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How to Count Your Calories

Changing your body from fat to lean takes time, patience, and determination.

Changing your body from fat to lean takes time, patience, and determination.

How Many Calories Will You Eat Today?

To effectively count (and cut) your calories, you need to know how many calories are in the food you're eating. This sounds simple, but it's not. You will need some help and advice to get familiar with the process of tracking your intake, calculating the calories, and understanding how your body reacts to certain foods.

Changing your body from fat to lean takes time, patience, and determination. There is simply no quick or easy way to lose a meaningful amount of fat. Many people have made a lot of money convincing people otherwise, but after a while, you begin to see the truth about fat loss: it takes serious time and serious effort.

This article will offer you some real-world help and advice with your determination to cut fat, keep muscle, and get healthy. As a (somewhat) older man who has had success in getting lean and staying healthy, I speak from experience.

After a lifetime of losing and gaining weight, I get it. No matter how you slice it, weight loss comes down to the simple formula of calories in, calories out.

— Valerie Bertinelli

Couting Calories Works!

I have stuck with my calorie-counting routine for about five years. I miss some days, but in general, at any given time of day, I can tell you exactly how many calories I've eaten so far that day. It's become a habit (some might say a bit of an obsession), and it has made a difference in my level of fitness. I still have a ways to go, but being fit is a process, not a destination.

What Is a Calorie?

A calorie is a measure of energy. Our bodies use the energy in the food we eat to stay alive and keep moving. When you eat something, your body uses the energy in the food just like a car uses the energy in gasoline. One peanut M&M, for example, contains about 10 calories. Most people need between 1600 and 2000 calories a day to maintain a steady balance of energy in and energy out.

If we take in more energy than we burn, we store up the extra energy for later use. The main way we store that energy is as fat. We all need at least some fat to stay healthy, but too often we eat way more than we burn and wind up unhealthy, with too much fat.

If we burn more energy than we take in, we use our extra fat for energy. In this way, we become leaner by eating less than we need to keep our balance. The body senses the calorie deficit and uses our fat, and sometimes our muscle, to burn to keep us alive.

So the physics behind fat loss is simple and inescapable: if you eat more calories than you burn, you will slowly gain weight. This is the familiar calories-in-calories-out formulation, and I am living proof that it's true. With very few exceptions, eating more than you burn will make you fat, and eating less than you burn will make you lean.

(About those "few exceptions"—some foods do burn quicker and dirtier than others. Simple carbohydrates, which in most diets mean white flour and sugar, spike your insulin levels, which can make you add fat disproportionally. But really, if you're serious about getting lean, why are you eating white flour and sugar? Eat whole foods as you should, and the equation is always true: more calories than you burn = fat; fewer calories than you burn = lean.)


Why Count Calories?

We count calories so we know when we're eating too much. If we eat too much we get fat. It truly is that simple.

Counting calories is the first and most important thing anyone needs to do when they start a fitness regimen. I still count my calories almost every day, mostly through force of habit.

Here's a list of what I ate yesterday, with calorie totals:

  • protein pancakes: 250
  • cup milk: 100
  • one banana: 80
  • pat butter: 30
  • fig bars: 220
  • salad with grilled chicken: 200
  • lite dressing: 50
  • 10-12 Peanut M&M's: 100
  • 1 hard-boiled egg: 80
  • asparagus: 20
  • 12 Beanitos chips: 100
  • beans and rice (homemade): 350
  • sliced deli turkey: 50
  • whole-wheat bread: 100
  • light mayo: 25
  • raw spinach: 20

This is a lot of food! But it only adds up to (according to my atrocious math skills) 1775 calories. This is just about exactly the amount a man of my size, age, and activity level needs to eat to maintain my daily energy balance. Of course, if I were to go to the gym and burn, say, 300 calories running or lifting weights, then I would be in a calorie deficit. Doing this day after day would result in a slow, steady loss of weight.

(By the way, if you go to McDonald's and have a Big Mac, large fries, large coke, and a sundae for dessert, you have just consumed 1700 calories. THIS is how they make us fat, people.)

When you go to the grocery store, you find that the cheapest calories are the ones that are going to make you the fattest - the added sugars and fats in processed foods.

— Michael Pollan

How Do You Count Your Calories?

In order to count calories effectively, you need to do two things: keep track of everything you eat and add up the calories in all of that food. As I showed in the above list of my intake and calories in an average day, this means writing down everything and figuring out how many calories were in the food.

I started out using a good food journal and a resource (in my case a book called CalorieKing) that provided calorie totals in all my food. From there it was just a matter of faithfully doing my homework, day after day after day. Some days it was fun; most days it was a boring grind. But I stayed with it, and after about a year I had a huge stack of food journals, and I had lost almost 20 pounds. Most importantly, I had developed excellent habits. This is the secret benefit of counting your calories!

