than the number of calories you burn, you lose weight. If it’s higher, it results in weight gain. When calorie intake and calorie burn are equal, weight stabilizes. This is the goal at the maintenance stage.
Creating a deficit requires counting calories. If you don’t pay attention to the food you consume, it’s easy to exceed your calorie needs. Even slight overages add up over time. At a minimum, they can stall weight loss efforts. Go way above your calorie needs and gaining weight is inevitable.
How to Calculate Calories for Weight Loss Success
Each person has different calorie needs. They vary based on your sex, current body size, activity level, and more. Take these four steps to determine the calorie count needed for your weight loss success.
Step 1: Calculate Your Base Metabolic Rate
Before you can calculate how many calories are needed for weight loss, you must first calculate your base calorie need. This is the number of calories needed to simply maintain life. It is known as basal metabolic rate or BMR.
BMR takes into account the calories burned during life-sustaining activities such as breathing, food digestion, and blood circulation. Sometimes, BMR is confused with resting metabolic rate (RMR). But RMR is different in that it is the calories burned while the body is at rest. This includes calories used for more than just basic functions.
One way to calculate BMR is with the Harris-Benedict formula. The formula you use is based on your sex:
Men: 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age)
Women: 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.7 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age)
Step 2: Consider your Level of Physical Activity
Next, take your BMR and use it to determine how many calories you use daily based on your activity level. The more physical activity you get regularly, the greater your calorie burn. The greater your calorie burn, the more food you can consume and still lose weight.
This calculation gives you your total daily energy expenditure or TDEE. To calculate your TDEE, take your BMR and multiply it by the number that coincides with your level of physical activity:
Step 3: Determine Your Goal Daily Calorie Count
The number you get when multiplying your BMR by your activity level is the number of calories needed to sustain a healthy weight. The question is: how different is this intake compared to your current food plan?
The reason this is important is that trying to reduce your calorie intake too quickly can leave you feeling hungry all of the time. It can also cause you to feel as if you have to deprive yourself to hit your weight-related goals. This can set you up for failure.
Instead of trying to drop immediately down to your recommended calorie amount, devise a plan to get there slowly over time. You might eat 100 fewer calories the first week, for instance. This gives your body time to adjust to a lesser food intake without dealing with major calorie cuts.
The next week, lower your daily food intake by another 100 calories. While this approach may take a bit longer to lose weight, it is also more sustainable. Besides, creating healthy living habits is a process. Going slow makes the process more enjoyable because the change occurs over time versus shocking the body all at once.
Step 4: Create a Menu with This Total Calorie Count
Once you know how many calories you need to support basic bodily functions while also having the energy needed to exercise and lose weight at a healthy rate, you can plan your food menu. Decide what you’ll eat, how much, and when. Sticking to your daily calorie plan can help you achieve a healthy weight.
Calorie counting also helps you modify your plan if needed. The ideal weight loss rate is 1-2 pounds per week. If your weekly fat loss exceeds this rate, you may want to increase your calories consumed so you don’t drop your weight too fast.
The problem with losing weight too quickly is that it causes your metabolic rate to slow. A slow metabolic rate leads to slower weight loss. This can be frustrating because you’re doing everything right but still not seeing results.
Lose weight too fast and you could also reduce your muscle mass. Greater muscle mass means a tighter physique. Muscle also increases metabolic rate. So, protecting the muscle you have helps boost your energy expenditure.
Using an Online Calorie Calculator
Some online calculators will tell you your TDEE without having to calculate your BMR first. TDEE Calculator is one option. Select your gender, then input your age, weight, height, and activity level. You can also choose between imperial (pounds and inches) and metric (kilograms and centimeters) calculations.
Calculator.net also offers a calorie calculator. This website enables you to calculate calories using your choice of BMR formulas. To see your options, go into the settings. You can choose between the Harris-Benedict, Mifflin St Jeor, and Katch-McArdle equations.
It should be noted that all three of these formulas provide estimates as to what daily calorie intake should be. So, you might have to modify your daily calorie range based on how your food intake impacts your weight. If the scale is going up instead of down, lower your calorie range. The number provided by the calculator is just a starting point.
Calculating Caloric Needs for Weight Maintenance
Maybe you’re more interested in maintaining your current body weight than in achieving weight loss. Or perhaps you’ve used the above steps and have hit your weight goal. The next step is to determine how many calories you need to maintain your weight.
To stop weight loss, start to add food to your diet to increase your calorie count. Try adding 100 calories per day and see what happens with your weight. Keep doing this every week until your weight starts to stabilize. Once your weight holds steady, you’ll know what your maintenance calories should be.
Two Ways to Create a Calorie Deficit
We’ve talked a lot about decreasing food intake to help create a calorie deficit. But this isn’t your only option. You can also increase the amount of exercise you get. This forces the body to use more energy, which also results in a deficit.
You don’t have to go all out with your exercise either. If you’re sedentary now, aim for a few light activity sessions per week. If you’re lightly active, work your way up to being moderately active. Each increase in activity means that the body burns more calories to support the needed energy increase.
The benefit of creating a deficit with exercise is that you don’t have to limit your food intake as drastically. Instead, you use your activity to tilt the equation in your favor.