How to correctly count Calories
Updated: Apr 19
Welcome back. Calorie counting is one of those dieting techniques that people either love or hate. I personally love it. For me, its the most logical dieting option. Of course, I combine it with intermittent fasting and dense nutrition based upon my body type and allergens, but, we aren't getting into that right now. Calorie counting is simply, math. As I mentioned in the last article, it is a simple give-take system- calories in, calories out. What does that mean? It's simple:
You want to gain weight? Consume more calories than you burn.
You want to lose weight? Burn more calories than you consume.
Lets look back to the article I wrote on Calorie counting a few years ago:
"Summer is coming & it is time to get the bikini body ready. I am a firm believer in diet and exercise being the answer to weight loss- HOWEVER- one thing I have really had my eyes opened to in the past few months is the importance of calorie awareness. Ok, I know that sounds silly. We all know what calories are and that everything pretty much has them. But everyone I have talked to seems to have had the same issue as me- knowing exactly how many calories are in certain things and remembering how many we have already eaten for the day. After getting pregnant with my daughter (my second child) the pounds started to accumulate faster than it did with my son years ago. I decided it was time to diet and exercise and began researching this (for the first time in my life.)
I was always under the mindset that counting calories to lose weight was super easy and insignificant. I honestly didn't think I needed to be "that girl". Calorie consumption was something I assumed rather than tracked at the beginning and BOY I was off on my calculations. One day I actually sat down and counted my intake and was absolutely astonished at how much I was actually consuming. And then I compared it to the average Basal Metabolic Rate (the amount of calories your body burns at rest) for my age, weight, height, and gender and I was easily consuming 1000-2000 calories OVER what I should have been. It was extremely eye opening and frankly I do not know how I am not extremely over weight. Upon learning all of this, my mindset immediately changed. So, you know me- I dove right on into the world of calorie tracking and never looked back.
When it came to calories, there is one thing I learned very quickly...
Calories In, Calories Out.
This is a very simplified concept, however, it gets the point across pretty easily. If you are consuming more calories that you are burning, then your body will retain the access calories and store them as fat. If you are burning more calories than you are consuming, your body is forced to burn stored fat to fuel you. So, If you are consuming less than your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) but are not working out, you will loose weight. If you are consuming more than your BMR by 500 calories but working out and burning 500 calories that day, you are maintaining your weight. If you are consuming 1000 calories more than your BMR and just exercising away 200 calories of it, you are gaining weight.
It really can be that simple.
I have had several people argue with me on this topic and usually I go back to the same analogy every time to prove my point. In order to make this applicable to you, check out this free BMR calorie calculator. Here is my go-to example. Guys, meet Libby and Barb.
Libby is 27 years old, 5' 9", weighs 140 lbs, and is very mildly active. She works a desk job 9-5 and spends most of her energy at the end of the day commuting the kids from school to sports, cooking dinner, doing dishes, and packing lunches. She does not have a gym membership and on weekends enjoys her R&R. She is happy with her current weight and simply wants to maintain it. For her Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) based on her specifications, Libby shouldn't consume more than 1500 calories per day in order to maintain her current weight. Libby knows this, so she is good about tracking her calories. She splurges on brownies and ice cream every few days, and wont turn down a glass of wine, however, she keeps her average daily intake at 1,500 or less regardless of what kind of food she is eating.
Barb is also 27 years old, 5' 9", and weighs 140 lbs. Barb does yoga, Pilates, has a gym membership, and loves going out with her friends. Because Barb is so active, her BMR is 2400 calories, but she lives a very busy lifestyle therefor is not great about tracking her calories. Barb usually consumes about 2800-3000 calories on an average day and she usually burns about 200-500 calories at any of her daily gym workouts. In order to maintain her weight Barb shouldn't consume more than 2600 calories, if she is getting a 200 calorie workout in.
Libby: One lazy Saturday Libby ate 2 brownies, a large scoop of vanilla ice cream, a small bag of chips, 2 sodas, and glass of wine all while binge watching 'Breaking Bad' on Netflix. The total calories consumed that day, where 1,400. She burned no additional calories that day aside from her resting BMR of 1500.
