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Should You Be Counting Calories?

When it comes to dieting- counting calories, weigh-ins, and other painful numbers come to mind. While I can’t say all the numbers are worth the effort and time put into micromanaging them, counting calories is a tried and true method of eating exactly what you need to reach your goals.

Whether you’re trying to lose weight, maintain it, or gain some- no amount of magic or luck will get you there. The secret is basic math- calorie balance. Calorie balance is simply calories in (how much you eat) vs. calories out (how much you burn). Whatever your goals, I want to set you up with a basic knowledge of calories and a balanced diet, and some tips to stay on track. With a little direction, maybe those numbers don’t have to be so painful after all.

What’s the deal with Calories? 

How Much?

The US Department of Agriculture claims that men should consume 2,400 to 3,000 calories per day, and women should consume an average of 1,800 to 2,400 calories per day. The variation in the number of calories is dependent upon the level of activity, age, weight, etc.

Calculate your Calorie Needs

For a more personalized amount of calories, calculate your daily calorie needs using the Harris-Benedict equation. These are the calories needed to maintain your weight based on your activity level.

Step 1: Determine your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) or calories expended at rest

BMR for men = 66 + ( 6.2 × weight in pounds ) + ( 12.7 × height in inches ) – ( 6.76 × age in years )

BMR for women = 655.1 + ( 4.35 × weight in pounds ) + ( 4.7 × height in inches ) – ( 4.7 × age in years )

Step 2: Determine Your Activity Level Multiplier

  1. Sedentary (little or no exercise): x 1.2 

  2. Lightly Active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week):  x 1.375

  3. Moderately Active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week):  x 1.55

  4. Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week): x 1.725

  5. Extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training): x 1.9

Step 3: Multiply BMR by activity level multiplier

BMR x Activity Level Multiplier

ex. If I weigh 125 pounds, am 68 inches tall and 24 years old, and work out moderately 3-5 days a week this is what the math comes out to (1,405.55) x 1.55 = 2,178.6 calories a day

To Maintain Weight

At the end of the day, to maintain body weight, a person must consume the same amount of calories that are expended. Calories expended include both Basal Metabolic Rate (the number of calories your body consumes at rest, daily), plus calories expended from physical activity. This is that number you get from calculating your calorie needs above.

Notice, people who are heavily active will require a huge amount of calories in comparison to the average person, to replace the deficit created by excess calorie expenditure. Yes, exercise does make that big of a difference in your calorie burn.

To Lose Weight

To lose weight, a person must consume fewer calories than calories expended. In order to get a gauge on what exactly that looks like, 1 pound = 3,500 calories. That means that to lose a pound in one week, you will need to subtract a total of 3,500 calories from your diet- that’s cutting out 500 calories each day.

While cutting out calories may seem hard, it may be as simple as skipping that vanilla latte, or 20-ounce soda which both typically contain at least 250 calories (empty calories).

A common misconception when someone starts an exercise program is that weight loss is a given. However, while they are certainly torching more calories, this makes them even hungrier. They can end out eating more to get back to that feeling of equilibrium, and won’t lose any weight. It’s all about that balance- that is why tracking your diet in some way is so important!

To Gain Weight

Most people looking to gain weight, are looking to specifically gain muscle, and a calorie surplus can help them to achieve this. Many in the fitness world refer to this as bulking.

During a bulking phase, people generally add a surplus of calories to their diet, which gives them more energy to push harder in their workouts, and the calories needed to replenish and rebuild stronger muscles.

Because bulking can result in both gaining muscle and gaining fat, the number of calories you do add will be specifically based on how your body responds. You can expect when bulking that you will gain fat in addition to muscle and strength.

I don’t want to get crazy into bulking with this article, because there’s a lot that goes into it, but you will have to experiment with how many calories make a difference for you. I recommend starting small, with a calorie addition of 5-10% on to your maintenance calories. If you aren’t seeing changes, bump up the addition by 150 calories or so until you’re feeling the difference in your performance, strength, and muscle gains.

You can keep tabs on your weight gain in comparison to your body fat and lean muscle content by using an InBody Analysis machine, or similar body composition scale at your local gym or nutrition shop.

Counting Your Calories

So, should you be counting your calories, or what? I think that counting calories can be a fantastic method of tracking your diet. And if you’re looking for a tried and true method to lose weight, maintain weight, or gain weight and are up for the tracking- then I say, yes absolutely go for it!

Basically, to count your calories, you will keep track of the calories in each addition to your diet- from a glass of juice to the olive oil you cook your food in. You’ll start getting really familiar with ballpark numbers on calories for most whole foods. After tracking for a few months or so, you’ll most likely be so accustomed with the amounts you’re needing to eat and the calories in most foods you like to eat, that you’ll rarely need to track or check if something fits into your daily count anymore.

