Counting calories could be a hassle if not done correctly. With our contemporary fast paced lifestyles, knowing how to count calories accurately and easily will save you tons of time, energy, frustration and calories -obvious, ha? -. This article intends to serve as your ultimate guide on how to count calories with many different techniques to fit every lifestyle there is and to give you enough space to enjoy your life and continue doing whatever you are doing. So, let’s start, shall we?
What is a calorie?
Calories are the universal units used to measure heat energy. The literal definition of a calorie is “the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1 °C).
Now, if you live in the United Sates, the nationally used food energy unit used are calories or also “kcals”. Essentially, they are the same thing, thus don’t get worked up too much on the difference. If you look at a product’s nutrition label, you will see the energy content of that specific food measured in either calories or kcals, as in the picture below.
What does all of this mean to you? Well, all you need to know is that calories are used to measure the energy content of a given food.
Note: sometimes, though rarely, you will see nutrition labels that state their caloric content in calories, but the numbers do not make sense. This is usually the case with an imported product that uses different regulations to measure their foods caloric content.
The reason behind this is that there are two different types of calories, but don’t get confused. There are BIG calories and there are small calories. The OFTEN-used type of calories is the SMALL calories. I cannot emphasize this enough. I am just mentioning this to save you from any similar future mistakes, however, small calories are the way to go and are used %99 of the time. So, don’t worry, I just want you to know how to count calories accurately and not sabotage your progress.
Why should I care about calories?
Well, you should care because calories are essentially what makes up a foods energy content. And since we are humans and need energy to survive, calories represent that source of energy to keep us going. Every single part of your body needs energy to carry out its task, whether you are awake or sleeping. Thus, when we manipulate that source of energy a bit -food- and consume less calories than we need, guess what happens? Yup, you lose weight.
Why do we lose weight when taking in less calories than we need?
Since the sole purpose of the human body is to survive, your body will do whatever it takes to keep you alive. Simply, all that extra fat you are carrying is nothing but large quantities of stored energy that your body will use as an energy source in case of danger or emergency. Thus, when we expend more calories than we need, we lose weight because our bodies break down some of the stored fat and converts it into energy to be used for whatever bodily function that is being carried out.
Why do we lose weight when we expend more calories than we need?
Depending on your age, height, weight and other individual characteristics, your body has a specific number of calories that it needs every day to survive. If that number of calories or amount of energy is not taken in from food, your body breaks down stored fat to be used as energy.
According to the 1st law of thermodynamics which deals with conservation of energy; “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, rather it transforms from one form to another.”
In simple terms, our bodies are physical entities that still apply to the laws of the universe, including thermodynamics. When we consume less energy than our bodies need, our bodies must make up that difference in needed energy from a different source than food, this is where stored fat comes into play. And since energy just transforms from one form to another, the stored fat (energy) converts into many energy consuming tasks such as performing an activity, breathing, standing…etc.
In a nutshell, the following equations are what you should care about:
Eat more energy (food) than your body needs = Gain weight.
Eat less energy (food) than your body needs = Lose weight.
Eat the same amount of energy that your body needs = Maintain weight.
Why should we count calories?
The truth is you shouldn’t! One century ago, we did not have calories or any reliable ways to measure the energy content of foods, but also a century ago, people did not have as much junk or processed food as we have today. People did not count calories back then and no one even cared and ironically, not many people suffered from obesity -more on that later-.
But, for the sake of losing weight and getting rid of obesity, counting calories is one scientifically proven and real world proven method to knowing how to lose weight properly. You can estimate portions if you would like, you can choose to eat less in general, you can substitute junk food for healthier chooses, but counting calories will usually beat the former methods due to its accuracy.
Thus, you should count calories to successfully lose weight easily and fast since it is the most accurate way to achieve your goal.
How should I go about counting calories?
Well, there are many different methods to know when you want to learn how to count calories, but I shall start the list below with the most accurate method to the least accurate method. Let’s begin!
- Food scales
The truth is that weighing your food and portion will always be the most accurate method to know how many calories a food has.
Pros of using a food scale:
- By far the most accurate way to measure food.
- Guaranteed accuracy within a %95 range that will keep you progressing.
- Will accurately size up your food portion to examine its caloric content.
Cons of using food scales:
- Time consuming.
- Who really wants to weigh all their food portions? Nobody.
- Usually not portable.
- Socially awkward. Unless you don’t care.
Verdict: I’d say if you are looking for the most accurate way to measure your food caloric content, a scale will always remain the king. However, people usually do not need to be that meticulous to make progress, thus there are easier methods below. If you still insist on using a scale, we fortunately live in a technologically sophisticated age where portable mini food scales exist. Here is a cheap yet powerful portable scale that you can take anywhere with you.