Barb: That same Saturday Barb had a great day out and about with the girlfriends. She went to the local bistro for breakfast with her sorority sisters from college, had an omelet, yogurt parfait, and smoothie followed by a group yoga session. For lunch, she met her sister for a chicken ceaser wrap, an apple with peanut butter, and a green tea, followed by a large Mocha frappacino while shopping at target. She met up with the girls for their weekly Pilates class then went to dinner at the local cafe and ordered a grilled chicken ceasar salad, cup of broccoli cheese soup, splurged on a dinner roll, and had a 6 oz glass of red wine. The girls spent the night out on the town where Barb had 3 cocktails. Though her choices where fairly healthy, in total she consumed 3200 calories. That same day she burned 300 calories at her yoga class, then burned another 400 calories at her Pilates class later that afternoon.
Libby: For this day, is Libby gaining, loosing, or maintaining? If you answered Loosing, you are correct. Even though Libby ate Brownies, chips, and Ice cream all day and was inactive, she was still under in caloric consumption by 200 calories compared to her resting BMR. Therefor she is technically loosing weight i.e. has a caloric deficit.
Barb: For this day, is Barb gaining, loosing, or maintaining? Technically, Barb is gaining. Even though her meal and activity choices are significantly healthier than Libbys, her caloric intake is still 100 calories greater than her calories burned.
Calories In, Calories Out.
For me, the hardest part of this was realizing just how many calories were in certain foods- even ones I considered super healthy! If you would have asked me before, how many calories were in my breakfast consisting of a sliced apple with peanut butter, sliced banana in a small bowl of Cherrios with 2% milk, and in a a 16 oz glass of OJ, I probably would have told you maybe 300 calories.
Here is the exact breakdown for that "healthy" breakfast:
Apple 112 cal + Peanut butter 180 cal +
Banana 122 cal + Cherrios 147 cal + Milk 122 cal
+ 16 oz Orange Juice 220 Cal
= 900 calories....
G U Y S ....
N I N E H U N D R E D C A L O R I E S ....
Literally that is almost HALF of the FDA's recommended 2,000 calorie diet.... and the entire time I was under this crazy assumption that it was super healthy and low in calories so that I could eat whatever I wanted later that day. I was very sorely mistaken. Now, were my food choices fairly healthy? Yes. Were they still very high in calories? Also, yes. But what many don't understand, is that you can eat technically a healthy meal that is still high in calories, or an unhealthy meal that is low in calories. Math, is math.
The easiest way to track calories for me personally is the Lose It! app. You download it directly onto your smart phone and Its super easy to use. You can take pictures of the bar-code labels, look up restaurant menus, and even customize your own meals. It makes tracking calories a breeze and truly opens your eyes to how many calories are really in foods. There where so many things I used to love and claim as super healthy options... most of which are healthy, they are just way higher in calories than I expected.
Some examples of the "Healthy Foods" that are misunderstood in caloric content, are meals from "healthy" restaurants. Here are a few examples:
6" Grilled Chicken on wheat with lettuce, tomato, provolone & Light mayo (420)
+ Medium Dr. Pepper (275)
+ Sunchips (140)
= 835 Calories
Texas Roadhouse Meal:
Grilled Chicken Ceaser Salad (1050)
+ Cup Red Chili (290)
+ Peach Sweet Tea (140)
(no Refills or Rolls!)
= 1480 calories
Tropical Smoothie Meal:
Grilled Ceaser Chicken Wrap (850)
+ Apple (112)
+ Avocolada Smoothie (592)
= 1554 calories
Panera Pick Two Meal:
Turkey Avocado BLT (340)
+ Cup Tomato Soup (340)
+ Apple (112)
+ Passion Fruit Green Tea (230)
= 1022 calories
Guys... these meals are close to the total number of calories you need to consume in an entire day when you are in a calorie deficit. Keep in mind- the total average number of daily calories consumed to be in a calorie deficit (aka to loose weight) is:
Women: 1,200 per day
Men: 2,200 per day
Again, these are averages- your BMR number should be personally calculated. Use this free online calculator to get the baseline started for yours. And remember, if your calorie count is only based on a number you randomly found on google, it may not be accurate. You need to select a number based exclusively upon YOU. That means its based upon your body type, your activity level, your gender, your age, your genetics, your health, and your stress levels.
I thought all of these were super healthy and low calorie. In fact, I would pay extra and get this stuff instead of going through McDonalds drive through! What's funny is, I would make fun of my husband for his "super unhealthy" lunch choice and would spend double on my lunch to make it 'healthier". Check out his lunch:
2 Cheeseburgers (600)
+ Small French Fry (230)
+ Large Diet Coke (0)
= 830 calories
... He would literally spend $4 and I would spend like $15, all in the name of "loosing weight".. and MINE ended up being WAY more calories than his meal! I was flabbergasted. As you can see, calorie awareness and portion sizes are so unbelievably Important to weight loss.