There are plenty of tools that can help you track your calorie count. Many people enjoy the app MyFitnessPal, as it already has calorie counts for many common foods, so you can just type in what it is you’re eating, and it usually already knows the calorie count for you.

Now one thing that calorie counting fails to do is account for where your calories are coming from. Are you getting enough protein to make muscle gains? Are you eating an excess of your calories from empty foods or refined carbohydrates? These can be important questions too, and affect the success of your diet. Counting macros is another diet tracking method that accounts for not only the number of calories you’re consuming but the content.

Counting Your Macros

Basically, counting macros or macronutrients is counting the grams of proteins, carbs, and fats you’re eating within your calorie goal, and in what ratios. It will help you fulfill the number game like with calories, but with being more mindful of the nutrients your filling and fueling your body with. What this means is maybe you’re 200 calories short for the day, and it just so happens, you’re 200 calories short in the proteins category for the day. Well, looks like instead of eating 200 calories worth of Oreos to meet your calories for the day, you’re going to be mindful about eating a lean protein snack like chicken or edamame.

I personally love this method of tracking. I prefer that it takes my brain to the content of my foods, rather than feeling like I’m being controlled by numbers. Tracking macros makes me feel like I’m being kind and fueling my body with what it needs- rather than depriving it of calories to keep my calorie count for the day.

This method really helps people who struggle with portion sizes. It educates people on basics of portion sizes, calories, and healthy eating- what gives you more bang for your calorie? What’s going to be most fulfilling, rather than a waste of macros?

Developing a Balanced Diet

Calorie Myth: Eating fewer calories is always better.

If you’re looking to lose weight it will definitely benefit you to cut a few calories. A few as in enough to lose .5-2 pounds per week. However, this doesn’t mean you should go chopping down calories left and right thinking you’ll lose more weight faster.

When too little calories are eaten, it slows down your metabolism- your calorie burning mechanism. Your body is literally in starvation mode, so it will slow down calorie burn to hold on to what it has. This isn’t good for two reasons. Reason #1) To burn calories we’re looking for a fast metabolism, not a slow one that holds on to every crumb you give it. Reason #2) Most people who lose weight using this extreme method, gain it all back in the end, because their diet was too hard to maintain over time.

Your best bet is to give your body something it can balance for the long haul. Eat a balanced diet, drink water, work out, and get good rest.

Good Calories

Nutritious foods- such as fibrous fruits, veggies, and whole grains, along with lean proteins take their sweet time in your digestive system – keeping you fuller for longer. Unhealthy snacks like chips, candy, and sweets, on the other hand, are filled with saturated fats and sugars, that are quick to digest, don’t have much to them to keep you fueled for very long. You’ll end out eating more of them, therefore more total calories just to stay full.

Get more bang for your calorie just by eating nutritious foods. Making conscious healthier choices will help trim calories without obsessing over numbers.

Realistic Nutrition Tips

#1) Give it time.

If you’re looking to shed some pounds, remember: fat and weight loss don’t always come hand in hand. If you are working out you will also be gaining muscle- which weighs more than fat. Your body might be positively changing even though you don’t see the results on the scale. Be patient. And maybe make a different measurement method your primary.

#2) Don’t skip meals.

Skipping a meal may cause greater hunger pangs for the next meal, which may cause you to overeat. Eating even, small meals throughout the day keeps your metabolism moving, and helps avoid spikes and drops in energy that can be caused by eating large, spread out meals.

#3) Find substitutes for your favorite unhealthy snack foods.

There are a few things in my household that were pulling teeth to get rid of. First, I love chips, and second I love ice cream. I have filled our house with yummy crunchy snacks that are healthy- unsweetened banana chips, veggie chips, plain popcorn, and high-fiber whole grain crackers are a few of my favorite substitutes to satisfy the chip crunch.

Another few recent findings in light of ice cream: Pressed Juicery has launched frozen yogurts at a few of their sites (The Americana Glendale, CA is a confirmed location) made entirely of fruits, vegetables, and nuts! And they are so good! They have vanilla, chocolate, fruit, and vegetable flavors- along with yummy toppings- and they’re only 150 calories! Finally, Halo Top ice cream, is a low calorie, high protein, and low sugar ice cream that can be found in select grocery stores. All of the flavors I’ve tried are amazing!

#4) Don’t even buy unhealthy snacks.

They’re only going to tempt you! When there aren’t cookies laying around, it’s easier to reach for the strawberries or low-fat Greek yogurt as a late night snack!

While this is no conclusive guide for dieting- I hope it gives you some perspective! What are you doing for your nutrition? Post questions or your suggestions below.

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