Also, it doesn’t matter whether you use an electronic or standard food scale, you will still get reliable information. I personally have this standard mini food scale and it’s fantastic!
- Measuring Cups
Measuring cups can also give you accurate data when used properly, but the margin of error is a bit larger.
Pros of using measuring cups:
- Can give you reliable information.
- Easy to use. All you need do is literally put the food in a measuring cup, and voila, you have got your portion size.
- Teaches you how to control your portions.
- Teaches you how to eyeball your food when eating out.
Cons of using measuring cups:
- The margin of error is large and dependent on the user. For instance, my regular tablespoon is double the size of what a tablespoon should be ha!
- The information is not as accurate as using a scale because we are measuring the volume of food rather than its weight, which can distort results.
- Can get addicting after some time, but this is obviously easy to avoid. We want to control our portions, but not develop a food disorder.
Verdict: Measuring cups combine the best of both worlds, accuracy and convenience. However, since the margin of error is large and user dependent, your cup will be different than my cup, therefore, the volume of food and thus the caloric content of that food measured by two different people will be a bit different.
With that being said, if you are just starting out on your weight loss journey, your best bet is to use measuring cups. They will teach you discipline, portion control and will give you somewhat accurate information that will keep you losing weight.
Eyeballing refers to estimating the caloric content of food just by looking it (yes, it’s possible). For instance, if you have been weighing or measuring boiled potatoes for a while and you happened to be eating boiled potatoes at a friend’s house tonight, won’t you know what 100 grams of potatoes or what a medium boiled potato look like? Indeed, you will!
Pros of eyeballing
- Quick. You can easily estimate caloric content of a given food just by briefly looking at it.
- Somewhat accurate.
- Gives you numerical data to base your choices on.
Cons of eyeballing
- Not very accurate compared to measuring cups and scales.
- Does not account for added ingredients that may not be visible.
- Takes some time to learn.
Verdict: I only eyeball because I have paid my dues of using measuring cups and weighing my food for years, thus I have a good reference of what portions look like. Eyeballing also helps me tremendously when I am eating out or eating anywhere outside my house (or even in my house). Eyeballing is easy and powerful, so learn how to eyeball.
- Calorie counting apps
Fortunately, we live in the 21st century where new technological advancements are made every single second. Calorie counting apps have been the rage for some time now, and for a good reason. They helped people lose weight!
Pros of using calorie counting apps:
- Take away the guess work and tell you how many calories certain foods have.
- Convenient. Who doesn’t have a smartphone nowadays?
- Help you keep track of your daily food intake so you don’t forget anything.
- Give you numerical data that is kind of accurate.
Cons of using calorie counting apps:
- Different calorie counting apps are built around different websites that have different databases, therefore, numerical data will vary from an app to app and the differences can sometimes be significant.
- The number of calories given are usually close estimates.
- Margin of error is huge due to the fact the data is usually submitted by various users, thus different ingredients, cooking methods…etc. will yield different number of calories.
- Do not teach you portion control or eyeballing which are both essential skills that you can benefit from.
Verdict: Calorie counting apps are still a good way to keep track of your food intake. Use them wisely and do not rely %100 of the time on the data provided by them. Add them to other calorie counting methods and the results will be much better.
- Portion Plates
Portion plates were a concept created by the U.S. department of agriculture in an effort to battle obesity and teach people how to properly control their weight without any inconveniences.
Pros of portion plates
- Very convenient.
- Easy to follow.
- No investment needed.
- Helps you control your weight without weighing or measuring your food.
- Helps you estimate your portions when eating out.
Cons of portion plates
- Margin of error is larger than the previous two methods due to individual differences and food choices.
- Does not provide any numerical data to follow, thus the results are not as accurate as the former methods.
- Does not tell you how many calories you are consuming.
- Does not take into consideration the differences in densities of different foods and thus their caloric content.
Verdict; If you cannot follow the first three methods, at least for some time until you learn how to eyeball your portions, portion plates provide a good way to control your portions effortlessly and thus help you lose weight.
- Hand Portions
Hand portions is a creative way to estimate your portions while not spinning your wheels trying to decide whether you should eat a certain food or not.
- Control your portions to an extent.
- You have your hands with you everywhere.
- No accurate data to base your progress on.
- Impossible to estimate foods caloric content.
- Does not account for differences in food densities and ingredients, and thus their caloric content.
- Does not account for different individual hand sizes.
Verdict: The only time I’d personally use hand portions is if I am eating out at a restaurant or at someone’s house. That way I can somewhat control my portions and still enjoy the food.
