Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED

Calorie counting has a reputation for being tedious and inaccurate – but that shouldn’t stop you from using this proven weight loss method.

Studies show that calorie tracking can help hold you accountable to your diet.

Scientific Journal Elsevier published research in Behavior Therapy that showed the more closely and consistently someone tracked their meals, the more likely they were to lose weight.

Jumpstart improving your health by learning how to track calories, what a calorie is, reliably figure out how many you need, and staying disciplined in recording your meals.

What Are Calories?

asking what is calories

Calories are a unit of energy that describes the amount of heat necessary to raise one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. This is the large calorie, or kilocalorie (kcal).

Calories that you eat and drink are used for essential body functions such as breathing, digesting, as well as day-to-day activities such as walking or lifting things.

Excess calories are stored as fat and over time will cause weight gainTo ensure you’re consuming not only the right quantity but also the right quality of calories, it’s important to pay attention to macronutrients as well.

The New England Journal of Medicine published research showing that a high-quality diet of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and yogurt positively correlated with weight loss. (1)

The most important macros are protein, carbs, and fat. A balance of these nutrients will yield a healthy weight.

The Science Behind Calorie Counting

measuring the food

At the core of any diet or exercise routine is a calorie deficit or a calorie surplus.

To gain weight you’ll need a surplus, and to lose weight you’ll need a deficit. It’s that simple.

But regardless of which goal is yours, you’ll first need to figure out what your daily calorie intake should be.

Using a Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) calculator, you can input your age, sex, weight, and fitness levels to determine your BMR or basal metabolic rate. This number is an estimate of the total calories you burn in a day while at rest.

The TDEE calculator can then measure how many calories per day you should add or take away to meet your goal.

Now that you know what number to aim for each day, start tracking your calories through a system you can maintain.

If you’re not sure how to calculate calories in food, there are apps such as MyFitnessPal or LoseIt! that can help you conveniently track on your phone.

Always remember though that when you have access to nutrition labels, you should look at the serving sizes to ensure you don’t accidentally overindulge.

If you don’t have a gym routine yet or would like to increase your exercise in combination with your diet, consider using the National Institute of Health Body Weight Planner. This tool can help you estimate how many calories you need to consume to reach your ideal weight by a certain date. (2)

Another way to track calories is by weighing your food with a scale or measuring cup.

Measuring and weighing isn’t always practical, but it’s worth trying in the beginning so you can start making a visual connection between how much is on your plate and how many calories it might be.

Recording calories will always be an imperfect science. Regardless, it’s important to make a special effort in tracking items that are high in fat and/or sugar, like many sodas or fast food items.

Underestimating these foods can cause a big discrepancy between your recorded and actual caloric intake.

Although you’re tracking the quantity of calories, the quality of calories will matter if you want to keep the pounds off in the future. Be sure your meals are balanced and include high amounts of protein to promote muscle building and encourage calorie burning, even while at rest.

Apparently, it looks as if cutting fats and alcohol from your diet, while eating more protein and carbs, would allow you to take in fewer calories and therefore you should be able to lose weight....It’s not about the quantity of food; it’s about the quality of where it came from and how these nutrients react with our biochemistry.

- Dr. Debbie Bright, Strength Matters

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How To Track Calories In 8 Ways

The hardest part of counting calories for weight loss (or gain) is keeping on top of it.

Here are several tips on how to make staying on top of your counting the easiest part of changing your diet.

1. Start with Your Normal Diet

start with your normal diet

It’s tempting to start a caloric deficit or surplus immediately, but setting such an ambitious goal could be counterproductive.

Aiming for a dramatically different calorie count right away will make maintaining your change difficult, and the resulting frustration may cause you to abandon the diet altogether.

Recording calories without making any changes to your diet will help with a few things. First, it’ll help you better understand the quality and quantity of your diet now.

This will make it easy to decide where the most effective changes can be made, like eliminating soda from lunch.

You’ll be able to notice how you feel on days when you eat a lot or a little, and it’ll give you an idea on how much surplus or deficit you can handle in your daily calories.

Use this time to begin preparing for your new diet regimen, like buying low-calorie protein source, snacks or creating a meal plan for the week.

2. Choose a Calorie Counting App

choose a calorie counting app

One of the most difficult parts of tracking is finding out how many calories are actually in the food that you consume. Most packaged food contains this information, but much of what you consume through the day may have no calorie information available.

Fortunately, in recent years there has been an explosion of apps designed to help count calories. These apps are available for all popular phones and in website versions.

A key feature of calorie counting apps is that they give you access to massive databases of food with the caloric and nutritional values already recorded. You can simply scan a barcode or use a text search to find exactly what you’re eating and add it to your food log.

The more consistently you use the app, the easier it becomes. You’ll be able to save common foods in quick menus, making it easy to input. For example, following a meal plan will make calorie tracking stress-free.

Here are some apps we recommend for calorie counting:

3. Make Small Adjustments

make small adjustment
After tracking your normal intake for several days, it’s time to start setting calorie goals.

