Counting calories: Get back to weight-loss basics

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Counting calories: Get back to weight-loss basics

Despite all the diet strategies out there, weight management still comes down to the calories you take in versus those you burn off. Fad diets may promise you that avoiding carbs or eating a mountain of grapefruit is the secret to weight loss, but it's really all about calories.

Calories: Fuel for your body

Calories are the energy in food. Your body has a constant demand for energy and uses the calories from food to keep functioning. Energy from calories fuels your every action, from fidgeting to marathon running.

Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are the types of nutrients that contain calories and are the main energy sources for your body. The amount of energy in each varies. Proteins and carbohydrates have about 4 calories a gram, and fats have about 9 calories a gram. Alcohol also is a source of calories, providing about 7 calories a gram.

Regardless of where they come from, the calories you eat are either converted to physical energy or stored within your body as fat. These stored calories will remain in your body as fat unless you use them up, either by reducing calorie intake so that your body must draw on reserves for energy, or by increasing physical activity so that you burn more calories.

Tipping the scale: Cutting calories

Your weight is a balancing act, but the equation is simple: If you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight.

Because 3,500 calories equals about 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) of fat, you need to burn 3,500 calories more than you take in to lose 1 pound. So if you cut 500 calories from your typical diet each day, you'd lose about 1 pound a week (500 calories x 7 days = 3,500 calories). It isn't quite this simple, however, and you usually lose a combination of fat, lean tissue and water. Also, because of changes that occur in the body as a result of weight loss, you may need to decrease calories further to continue weight loss.

Cutting calories

Cutting calories doesn't have to be difficult. In fact, it can be as simple as:

  • Skipping high-calorie, low-nutrition items
  • Swapping high-calorie foods for lower calorie options
  • Reducing portion sizes

Here's a closer look.

Saving calories by cutting high-calorie, low-nutrition items

Skipping one or two high-calorie items is a good place to start when cutting calories. For example, you could skip your morning latte, soda at lunch or that bowl of ice cream you always have after dinner. Think about what you eat and drink each day and identify items you could cut out. If you think that skipping your indulgence will leave you with a craving, try a low-calorie substitution.

Healthier options

Instead of this ...Calories*Try this ...Calories*
Flavored latte, 16 ounces 250 Black coffee, 16 ounces 0
Chocolate ice cream, 1 cup 285 Strawberries, 1 1/2 cups whole 70
Lemon-lime soda, 16 ounces 200 Sparkling water, 16 ounces 0

*Actual calories may vary by brand.

Swapping high-calorie foods for lower calorie options

Simple substitutions can make a big difference when it comes to cutting calories. For example, you can save 60 calories a glass by drinking fat-free milk instead of whole milk. Instead of having a second slice of pizza, reach for some fresh fruit. Or snack on air-popped popcorn instead of chips.

Lower calorie options

Instead of this ...Calories*Try this ...Calories*
Whole milk, 8 ounces 150 Skim milk, 8 ounces 85
Regular-crust pepperoni pizza, 1 slice (1/8 of a 14-inch restaurant pizza) 315 1 2/3 cups grapes 100
Ranch-flavored tortilla chips, 1 snack bag (3 ounces) 425 3 1/2 cups popcorn, air-popped 110

*Actual calories may vary by brand.

Reducing your portion sizes

The sizes of your portions affect how many calories you're getting. Twice the amount of food means twice the number of calories. It's common to underestimate how much you're eating, especially if you're dining out. Controlling your portions is a good way to control calories.

Portion sizes

A typical portion ...Calories*A standard serving ...Calories*
Orange juice, 8 ounces 120 Orange juice, 4 ounces 60
Buttermilk pancake, 6-inch diameter (73 grams) 175 Buttermilk pancake, 4-inch diameter (41 grams) 85
Whole-grain spaghetti, cooked, 1 1/2 cups 260 Whole-grain spaghetti, cooked, 1/2 cup 85

*Actual calories may vary by brand.

Try these tips to control portion sizes and cut calories:

  • Start small. At the beginning of a meal, take slightly less than what you think you'll eat. You can have seconds later if you're truly still hungry.
  • Eat from plates, not packages. Eating directly from a container gives you no sense of how much you're eating. Seeing food on a plate or in a bowl keeps you aware of how much you're eating. Consider using a smaller plate or bowl.
  • Check food labels. Be sure to check the Nutrition Facts panel and other nutrient information for the serving size and number of calories a serving. You may find that the small bag of chips you eat with lunch every day, for example, is two servings not one, which means you're eating double the calories listed on the label.
  • Use a calorie counter. Check out reputable resources that offer tools to count calories, such as websites or smartphone applications. A good one to try is the SuperTracker at ChooseMyPlate.gov.

Putting it all together

Replacing high-calorie foods with lower calorie alternatives and reducing your portion sizes can help you cut calories and improve weight control. For a successful — and sustainable — weight management plan, you also need to increase your physical activity. It's this combination of regular activity and healthy eating that will help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

Last Updated: 2012-06-19
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