Calorie Counting for Weight Loss Success

September 2nd, 2011 | Posted by Alison Spath in Weight Loss

This is the first post in a three part series about measuring the various aspects related to weight loss to improve your chances of weight loss success.

I’m starting with food journaling because in my experience, it was the changes in my diet that had the most significant impact on my weight loss when compared to exercise alone.  Whether or not you count calories – true weight loss comes down to consuming fewer calories than you burn.

If You’re New to Counting Calories (or even if you’re not)

I won’t deny that calorie counting can feel tedious and confusing.  How do you count food that doesn’t have labels?  What about that handful of M&M’s you grabbed as you walked by someone’s desk?  Do I really have to count out 13 crackers from this box?

Calorie counting can be difficult on a completely different level too.  It’s more than just “counting calories” of course – it’s about making sure that you are reaching a calorie deficit most days of the week.  Simply put, when you eat fewer calories than your body needs to function, your body will tap into stored energy (i.e., excess body fat) for fuel.

It can be challenging when you’ve eaten your calorie allowance for the day and you’re still hungry or you know you’re going to be hungry or want to eat again before the day is over.  Yes, there will be moments of hunger – but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be torture.

Making Calorie Reduction Sustainable

This is where the right foods makes a huge difference.  When I counted calories, I started to notice that I felt more satisfied and had more energy on the days I got the majority of my calories from healthy, whole foods instead of processed, packaged foods – even the  “healthier” packaged options.  It was a lot easier to stay within my calorie allowance without feeling cranky, irritable, terribly hungry or out of energy when I ate real food.

Why Calorie Counting and/or Food Journaling Works

Keeping track of your food intake gives you an opportunity to become more aware of what and how much food you consume – an awareness that may be completely new to you.  You start to see how the food that you eat affects how you feel.  Calorie counting was how I found my way to eating better, more mindfully and eventually – eating LESS.

When you start to see what portions sizes really look like, you get a better understanding of what the word “calorie” means.  It can help to think of your calorie allowance like you would a financial allowance.

I get 1500 calories to “spend” a day and still lose weight – what am I going to spend those 1500 calories on?  (Your calorie budget is bigger if you’re just looking to maintain your weight and varies based on your physical make up and daily activity level – more on calorie math here.)

This is where lasting lifestyle changes can start to make their way in.  Do you feel better when you eat a salad loaded with vegetables and satisfying fats from avocado, healthy oils, nuts?  Do you see how much MORE you can eat when you choose whole foods?  Can you skip that calorie filled beverage this time and just drink water to save yourself a couple hundred calories today?

You can still eat all your favorite foods – nothing has be off limits as long as you account for it within your daily calorie allowance.  But when you’ve only got so many calories to spend, the term “empty calories” starts to take on significance.  It’s very likely you’ll start to eat less of things filled with calories but are void of nutritional value.  That’s when and how the weight will start to come off.

If You’ve Counted Calories Before (and you know that it works)

Allow me to sound a bit bossy here to potentially give you the virtual kick in the pants I gave myself a few months ago to ditch 10 extra pounds.

If you’re trying to lose weight and nothing is happening – stop wasting time guessing and wondering and hoping you’ve reached a calorie deficit on any given day.  Take control of the situation and know for sure.  Hold yourself accountable and keep track so that you know when you’re eating too many calories and can plainly see how excess calories keep the scale from moving in the direction you want it to go.

See exactly what’s happening so you can make a change and get the results you’re after.  Count today and climb into bed tonight knowing that “Yes, today was a weight loss day.

Tools of the Trade

When it comes to keeping track of your food intake, I can speak for two experiences.  The first time I ever counted calories I used a notebook, a calorie counter database for nutritional info and a daily calorie requirement calculator to see what range of calories I was shooting for each day.

The other two times I’ve gotten serious with calorie counting (and was equally as successful – once in 2009 and again early this year) I’ve used The Daily Plate.

The Daily Plate makes calorie counting extremely easy, especially when compared to using a notebook and doing all the calculations by hand.  While both were effective, The Daily Plate made it a breeze.  It does all conversions based on portion size and has nutritional information for ANYTHING you could possibly eat.  It makes it easy to calculate your daily activity level and any exercise you do that adjusts your calorie allowance for the day.  (More on exercise in a future post in this series.)  It also makes it very easy to estimate calories in prepared dishes made by you or someone else or that random handful of peanuts you snagged on a Friday afternoon.  It has calorie information for restaurants, brand name products and more.

