Healthy January: Counting calories

Counting calories

Counting calories may help you keep tabs on what you eat, which can help you manage weight loss through diet and exercise.

Yes, I know this website is usually all about the glories of eating yummy things, and that calories are often of secondary importance compared to flavour.

But you’ll notice I generally try to list nutritional information when it’s readily available. Why? Because I care about eating these yummy things in moderation, and I know that going overboard is not a good idea.

All this calorie and health-related stuff has recently become an even greater concern in my life, due to the always-eating-tasty-things nature of this blog, and my status as a new father – one must set a positive example, after all.

It’s hard to keep trim when you’re constantly surrounded by freshly baked shortbread and still-warm-from-the-oven croissants, but moderation is a must. I don’t want to inch back to my portly former shape, so knowing my daily limits is key to keeping within the boundaries of my pant size.

I’ve lost a whole lot of weight in the past through a combination of moderate exercise and counting calories, so I know the process works for me.

So what is calorie counting exactly? Here’s my rough interpretation.

  1. Figure out how many calories you need to maintain your weight. You can find this number on one of the many websites (like this one on the American Cancer Society website) where you fill out a short questionnaire that helps estimate your daily calorie needs. Expect questions like age, gender, weight and level of physical activity.
  2. Figure out how many calories you consume in a day, and keep track of that tally of items and corresponding calorie amounts. It’s a daily chore, but it’s worth it.
  3. Note how many extra calories you’ve burned throughout the day; this could be through running errands on foot, cycling to the office or working out at the gym.
  4. Subtract the number of extra calories you burned from the number of calories you ate. So, 2,300 calories eaten minus 300 burned off on the exercycle at the gym equals 2,000 calories.
  5. Note the difference between your total weight-maintaining calories and the net calories consumed in your day. If you need 2,500 to maintain your weight and your daily net calorie total is 2,000, you’re down 500 calories. I’ve been told that for every 3,500 calories saved, you typically lose one pound.

While that’s very much a simplified version of calorie counting theory – there are plenty of other factors to consider, please consult a doctor before embarking on any weight loss plan, etc. – that’s the gist of it.

Here are some practical tips to keep in mind if you decide to try calorie counting:

Keep track: If you’re nerdy, there are lots of apps available for your smartphone that will help record what you’re eating, and how many calories you’re taking in. The benefit of these is that you can look up something (apple, large), and it’ll add it to your daily intake with the calories already calculated. Where things get complicated is when you start eating items that aren’t easily look-up-able. Many apps list brand-name processed food products available in the U.S. that are also available in Canada, but not all apps have Canadian products listed. How do I solve this? By fighting my digital instincts and keeping a paper record instead. Personally, I use a tiny Moleskine notebook that’s stylish and practical, and that fits easily in any purse or man-purse, handbag or mandbag.

Write it down right away: If you get behind on your list, you’re going to forget stuff. And forgetting stuff is a huge problem if you’re counting calories. The whole point is to record everything so that you can get an accurate total. If you regularly forget to add that 300-calorie afternoon latte, you’re going to make bad decisions later in the day based on your less-than-accurate tally.

Be honest with yourself: Calorie counting only works if you estimate your calories accurately. If you cheat by underestimating – why, that cinnamon bun can’t be more than 200 calories, right? – you’d might as well not bother calorie counting at all. Similarly, if the salad dressing says 60 calories per tablespoon and you use three tablespoons, don’t split the difference and call it 120 calories. It’s in your best interest to keep things accurate.

Include everything: Part of the reason why calorie counting works for so many people is that you’re forced to stare every food choice you make squarely in the eye as you add it to your daily list. Do you really need to eat that handful of chocolate-covered almonds? Because if you eat them, you’re going to have to pull out your list and add it. And sometimes, that’s enough of an incentive to pass up a less-than-healthy snack.

Slow and steady: While I’m obviously not a registered dietician, I think it’s safe to say most people probably shouldn’t make drastic changes to their diet in an attempt to lose weight quickly. You’re better off changing your overall lifestyle so that you’ll keep those pounds off in the long term instead of simply shedding them in time for bikini season. Shaving a couple hundred calories off your total on a daily basis, then maintaining that for a year, is going to provide a more useful outcome.

Recalculate your needs: As a general rule, the lower your weight, the fewer calories your body needs on a daily basis to maintain its current weight. (Changes in muscle mass, physical activity and all sorts of other things complicate the equation, which is why I say it’s a general rule.) If you started your weight loss quest figuring you needed 2,700 calories per day to maintain your weight, you may find your weight loss ambitions stalled if you don’t remember to change your calorie requirements as you lose weight. If your body now requires 2,500 calories per day to maintain weight, a daily calorie intake of 2,500 will keep your weight steady instead of leaving you with a 200-calorie-per-day deficit.

Watch for trends: That daily muffin sure adds up, doesn’t it? It’s only noon, and you’ve already blown through half of your allotted calories? Maybe it’s time to take stock of your routines – and that’s sure easy to do when you write everything down every day.

Limit hollow calories: Adding a few bottles of beer to your daily tally can eat up roughly 400 calories, while a single tin of cola will ding you 150-160 calories. That’s not to say you should eliminate everything fun and delicious from your diet; just don’t make a regular habit of indulging in hollow calories. If you’re going to eat something mostly devoid of positive nutritional value, it should at least have the benefit of filling you up.

Give yourself credit: Do you have a pedometer? Or maybe a Nike running app on your phone? Or a Wii Fit? Or a bicycle computer? Great. Use that information at the end of the day to count against your total calorie intake. Just make sure you have your gear correctly calibrated. I’ve been warned by folks who sell running equipment that pedometers aren’t nearly as accurate as they claim to be, so keep that in mind when tabulating.

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One Response to “Healthy January: Counting calories”

  1. Hi there,

    I first started counting calories/working out in 2008 and lost a good amount of weight, but I was too strict and gained the weight back when I stopped counting the calories and working out after a few months.

    Started doing it again back in October and the difference is that I allow one cheat day per week.
    And I force myself to reach my total even if i’m not hungry.

    So i’f I’m at 1000 calories by the end of the day, I will eat empty calories like chocolates and gummy bears to satiate my junk food craving. I wound up not touching these foods for days afterwards.

    Counting what I do on my cheat day makes me realize just how much food we can eat on any given day, I must have had 6 cheat days a week before this diet.