This article has been Fact-Checked by Kendall Kennedy MS, RD, RYT
Counting calories is one of the most popular ways to lose weight. It can both help and stop your weight loss so make sure you do it right.
Calories are a way of measuring the amount of energy in foods and drinks. More specifically the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
Your body needs energy day in, day out to do everything you do. Walking, thinking, eating, sleeping,…
Body fat is basically the collection of calories stored for later use.
How do calories influence weight loss?
How does this measurement of energy in food influence your weight gain or weight loss?
When you eat food your body absorbs a certain amount of calories from it. During the day you will use calories to fuel your activites.
If you absorb more calories than you use, your body stores the excess calories as body fat. This was very useful in prehistoric times when humans were not sure when they would find food again. Every calorie was important.
These days this mechanism is stil useful but the problem is that there are a lot of negative side effects of having too much body fat.
The good thing is that this body fat can go away as well. When you absorb less calories than you use, your body starts using body fat as energy. This results in fat loss and most likely weight loss.
What is calorie counting?
This is where calorie counting comes into play.
Calorie counting starts out with making an estimation of how many calories you need to burn a day. Then you count the calories in food. You try to make sure that the calorie amount in the food you eat is lower than how many calories you use each day.
How do you count your calories?
There are multiple ways to count calories.
If you want to be really accurate you weigh everything you consume, look up how many calories it is and note down everything. Calorie counting apps like myfitnesspal can be handy if you want to go this route.
Another way you can count calories is with visual methods and measuring by hand. Inevitably you will have to look up the calorie amount in different foods. After that you can remember “one hand of nuts is about this amount of calories”. Or “half a plate of rice is this amount of calories”.
The problem with this last one is that it’s not very accurate. Often people find out they’ve been consuming way more calories than predicted.
In general calorie counting is the most important for more higher calorie foods like processed foods high in sugar, nuts, rice, oils, potatoes, bread, sodas,…
Calorie counting allows a wide variety of diet plans. You can basically eat everything that fits within your calorie count.
How many calories do you need a day?
To be able to do calorie counting you need to know, or at least have an estimation, of how many calories you need a day.
One way to get a rough estimate of how many calories per day you need to maintain weight is to fill in the most important variables into a formula. One of the more commonly used formulas is the “Mifflin – St Jeor Formula”:
Imperial: (4.536 × weight in pounds) + (15.88 × height in inches) − (5 × age) + 5
Metric: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5
Imperial: (4.536 × weight in pounds) + (15.88 × height in inches) − (5 × age) − 161
Metric: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161
Keep in mind that this is an estimate. The only way to know for sure is implementing this amount and seeing what the results are like. In theory you could also get lab tests done to be compeletely accurate but that’s an expensive idea.
How fast should you lose weight
Once you know how many calories you need to maintain weight you can decide how fast you want to lose weight.
Losing weight too fast can work against weight loss, losing too slow and you have to wait a long time.
For most people, losing 1-2 pounds (0.45-0.8 kg) of fat per week is considered a safe rate.
This means a calorie deficit of about 500-1000 calories a day which results in 3500 – 7000 calories a week.
Is counting calories a good way to lose weight?
There is no doubt that at some point in the process you need to absorb less calories than you use to start burning body fat.
However, the counting calories mentality can also slow down or even stop your weight loss efforts.
By knowing the possible advantages and disadvantages of counting calories you can use this technique the right way.
There are some important advantages to counting calories.
Most people are not good at all at estimating how many calories there are in food. Often they think they ate 2500 calories while in reality it was more something like 3500.
Combined with that people also tend to overestimate how much they burn with exercise.
Knowing these numbers gives you a better view on what exactly you have to eat and do to lose weight.
It can also motivate you to say no to certain foods. If you know that you have to walk 50 minutes to burn off a donut you’ll think twice before eating it.
There are also disadvantages to only counting calories. Some of these things can completely stop your weight loss journey.
Calories are not the only thing that matters
First of all, the amount of calories in food is not the only thing that influences weight loss.
For example fiber in food is helpful for weight loss. Fiber helps you feel less hungry without absorbing extra calories. If you feel hungry a lot you will feel more miserable during your weight loss journey and you might get off track more often.
The macro from the calorie matters too. Your body uses more energy to process a calorie from protein than a calorie from fat.
You also need vitamins and minerals for both your short and long term health.
Another problem is that counting calories puts the focus on eating less and less while there are more sustainable ways to achieve weight loss.
Eating less and less will slow down your metabolism sooner or later. Once that happens the solution of counting calories is to eat even less. After a while this becomes very unheakthy and not good for long term weight loss.
Takes up time
Finally counting calories can also take up a lot of time. Each meal you have to measure foods to make sure you’re not crossing your borders.
When you’re trying to lose weight you want simple routines since they are easier to stick to.
Should you do calorie counting?
Almost everyone will have to do some form of calorie counting even if it’s just for a few foods.
That does not mean it’s the only thing you have to pay attention to. This would lead to unsustainable eating habits.
Calorie counting is more something you keep in the back of your mind. When weight loss results are slowing down you can take a look at what you were eating to make sure you’re not overdoing it.