(again, there are lots of websites out there like this – TDP just happens to be the one I have experience with.)

The Calorie Counting Tool Box

My “tool box” contains a digital scale, measuring spoons and measuring cups.

Weight Loss Tools

For a while, consider measuring everything that you can’t count.  (Like slices of bread vs. a scoop of almond butter.)  Having a scale that converts between grams and ounces will prove to be helpful too.

When you measure with these devices, you know that your numbers are accurate when you go to record them later. Eventually, you get good at eyeballing portions and will be able to save the measuring cups for scooping dead fish out of a fish bowl.

Other Calorie Counting Tips

  • When in doubt, I always round UP.  Better to overestimate a little than underestimate.
  • Give yourself a day or two off when you need it, being careful not to get completely off track when you do take a break.  And when you do go overboard (it’s probably going to happen!) – don’t beat yourself up too much.  It’s part of the journey you’re on.  Acknowledge what happened, move on and just make your next meal a good one.
  • Connect with other people who are on the same journey and learn from and be inspired by them.  Message boards, blogs, real life support groups – find other people!

Know that as you sit down to actually look at and scrutinize the numbers, it starts to get easier.  It becomes a habit.  You start to look at and think about food differently.  It can feel like a project.  You learn to wait to eat until you’re actually hungry.  You remember to pack your own food and are sure you always have healthy food options available.  You stop going back for seconds when you’re in weight loss mode because you now see how quickly calories can add up.  You start to develop a taste for healthier foods.

Calorie counting is not required to lose weight – but it’s a fast way to understand where you’re going wrong if you’re stuck.  While there are plenty of books and diet programs out there that claim you “don’t have to count calories” – calorie reduction is still at the heart of any program created with weight loss in mind.  And hey, what gets measured gets managed.

You can do it.  YOU!  The real person sitting there in front of your screen reading these words – I’m writing this for you because I know you can do it.  I also know how impossible it might seem.  Be patient, it’s going to take time no matter how much weight you have to lose.  But weight loss is no mystery – it’s a science.  Figure out how the science works and then make it work for you.

More studies and related articles:

Keeping A Food Diary Doubles Weight Loss

Lose Twice the Weight By Tracking Your Food

Twinkie Diet Helps Nutrition Professor Lose 27 Pounds

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7 Responses

  • I started counting calories yesterday, I also weighed myself and took my measurements. Um… yeah, I’ve gained far more weight than I realized (16lbs!). Eep. Yesterday, I was psyched to count calories and do both yoga and take a short jog.

    I saw how that spoonful of sugar for my tea was a bit rounded and adjusted to made sure it was level. Later in the evening, after my class, I was HUNGRY! I knew I had about 300 calories left that I could have and so on my way home I stopped by the grocery store and got two frozen burritos. In line I actually took a moment to look at the calories, something I never do, and one was 300 and one was 290. I seriously thought about putting one back. But I was hungry, I’d exercised that day and gone to school, maybe I needed the food? I ate the 300 one, but then I waited. I told myself that if I still wanted the second one in 15 min, then I’d go ahead and eat it. Turns out, I was satiated by just the one. I find that very interesting, because I know three days ago, I would have eaten both of them and then cursed myself when I felt overfull.

    Thanks for these posts! :)

  • YES! Amazing, isn’t it? Whenever I finally make up my mind to finally look more closely at the numbers, I always have those same light bulb moments that then make it completely obvious why I wasn’t losing weight.

    And the waiting to continue eating is another very important lesson… that 15 minute rule is a good one. To let your satiety signals kick in and tell your brain you’re no longer hungry. It shows you that you CAN eat less and still feel satisfied. When I’m not calorie counting, I know I consume way more calories than I think do.

    Way to go Nic, thanks for sharing your experience!

  • Daniel says:

    Even though I kept doing a lot of these things way past when I should have, I like the tips and guidelines you lay out. I know first hand that they work (too well sometimes!) and I think this is very informative and can help people looking for a new perspective on how to lose some weight. ^_^

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