How do we use those different methods to find the caloric content of foods?
Depending on what method you have decided to use, finding the number of calories won’t be much different.
If you chose the first method, weighing your food, follow these steps:
- Select the food you would like to have/cook.
- Weigh your food of choice.
- Head over to USDA website.
- Type in your food and the cooking method (if it is raw, put raw). For example, I chose broccoli, so I typed in raw broccoli as you can see in the picture below.
- Take the weight of the food and insert it into the integrated calculator. For instance, if you are having 100 grams of raw broccoli, insert the number 1, since the calculator is preset to measure in hundreds of grams.
- Look at the energy table and you will have the number of kcals/calories in that food.
- Voila! Enjoy!
If you chose the second method, using measuring cups, follow these steps:
- Put your portion of choice in the corresponding cup size. For instance, if you want to have some broccoli, see if the quantity you will be eating fits in a cup, ½ a cup, a ¼…etc.
- You can either use Google or the USDA website. I recommend the USDA website because Google can give you some varying numbers. If you chose Google, simply search for something like “calories in a cup of raw broccoli” and you will usually have your number.
- Or if you chose the USDA website, simply repeat the steps from the food weighing steps, but instead of using the gram’s calculator, use the cups calculator as you can see in the picture below. (cups measurement a la derecha)
- You will get a number in the energy table, that represents your food’s caloric content.
For method 3: simply weigh your food for some time and use measuring cups to be able to learn this very beneficial skill. I promise you that you will benefit from eyeballing more than you can imagine and it will make your life easier when you go out or simply do not want to bother with weighing or measuring your food.
For method 4: just download a calorie tracking app on your smartphone. If you have an iPhone, you can download an app from the app store. If you have an Android, go to your play store and search for an app.
Best recommended apps:
My Fitness Pal app – convenient and has a large database of different foods and traditional plates. It has a beautiful design, as well.
Lose it – has an elegant design, easy to use interface and plenty of data.
Fat secret – huge database and shows you many different portion sizes and their corresponding caloric content, however, the data is somewhat inaccurate -from my experience-
For method 5: just fill a quarter of your plate with vegetables, a quarter with fruits, a quarter with grains and quarter with protein. This gives you a bit of leeway in terms of food choices which can keep you sane while dieting.
For method 6: a picture speaks a thousand words.
How do you use all this information?
Step 1: You need to find out your maintenance calories. Just plug in your information in the calculator below and you will get an estimation of your daily required intake of calories based on your activity level.
Step 2: You need to expend more calories than you consume. This could be done in three different ways:
- Eat less food than your body needs.
- Be more active so that you burn more calories than you take in.
- A combination of the above two ways.
Whichever method you choose to follow, remember that it’s all about calories in vs calories out!
Step 3: Weight loss is not linear. You will plateau at certain points, but usually this plateau could be broken in a several easy ways -article alert-.
If you are over 300 lbs.: aim to lose at least 3 lbs. per week. You have tons of stored energy and your body will have no problem burning it off for energy.
If you are over 200 lbs.: a slower approach will work better. This translates into 2-4 lbs. per week.
If you are less than 200 lbs. and you only have some pounds to lose: aim to lose 1-2 lbs. a week.
How do you aim to lose that many pounds?
Each pound has approximately 3500 calories, thus to burn one pound, you need to create a caloric deficit or burn an extra 3500 calories.
So, if you want to lose 2 lbs. per week:
1 pound = 3500 calories
7 days in a week.
2 pounds = 7000 calories
7000 / 7 days = a caloric deficit of 1000 calories per day.
So, if your maintenance calories are 4000 calories a day, eat 3000 calories.
Step 4: Stay consistent and the results will come. It’s always better to add exercise to the mix whether it’s playing sports, strength training or ever cardio. Just stay active.
While the equation is mainly about expending more calories than you consume, food choices also play a major role. Make sure the bulk of your daily intake comes from healthy natural food sources as opposed to processed foods because not only they are healthier, they’re more delicious, more satiating, will help you lose even more weight and will not have as many calories as processed crap. And just because you are eating healthier food choices, does not mean you should not count calories -insert I see you emoji here-.
There you have it, the ultimate guide on how to count calories accurately and effortlessly with every situation possible. Losing weight is all about calories in vs calories out. You need to burn more calories than you consume, and only then you will lose weight. Adjust your caloric intake accordingly, make smart food choices, count calories, stay active and weight loss is guaranteed. If you found this guide helpful, please share it with your friends and help spread the knowledge.
All your comments, suggestions and follow ups are always welcome, so leave some below.
If you are reading this article as part of the creating your diet series, the next step for you would be to understand how calories can help you achieve your goals: