6 tips for counting calories
The only sure-fire, guaranteed way to lose weight is to eat fewer calories than you burn. There are plenty of gimmicks, tricks, and fad diets that say otherwise, but they're either masking the math, or they're not helping you learn to be successful for the long term.
Who would be better at counting calories than Count Von Count, from Sesame Street?
Counting calories works, plain and simple. But counting calories is hard - it can be time consuming, tedious, and frustrating. (which is why there are so many fads saying you don't need to do this... for a price. Ahem..)
Knowing what to expect, and having a plan of attack before you start, can be the difference between success and frustration/failure. So, with that in mind, here are some things to consider before you start counting calories:
1.) Know Your Number
How many calories does your body need to maintain its weight, assuming little to no exercise?
Each person will have a different number, and that number will change over time, especially if you're losing weight.
Here is a Calorie Calculator which will give you a rough estimate. (Note - use the drop-down arrow to change the Activity Level to "Sedentary", otherwise your results will be off.) Notice how much it can vary based on your individual situation:
- 25 year old male, 6' 2", 240 lbs: Burns 2,572 calories per day without exercise
- 40 year old female, 5' 3", 175 lbs: Burns 1,719 calories per day
- Look at that difference. If they partnered up together and ate 2,000 calories per day, he would lose a pound per week while she gained almost a pound per month!
Next, once you know your number, decide how many calories below that number you're willing to let yourself eat. This is a trade-off between the amount of hunger you're willing to endure and the speed of weight loss..
- 500 calorie daily deficit equals losing 1 pound per week.
- 250 calories per day will let you lose 1/2 pound per week, or about 2 pounds per month.
- This is my personal favorite. I think it's the sweet spot between losing weight fast enough to be noticeable and eating at a pace that's easier to achieve. Getting down near 1,200 calories per day, every day, is tough. Those extra 250 calories can go a long way towards getting through the day.
- 125 calories per day and you'll lose about 1 pound per month.
If you're going to put this much effort into something, you better know your number!
2.) Know what you're eating
There are plenty of helpful apps and websites available to help you research how many calories are in whatever you might be eating, so there's no excuse for guessing. When your goal is to be negative by a couple hundred calories a day, miscalculating and ball-park guessing could easily be the difference between success and failure.
- Lose It - Web, Android, and IOS. Look everything up. Save your searches. Track your calories. Sync between your computer and your smartphone.
- CalorieKing.com - Website with an extensive list of packaged foods, prepared foods, and raw ingredients.
- NutritionData.Self.Com - Website from Self Magazine. It's a little busy, but it also has a large database of foods.
3.) Track Everything!
I don't care what method you use - food journal, smartphone app, spreadsheet, Evernote, spiral ring notebook, whatever. If it goes into your mouth, you need to write down what it was, how much, how many calories, and when you ate it. Period.
This practice serves multiple purposes:
A) Motivation. The act of seeing it in writing will make you think twice about eating it. Really. A common thread among personal trainers is "the clients who keep journals succeed; the others don't."
B) Trouble shooting. If you're not doing as well as you expected, it's not because of the math - it's because of the values input into the equation. A look back through your journal can help you find where you might be sabotaging yourself - maybe an extra snack in the afternoon, or you wrote down the wrong number from the calorie website. Whatever the cause, the journal takes any guesswork out of finding the problem, and allows you to fix your error and get back to losing weight!
Every new meal means extra time researching calories. This gets really tiring, really fast. It's better to repeat meals more frequently than you're used to, than to get frustrated by having to look things up 6 or 7 times a day. Get started with a good rotation of a few meals and snacks, then add more, slowly over time.
Your weight loss will come from counting calories, but adding moderate exercise will help in a number of ways.
- Burn more calories, which speeds up results! Jog 1 mile; burn about 120 calories. Run 1 mile fast; burn about 200 calories (maybe more, maybe less - depending on lots of variables). Fit-20 Workouts can burn a few hundred calories!
- Helps shape and tone your body. Sure you want to lose weight. But you want to look all sculpted / curvy once you do, right?
- Gives you a mental surge of energy, knowing you're helping to reach your own goals.
- Counting calories won't be easy, especially the first couple weeks. You have to want this BAD, and you have to be willing to give it 30-45 days. But it gets easier:
- After the first week, you'll have some go-to items on your menu, so you won't have to spend as much time researching every little piece of food.
- By the end of the 2nd week, you'll see some results. Even if it hasn't hit the scale yet, you'll notice your clothes fitting a little differently. And that's all it takes - once you see it working, and there are rewards for all that effort, you'll want to push yourself even harder!
- Efficient Fat Burning - it takes your body more effort to convert fat to fuel than it does to convert carbs, so initially your body is going to send you messages to eat more carbs (you'll notice these messages as cravings and hunger pains.) Over time, though, your body gets used to burning fat, and these cravings will subside.
Never Forget - each pound of fat stored in your body can be used to generate 3,500 calories' worth of energy.
Remember that 40-year old woman in the calorie example above? She was 5' 3" tall, weighed 175 lbs, and needed 1,719 calories to get through a day without any weight change. One pound of body fat can last her for 2 whole days, even if she doesn't eat anything at all.
Let's ball-park that she's about 40% body fat. 40% of 175 equals 70 pounds of fat inside her body. 70 pounds; 245,000 calories of stored energy, just waiting to be used! She could go months without eating a bite of food and be ok.
Put this example back into your own shoes. Will you be hungry throughout the day once you start limiting your calories? Heck yes, especially in the first couple weeks. Will you starve? No chance. Hunger means your body is releasing some of those 245,000 stored calories for energy. Embrace it!