Again, many dieters will be tempted to set too large a deficit or surplus too soon. They believe that the fewer calories they eat, the faster they will lose weight.

Setting a goal for too few calories off the bat can backfire. This may put your body in starvation mode, where it will cause your metabolism to slow down, throwing off your energy balance and stopping weight loss completely.

Dieting this way also makes you more likely to binge later. Instead, set a modest target. Aim for a number of calories that has you losing about half a pound per week.

The weight loss won’t be immediate, but you will be much more likely to stick with the diet for the long-haul. You’ll therefore be more likely to maintain healthy eating habits and achieve your goal weight.

4. Log Food as You Eat It

log food as you eat it

The easiest way to fall behind and count inaccurately is to skip logging your meals right after you finish.

If you wait until the end of the day to log all the food that you’ve eaten, you may have a hard time remembering exactly what was in your meals.

It’s easy to forget an afternoon snack, a side condiment, or to incorrectly estimate the portion size you had for breakfast. By tracking after each meal, you don’t ever need to second guess the accuracy of your log.

After a few days of tracking, you’ll develop a habit of logging food as you go. Our recommendation is to try to track food right after you eat it.

If you track it during your meal, it’ll become a tedious task and prevent you from enjoying your food.

If aren’t able to record it right before or after, take a picture of the nutritional value on the package. Once everything is on the table and do it as soon as you can later. An example of a healthy snack with nutritional value on the package are protein bars.

5. Get Used To Estimating Food

macaroni on plate

No matter how diligent you are there will still be days where you’ll be tempted to miss recording a meal.

Some of the healthiest foods don’t come with nutrition labels at all, and some U.S. nutrition labels are wrong by about 20%.

The best way to stay on top of recording meals and managing your weight loss is to get used to estimating the number of calories in food.

Using a food scale and keeping your diet the same in the beginning should give you a sense of estimating how many calories are in a meal.

If you’re not sure, put at least one serving of each ingredient you can remember. Even if it’s wrong, it will keep you in the habit of recording.

6. Use a Kitchen Scale to Measure Food

portion control scale

Another tool that will make your calorie counting easier is a kitchen scale.

One of the hardest parts of counting calories is accurately estimating how much food you are eating.

If you try to guess just from looking at the size of your portion, you could end up drastically over- or under-estimating the number of calories. See this guide on portion control tips.

A kitchen scale allows you to precisely determine exactly how much you are eating, and therefore how many calories you are consuming. Kitchen scales are available for cheap online and in many big box stores.

The best scales will have options to weigh food in grams, ounces, pounds, and kilograms.

By weighing your food with each meal, you can rest assured that you are getting the most accurate calorie counts possible.

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7. Google It

Did you accidentally throw away the packaging before remembering to enter your calories? That’s no excuse to skip – there are several ways to check calories online. If you remember the brand, The USDA has a database of almost all the food they’ve approved. (3)

If your item was more obscure, Nutritionix has a thorough food database that includes everything from dragon fruit to haggis.

Many of these calculators that you can find with a simple Google search will walk you through how to record calories in these products.

8. Look For Recipes With Indicated Calories

cooking

If you’re in the habit of following recipes closely, there are plenty of meal plans and recipes available online for free that outline the number of calories in each item, as well as the number of total calories in the entire meal.

Be extra careful with this method though, since small changes to a recipe – like swapping olive oil for butter, can dramatically change the types of calories in your meal.

One tablespoon of olive oil contains approximately 120 calories, while 1 tbsp. of butter contains about 100 calories. You may choose to consume these fats based on personal taste since the two do not differ much in calorie count. However, there are differences in the nutritional qualities between olive oil and butter.

- Pha Lo, Livestrong

The Bottom Line on Calorie Counting

Without tracking calories, achieving your health goals can often fail because you’re unable to identify how your new diet and exercise regimen can be improved over time.

For example, if you increase your activity levels without slightly increasing your caloric intake, your deficit will become too high and the diet will become impossible to maintain.

While the process seems straightforward, a range of common mistakes and tedious tracking methods stops people from using it in their weight loss routine. Learning how to count calories incorrectly can slow or even reverse your progress.

Although tracking may feel intimidating and tedious at first, it doesn’t have to be difficult. The first week is the hardest, but by easing into a deficit or surplus diet by using all the tools at your disposal, you can record your meals more easily and make your weight loss journey a piece of cake (or – something healthier!).

Did you like this post? You may want to check out our guide on how to lose weight.

References:

  1. Mozaffarian D, Hao T, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Hu FB., Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men., retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Mozaffarian%2C+D.%2C+et+al.%2C+Changes+in+diet+and+lifestyle+and+long-term+weight+gain+in+women+and+men.+N+Engl+J+Med%2C+2011.+364%2825%29%3A+p.+2392-404.
  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Body Weight Planner | Balancing Your Food and Activity, retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/bwp
  3. United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, USDA Food Composition Databases, retrieved from https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list

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