Other Calorie drivers for me were things I didn't really associate calories to. For instance, beverages are something I would forget about as a source of calories. It was very easy for me to just drink a sugary drink and then later forget I even had it. I would drink a monster (220 cal) in the morning, large Dr. Pepper (270 cal) in the afternoon, Monster (220 cal) again on my way home, and usually a glass or two of Red Wine (300+ cal each) in the evening...
GUYS THAT IS over 1,000 EMPTY CALORIES THAT I WASN'T EVEN COUNTING!!
Now, that is literally my entire caloric intake when I am on a calorie deficit. Prior to becoming calorie aware, I would fly through the sugary drinks and passive 'bites' of food. I would not even think twice about drinking them or popping a cookie or two in my mouth on the go. And do you think I mentally counted all those things in my daily calories? Nope! I would only count meals that I had eaten as calories, completely forgetting about all the other stuff! That's why the Lose It! app was so beneficial to me. It really opened my eyes to the number of calories that many things I didn't even consider 'bad' had. I mean who knew that 3 tablespoons of peanutbutter (282) with a sliced apple (112) and banana (120) was 3x MORE calories (514) than a Vanilla Ice cream cone from Mcdonalds (170) ?! Like HOW is that possible?!
Well, the answer is simply, awareness. Watching calories, portion size, and quantity is of the utmost importance when learning how to count calories.
I already know what I am going to get in response to this article so let me clarify for everyone:
NO, I am not recommending that you eat a McDonalds Ice cream cone instead of fruit, and no, I do not recommend you follow Libby's lifestyle. Those are just examples of caloric math. And, finally, yes, it does matter what kinds of food you are eating- calories are not the only thing you should watch when trying to be healthy. You do need to be aware of the kinds of foods you eat, your body type, and your allergens.
I am simply trying to make everyone aware of the calories that are in some of the things we don't even think about. Especially Nuts, fruit, and healthy grains. I mean its no secret that a double chocolate fudge brownie a la mode is ridiculously high in calories. In fact, none of us would even blink an eye at that knowledge... but the calories in an APPLE?! or a pineapple?! or orange juice?! ... that kind of info shook me.
Some quick tricks I picked up on:
1. get a food scale. They are like $10 and 1 million times more accurate than a eyeballed measurement.
2. learn what real measurements actually look like, don't just guess. When eyeballing a "tablespoon" of butter or peanut butter, at the beginning, I always ended up with closer to 3... I was very wrong and very over on my estimating.
3. measure your glassware- most cups are NOT 8 oz glasses- most hold 16 oz. Don't cheat yourself by over-pouring and under calculating. Beverages- especially the ones that taste good- are sometimes just not worth it.
4. DON'T CHEAT. like literally I have watched people do this and its so confusing to me. Like... you do realize you are just cheating yourself right? Just do it correctly or don't do it. If you want to eat 3 full brownies worth of 'bites' from the pan in the process of fixing yourself "one brownie" but only track the calories of that one, then go right ahead. You know what you did. And, you know exactly what your results will be. You can't lie to yourself people, lets be real.
Long story short, pay attention to what you eat. Track it. Look it up if you don't know what the calorie content looks like. Eventually, you won't need an app because you will be able to recognize the caloric content in most things and mentally track where your at on the day. We will dig further in what kind of foods to eat to achieve fullness while still on a calorie deficit, fasting, sugars, allergens, macro's, and all the other elements of weight loss and healthfulness. But for now, just understand this very basic concept and If nothing else, just BE. AWARE of what you consume.
Calories In; Calories Out. "
That blog IS still accurate. However, like I said in the last blog:
"To put it in the simplest terms possible, this is all true. Does that mean counting calories alone, without considering nutrition and body type, is GOOD for your body? No. Does that mean it is sustainable? Also, no. Your diet is not quite that simple or all inclusive. Does just counting calories (regardless of what you are eating) work? Yes. But so does Keto, liquid diets, fasting, and weight loss pills. It's a temporary solution to a life time issue. Your body still requires healthy, healing, nutrient dense foods, & balanced macronutrients. But, we will get into that in the next blog.
Just know this- understanding all of the variables from this series of blogs is very important in order to establish a diet that is effective, sustainable, and life-proof. These variables that we are going to go over in these blogs may be the best way for you to make an informed decision that very well might help you finally reach your goals, and maintain them, permanently.
until next time, stay healthy, my friends. <3