You Don't Need to Be a Math Genius!


Counting Calories With CalorieKing

One of the first things I did in my quest to get in shape was to begin counting my daily calories. In order to correctly count the calories in the food that I ate in one day, I had to know exactly how many calories were in the food I was eating. Since I had no idea where to begin, I turned to a great book that gives the calories for every single food item you could think of (or eat): The CalorieKing Calorie, Carbohydrate, and Fat Counter. This was a few years ago, and every year CalorieKing has updated its data. I actually prefer it to online sources, which are often contradictory and sometimes hard to locate.

Using this book, I was able to gain knowledge about my food intake. It took some time, but I kept at it and now, several years later, I'm able to automatically calculate the calories in the food that I eat as I go through my day. I didn't start out this way, but over time I became a kind of self-contained calorie book.

Using a Food Journal to Lose Fat

I'm a note-taker by nature, so it felt pretty natural to write down everything I was eating, along with calorie totals. Over time, I went through several "food journals," books that make it easy to keep track of what you eat and your nutrition totals. I actually became maybe a little bit addicted to the process, as the stacks of old food journals in my basement workout room will attest.

And yes, every once in a while I page through them to find out, say, what I had for breakfast on October 14, 2015.

But the real value of a food journal is the way it educates you about your food choices. I was surprised to learn which foods were terrible for me and which were actually okay. I also quickly discovered that I have a weakness for added sugar, and that added sugar can not only make you fat and tired, but given enough time it can actually kill you. This was all part of my education about food, calories, fat, and fitness. It's a big, complex topic. My education has taken years, and I am still learning. But the first step for me was using a food journal to track the things I was eating.


Another Food Journal Use: Tracking Weight and Fat Percentage

My food journals, in addition to what I ate and how many calories I consumed, contain another set of data that I recorded religiously for years: my weight and fat percentage. These are two related but very different numbers. Weight is relatively easy—you just get on the scale at the club or in the bathroom and peer through your fingers at the bad news on the dial. But fat percentage is another story entirely.


My Body Fat Scale, and How It Changed the Way I Eat

To accurately assess the fat that you are carrying on your body, you need a special scale called a "smart scale" or a "fat scale." The one that I am currently using is the RENPHO Bluetooth Body Fat Scale, which connects to your tablet or phone and can keep track of all kinds of body metrics, from fat percentage to bone mass to water weight. When you step on your smart scale, it sends a very weak current through your body, which allows the scale to calculate your numbers.

This is incredibly important because the scale will tell you when you're losing water, fat, or muscle—three very different outcomes! For me, the benefits of knowing when the weight I lost—or gained—was simply water weight had a huge impact on my mental state and often kept me from getting discouraged and losing touch with my mission.

Before I started using a smart scale, I was highly susceptible to falling into despair when my weight suddenly spiked. To me, all weight was the same, and the simple number of pounds was all I needed to know and all I cared about. But my smart scale changed all of that. For the first time, I could see what part of my weight gain was fat, which part was water, and which part was muscle.

The end result was that I stopped beating myself up and getting so discouraged. Gaining three pounds in one weekend, I realized, was not the end of the world, because it wasn't fat—it was water weight that I was holding onto because I ate a salty meal and had a few drinks. In two to three days that weight would be gone. My fat percentage—the amount of fat I was carrying—hadn't changed at all! This was HUGE for my state of mind and the morale I needed to stick to my fitness and fat loss plan.

Counting Calories and Fat Loss

When you maintain a consistent, modest calorie deficit, your body will slowly use your excess fat stores for energy to make up the deficit. In other words, when you deprive your body of the energy it needs, it's forced to find it elsewhere—for example, in your spare tire. The trick is to eat just a little less than you need—200 to 300 calories a day, max—so you're not miserable and hungry all the time. This is why carefully counting your calorie intake is so important to losing fat. And it's also why losing fat takes a long time.

Fat Loss Through Patient, Consistent Calorie Monitoring

One pound of fat holds 3,500 calories, about how much you eat in two days. So if you stop eating completely for six days, you would theoretically lose six pounds. But you will also harm your health, be completely miserable, and possibly wind up in the hospital. And the minute your body gets the chance, it will make up all those lost calories in a blitz of high-calorie eating.

Any diet that promises you "quick" fat loss is simply lying. You have to be patient and consistent. Real fat loss takes months, if not years!

Good luck with your fat-loss program!

Good luck with your fat-loss program!


The following sources were used for this article:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Jo Ann on July 30, 2020:


Dianna Mendez on May 11, 2018:

I count calories and it helps me keep on track. Although, I need to get away from those empty calories I find hard to resist!