The fitness industry is plagued with controversy about whether calorie counting is an effective way to get healthy, lose weight, or reach other fitness goals. Some will argue that counting calories can lead to the unhealthy restriction, an obsession with numbers, and even encourage disordered eating. Others believe counting calories is a necessary approach to weight loss.
Which side are you on? Either way, you’re right. There’s no ‘best’ approach to health or weight loss. Just like some people thrive with aggressive high-intensity workouts and others prefer relaxing yoga sessions or light walking - some people will thrive with calorie counting and others will not.
If you’re not sure if calorie counting is right for you, this detailed guide will teach you everything you need to know to make the best decision. If you do decide you’re ready to take the plunge into the calorie counting world, I’ve included all the helpful tools you’ll need to get started like a calorie calculator, an app for counting calories, and the best tips below.
What Are Calories?
A calorie is a measure of energy that can be used to quantify the energy content of foods and beverages as well as the energy required to complete everything from daily movement and workouts to organ function.
Yes, you need and use calories to burn for energy to work out; but you also need calories to maintain essential human functions such as breathing, thinking, walking, talking, and even eating.
When you eat more calories than you burn, they are stored as fat. So, if you regularly eat in excess, it can lead to weight gain. Numerous studies have confirmed that when you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight(1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
What does this mean? Whether you’re looking to lose, maintain, or gain weight, calories matter. Counting your calories and monitoring your intake can be an effective way to reach your goals, if you’re eating the right number of calories for your goals, track accurately, and stick to it.
How Many Calories Should You Eat for Your Goals?
The sea of opinions out there might lead you to believe that calorie counting is a waste of time. However, when it comes to your weight, calories count.
Think of your weight as a simple balance of calories in vs. calories out: how many calories you consume vs. how many calories you burn.
If you are trying to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than your body burns throughout the day. If you want to maintain aim for right around the same, and if you’re looking to build muscle or gain some weight aim for slightly above your caloric needs.
Your daily caloric needs will depend on a variety of factors such as your weight, age, gender, and activity level. For example, a 20-year-old male football player will require more calories per day than a 70-year-old sedentary woman.
Since caloric needs are variable, narrowing in on your specific caloric needs is incredibly valuable, and this number shouldn’t be compared to others who may have different needs than you. I’ll give you everything you need to calculate your caloric needs below.
Calories Out: Counting the Calories You Burn
The calories you burn in one day are a combination of two factors: the calories you burn at rest (otherwise known as your Basal Metabolic Rate (or BMR)) and the calories you burn through exercise.
Since the calories, you burn through exercise likely fluctuate daily, calculating these numbers separately and adding them together is the most accurate way to get a full picture of how many calories you’re burning each day.
How to Calculate Calories Burned at Rest
Your BMR - or the calories you burn at rest - are the calories your body burns to complete everyday functions like breathing, sleeping, thinking, talking, and eating. This number is influenced by your weight, age, gender, and more.
Use the simple calories burned calculator to calculate your BMR below.
Calories Burned Calculator
Your BMR is generally consistent from day to day; so, if you don’t exercise, look no further for how many calories you’ll want to consume each day to meet your needs. If you’re interested in losing weight, you’ll want to aim to eat slightly fewer calories each day for consistent weight loss.
If you do exercise, you’ll want to add the calories you burn through exercise to your BMR to calculate your daily total. Learn how below.
How to Calculate Calories Burned Through Exercise?
To track your calories during exercise, use a fitness app to make it easy. There are many fitness apps and trackers out there, so use what you have.
If you’re looking for a great app for counting calories, the SunnyFit app keeps track of your calories burned per workout session and is specific to your biometrics - like weight, and gender - that are saved to your profile.
Once you know how many calories you burn through exercise, add it to your BMR from above to get a solid estimate of your daily caloric needs. Use this number as a framework for how many calories you should focus on adding to your diet.
Calories In: Counting the Calories You Eat
Counting the calories, you consume either through eating or drinking is simple! Just keep a journal or note throughout the day of what you’re consuming and add it up as you go.
You can compare your calories to your calories out throughout the day to make sure you’re on track. Easy peasy!
5 Tips to Succeed with Calorie Counting
Even though calorie counting is relatively straightforward, accurately tracking and consistently sticking with it is where most people struggle. These tips will help you succeed!
Read Food Labels
Food labels contain the calorie count you’ll need to add to your daily notes. Keep in mind, that the calorie count is listed for portion size, so if you eat more than what they define as one portion, you’ll need to account for it.
While most people will count their meals or snacks, they often leave out beverages, sauces, or sides. Keep in mind, that everything you eat, or drink adds to your daily count. You’d be surprised how many calories that afternoon latte or side of salad dressing can add up.
If you aren’t consistent then what’s the point? You have no real way of knowing that you’re on track with your goals if you don’t count your calories consistently. If you’re going to do it all, be all in. Once you get to a certain point and learn the portion sizes of your favorite foods you can be less meticulous.
Consider Food Quality
Calories aren’t everything. The content of your calories matters. The quality of your food affects your health too. Opt for healthy options, when possible. Your body will thank you for it.
Fuel for Exercise
The best weight loss programs include a combination of diet and exercise. That’s because exercise helps to increase your metabolism which is an important part of weight loss. Make sure to eat enough so you have the energy needed to exercise.
The Quality of Your Calories Still Matter
Calories help track how much you eat, but they don’t tell you anything about the quality of food you’re eating. Think about it: Eating 100 calories of carrots is very different from eating 100 calories of gummy bears.
This is important because the types of food you eat have a direct impact on your health(9,10,11). Higher quality foods are not only better for your health, but they make it easier to consume fewer calories while feeling fuller and satisfied.
High-quality foods are minimally-processed, fresh whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes, and lean protein like chicken breast or eggs.
Typically, more nutritious food may not contain a nutrition label because they often have only one ingredient, for example, an apple. However, a simple google search for any fresh food you plan to eat will yield a calorie count for your favorite healthy foods, making tracking fresh foods easy.
Should You Count Calories?
Calories in vs. calories out aren’t the only thing that matters for peak health. However, when it comes to specific goals like weight loss, muscle gain, or even maintenance, calories can help you reach your goals.
Even though calorie counting may not be suitable for everyone, there are many takeaways you can gain from calorie counting, even if you decide it’s not for you. Or you may just find calorie counting is an effective tool for you to reach your fitness goals. You’ll never know unless you try!
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(10) “Diet, lifestyle, and genetic risk factors for type 2 diabetes: a review from the Nurses’ Health Study 2, and Health Professionals’ Follow-up Study”, Current Nutrition Reports, 2014 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25599007/. Accessed 5 May, 2022.
(11) ”Increased vegetable and fruit consumption during weight loss effort correlates with increased weight and fat loss”, Nutrition & Diabetes, 2012 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23449500/. Accessed 5 May, 2022.