How To Safely Count Calories For Weight Loss

Experts have varying opinions on counting calories and how it influences health or weight loss. Some believe that counting calories may prevent people from consuming healthy foods, while others believe that it can effectively and efficiently help weight loss.

Despite the controversy, the bottom line is there is no perfect approach to weight loss. For instance, HIIT workouts or running may work for some people but not others.

Counting calories works for many, and some experts consider it a critical step towards accomplishing healthy weight-loss goals. The secret is learning how to count calories correctly. If you make errors in the calorie-counting process, you may become frustrated when you fail to achieve your goals.

Luckily, counting calories is not rocket science. Anyone can learn how to do it correctly. Read on to learn how to safely count calories for weight loss.

What do calories have to do with weight loss?

Weight control is about managing the calories in and calories out. A calorie is a unit of measurement for the energy contained in food or drink, and for the amount of energy you expend in your daily activities.

To lose weight, you need to use more energy (burn more calories) than you consume. Conversely, to gain weight, you need to use less energy but consume more calories. In other words, a calorie deficit will make you lose weight, while a surplus in calories will make you add some pounds. Therefore, to change your weight in either direction, you must keep track of the calories you consume and burn.

For example, to shed 20 pounds over 20 weeks, you should lose at least a pound every week. A single pound of body fat is approximately 3,500 calories, though this can vary due to differences in body fat density and changes in body composition over time.

With that in mind, you should plan to hit a calorie deficit of about 3,500 calories every week to shed that one pound.

Here are a few ways to achieve that:

  • Lower your daily calorie intake by 500

  • Exercise more to burn 500 calories daily

  • Combine the above two approaches. Remember your aim is to reduce your calories by 500 every day, so a total of 3,500 per week to lose one pound.

Exercise and dietary changes to adjust the calorie balance are at the center of all weight-loss programs. However, other tactics such as avoiding certain food groups altogether and intermittent fasting may also help you shed a few pounds.

What is a healthy amount of calories to intake if you want to lose weight?

As we've already seen, reducing the calories needed to maintain your current weight by 500 calories every day helps you lose approximately one pound per week. However, the total calories you should take in a day depends on factors such as height, age, metabolic health, current weight, and level of activity.

Average calorie ranges for men

Aged 19–25

Younger men (19–25 years) need more calories – about 2,800 a day and up to 3,000 if they are active. If you're in this range, you'll need to lower your daily calorie intake to about 2,300–2,500 to lose one pound every week.

Moderately active

A moderately active man aged 26–45 needs about 2,600 calories a day to maintain their weight. If you’re in this group, to shed one pound a week, you need to lower your daily calorie intake to 2,100.

Active

Physically active men who walk over three miles a day require 2,800–3,000 calories a day to maintain their current weight. If you're in this range, you can shed one pound per week by reducing your daily calories to 2,300–2,500.

Aged 46–65

Energy requirements decline with age. For moderately active men aged 46–65 years, a daily calorie intake of about 2,400 is enough to maintain their current weight. However, they may need to reduce the calories to 2,200 per day once they cross the 65 years mark. To lose a pound a week, men aged 46–65 will need to reduce their daily intake to 1,900 calories, and 1,700 over 65 years.

Average calorie ranges for women

Please note that these calorie requirements do not apply to breastfeeding or pregnant women as their energy requirements are higher.

Women in their early 20s

Women need more calories to maintain their weight when in their early 20s, generally about 2,200 calories a day. This means that you should reduce your calorie intake to about 1,700 calories a day to shed one pound a week.

Moderately active

A moderately active woman aged 26–50 requires about 2,000 calories daily to maintain her current weight. Therefore, the daily calorie intake needed to help shed one pound a week is 1,500.

Active

A physically active woman who walks for more than three miles a day needs to consume a minimum of 2,200 calories a day to maintain her current weight. To lose one pound a week, you'd need to adjust your calorie intake to about 1,700 calories a day.

Women over 50 years

At 50 years and above, women require fewer calories. A moderately active woman in this category requires 1,800 calories a day to maintain her current weight. Therefore, you can shed one pound a week by reducing the calories to 1,600 per day.

How to count calories to lose weight

The first step in tracking and counting your calories safely is determining the number of calories you need to consume every day. You have two options for this:

Use an online calculator

Most online calorie calculators use the Mifflin-St Jeor equation¹. This formula accounts for your age, gender, activity level, weight, and height, but you should note that other factors such as occupation, illness, and pregnancy can influence your daily calorie requirements.

Work with a professional

You can also work with a registered physician, dietitian, or certified nutritionist who takes your details, including your current weight, height, health history, and goals, to get an ideal calorie number. Once you have that number, you can begin to count your calories.

To create a calorie deficit, you need to eat less than the amount that maintains your current weight. Use either a journal or a calorie-counting app to keep track of your calories.

Logging your food and drink

Packaged foods

It is easy to count the calories in packaged foods, as they are listed on the nutrition label. Remember to consider the serving size by multiplying the number of servings you take by the calorie count for each serving.

Fresh foods

You may find it more challenging to track the calorie count in fresh foods since they do not have a label. However, you can find calorie data online by searching the complete food nutrition information on the USDA's FoodData Central database². Besides, most food-tracking applications have plenty of information about all sorts of foods, so a lack of a nutrition label need not prevent you from consuming fresh foods.

Beverages

Don’t forget about the drinks you consume throughout the day. These add to your daily calorie intake unless you stick to plain water and empty calorie beverages such as coffee and tea with milk and sweeteners. So, make sure you count the calories in that sports drink, soda, juice, alcohol, or creamer in your coffee.

Restaurant meals

Restaurant meals can be difficult to track, especially the local ones. But if you have meals in a regional or national chain restaurant, you’re in luck. The FDA requires all restaurants with over 20 locations to display calorie information for all their menu items. However, you can always ask the server in a local restaurant about the calorie counts, and there is a good chance they can help.

Why calories aren't the only way to measure the quality of your diet

Although counting calories can help you to lose weight, it doesn’t tell you about the quality of your diet. Calories also don't tell you about micronutrients in the foods you eat. Where you get your calories has a major influence on your overall health, making the quality of the food you consume even more important.

For example, let's say you consumed a particular amount of calories from hazelnuts today and a similar amount from a pastry on a different day. You draw the same amount of calories, but the effect on your overall health is different. Hazelnuts give you vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, protein, and fiber, while a pastry only provides you with saturated fat and a lot of sugar.

In the short term, hazelnuts provide sustained energy while pastries can spike and crash your blood sugar. Hazelnuts improve your health through lower cholesterol levels and blood-sugar control, while most ingredients in pastries, such as hydrogenated oils and sugar, can increase the risk of chronic diseases.

Deciding on a particular food by only looking at the calories it provides can be at the expense of your overall health. The bottom line is to pay attention to both your calorie intake and the quality of foods you consume.

When is counting calories not right for you?

Calorie counting is a suitable approach if you are looking for a simple way to check your diet, want to lose or gain weight, or need to keep track for medical reasons. But if your goal is to change your body composition or track micronutrients such as minerals or vitamins, calorie counting may not be the best option.

You also may want to stop counting calories if you develop the urge to reduce them to unhealthy levels; perhaps if you have a history of an eating disorder. Seeking assistance from a professional can be helpful to better understand the appropriate number of calories to consume.

The lowdown

One crucial step in achieving healthy weight-loss goals is safely counting calories. Although it appears easy, some simple errors can derail your success. The secret is to be as consistent as possible, logging all the food and drink you consume without exception. An accurate result will help you achieve the weight loss or gain you desire.



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