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Count Calories to Lose Weight

When simply trying to eat lighter doesn’t work you must count calories to lose weight.

As mentioned on the Home Page all the new, modern information, books, articles, websites, and health/diet/nutrition gurus have probably caused more weight gain than they have solved simply by cluttering the issue by introducing so much misleading information about what is healthy and what is not.

But for the purpose of weight loss, it matters very little whether the calories are good or bad, or healthy or unhealthy, or when they are eaten. It mostly only matters that you consume the correct number of calories. Of course you should try to eat healthier foods and avoid unhealthy foods, but there is always much dispute over what is considered healthy and unhealthy.

count calories

But for weight loss the cold, hard calorie count numbers are practically ALL THAT MATTER.

Why you may need to count calories

And the reason you have to actually COUNT calories to lose weight instead of just trying to eat lighter is that for most people just cutting back a little without QUANTIFYING just doesn’t usually work. If it does work, GREAT, stick with it. But if it doesn’t work, the reason it doesn’t work is that EVERYONE UNDERESTIMATES THE CALORIES THEY EAT and THEY OVERESTIMATE THE CALORIES THEY BURN.

The only way to gain an accurate instinct for calories is to carefully measure and track. If you’ve never done this before, you’re probably going to be a little shocked how many calories are in the foods you’re eating and how light your diet really needs to be in order to lose weight.

Just to illustrate, a tuna sandwich (two slices of whole wheat bread, two tablespoons of mayonnaise, and one 5 oz can of white tuna in water) has 470 calories. To lose weight most people will need to limit themselves to 1400-2000 calories/day, depending on their weight and activity level. This means that three times per day you can eat the tuna sandwich or equivalent, AND NOTHING MORE. No chips, no fruit cup on the side, no cheese, no nuts, no dessert, no sugar-sweetened beverage of any kind. NOTHING.

I might also point out here that this tuna sandwich with two tablespoons of mayo is relatively DRY by most people’s standards. You’ll find that tuna sandwiches made by a store or sandwich shop are much more moist and tasty. That’s usually because they use a LOT more mayo which increases that calorie total A LOT.

HOW TO Count Calories to Lose Weight

To count calories to lose weight you first must find out how many calories are in your foods.

Read the labels

For some things that’s pretty easy. Just read the labels. Most mass-prepared items are fairly accurately labeled. The only potential catch in some cases is the SERVINGS PER CONTAINER figure. For some things that you think of as single-serving items they’ll say “Servings Per Container: 2… Calories: 280…”. That means there are 560 calories in the container, so if you’re eating the contents of the whole container, you need to log 560 calories.

For multiple-serving items, like cereal for example, the catch can be the serving size. Let’s just pick a well known brand like Honey Nut Cheerios. Here’s the nutrition label for that:


NOTE THAT THE SERVING SIZE IS 3/4 CUP. When was the last time you measured your cereal? If you are like most cereal-eaters you probably eat far more than 3/4 cup. I had a roommate in college who typically ate a half box of cereal with at least two cups of WHOLE MILK in each sitting. That’s almost 1300 calories, not 110.

Look it up online

For things that aren’t labeled, you look up the calorie counts on the internet. myfitnesspal is a free (ad-supported) web based system that has nearly EVERYTHING already in it and it allows you to look up almost any food ever known. To make things even easier, there’s also an accompanying iPhone/Android app.

myfitnesspal helps you count calories to lose weight by allowing you to save recipes and meals so that once you look up all the ingredients for something, you can create a “meal” or “recipe” with all those ingredients in the correct proportions and not need to look it all up every time (like my tuna sandwich recipe above, as a super simple example).

Nutritionix is another excellent free tool for looking up nutrition information, but so far as I can tell it does not have a smartphone app or the capability of allowing you to log your food intake or create recipes or meals like you can with myfitnesspal. On its home page it boasts “The world’s largest verified nutrition database.” And it claims to have nutrition information for 107,000+ restaurant items from 600+ restaurant chains (Tip: If a restaurant food that you try to look up isn’t there, something very nearly exactly like it probably is there. Use that information).

Use one of these tools (or whatever else you can find) to look up everything you eat or drink.

Don’t leave ANYTHING out

The header says it all. When you count calories to lose weight, don’t leave ANYTHING out. Often the biggest calorie offenders are easy to overlook. Oil is a great example. One tablespoon of almost any oil has around 120 calories. If you’re cooking eggs you may put a “little oil” in the pan. Most people don’t actually MEASURE how much oil they pour on to a skillet, but it’s usually a lot more than a tablespoon. In so doing they can easily be adding 300+ calories to an otherwise relatively calorie-friendly meal.

And don’t forget SNACKING. I have a friend who struggled with weight who often told me about how little she ate. From what she described, it sounded very light, like around 1000 calories per day. So I asked, “So you’re telling me that you put nothing in your mouth all day other than air, water, and what you just described?” She answered, “Well, no, I do sometimes snack on this jar of almonds I keep at my desk at work.”

ALMONDS? Well, there’s the problem. One ounce (28 g) of almonds (about 22 almonds) has around 170 calories. Speaking only for myself, if I’m snacking on almonds without some very strict controls in place, I’m going to have at least 2-3 of those servings, bringing my calorie count for that snack to almost 500. When you’re trying to count calories to lose weight you REALLY can’t overlook 500 calorie snacks.

A 500 calorie snack per day adds ONE POUND PER WEEK.

So, don’t leave out ingredients and don’t leave out snacks, no matter how insignificant they may seem at first. Those hidden/forgotten calories add up.

To count calories to lose weight YOU MUST MEASURE EVERYTHING

Since every label and every item you look up lists its nutrition information by weight or volume (most often by weight, which is the more precise measure), you MUST use measuring cups, measuring spoons, and a food scale if you really want to do this accurately.

Remember, the reason calorie counting “doesn’t work” for many people is that they are counting inaccurately. So when you add one tablespoon of mayonnaise to something, which of these does it look like:


Well, the one on the left really is a “tablespoon” and has around 100 calories. The one on the right is more like 3 tablespoons and has around 300 calories.

Now this is a slightly exaggerated example, but you get the drift. A “tablespoon” is the specific measuring device, NOT the silverware, and it definitely needs to be leveled off. If you don’t level off your measuring spoon you could easily be getting 1.5 to 2 tablespoons instead of one.

How much do I burn?

To count calories to lose weight you must consider both calories consumed AND calories burned. I’ve come up with my own formula to simplify this for you. If you are relatively sedentary (if you aren’t standing and/or walking more than 2-3 hours per day), multiply your weight (in pounds) by 12. That’s a fairly conservative estimate of the number of calories you burn per day apart from exercise.

Calories Burned = Weight X 12

If you’re a mail carrier, waiter, welder, house cleaner, pool cleaner, window washer, carpenter, maintenance man, farmer, or longshoreman, etc., such that you are on your feet most of the day, multiply your weight by 13 or 14 instead of 12.

You can use myfitnesspal to look up calories burned for almost any exercise you might do and add that do your daily total.

Estimate HIGH for calories in, LOW for calories out

In order to compensate for inaccurate measures or data, it is better to estimate conservatively.

When you’re looking up a food in MyFitnessPal and there are 3-4 options that may fit and you’re not sure which one to use (beef items are notoriously difficult to identify), use the one that reports the HIGHEST calories. Better to err estimating high than low. You won’t die of malnutrition if you err with a high estimate, and you’ll just lose weight a little faster.

When you’re looking up calories burned during exercise, estimate LOW. I might point out here that trying to create that calorie deficit by increasing the calories burned rather than decreasing the calories consumed is a losing battle. Except in the most extreme cases you aren’t going to burn enough calories during exercise to make ANY difference. I’m not suggesting that you not exercise, just that the benefit of exercise is not the calories burned DURING exercise.



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