Counting calories is the worst way to lose weight except for all the others (could be Winston Churchill)
Disclaimer: Counting calories is not for everyone. Namely, this should not be your strategy for weight loss if you have or used to have restrictive types of eating disorders.
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This is a method for weight loss that evaluates your calories in vs calories out. To lose fat, you have to burn more energy than you receive from food. You have to be in a calorie deficit, so your body has to use your adipose tissue as a source of energy.
The sad truth is, weight loss happens only(1) when you’re in a calorie deficit(2). There is no magic pill, no quick fixes, and no groundbreaking diets. All fad diets are efficient only because they create a calorie deficit. However, staying in a deficit is not that simple. And the reason is not only in your hunger hormones that spike when you eat less than you burn. Counting all in and out calories might take a lot of time and you might face multiple pitfalls on the way.
People who follow a low-calorie diet may underreport(3) their calorie intake by almost 50%. In some cases, this is not because they’re lying to themselves but because they lack information about how to count calories the right way.
Here are some tips that will help you to be more precise in your calorie counting, stay in a calorie deficit with less effort, maintain your new physique, and don’t lose your mind in the process.
This is what all reliable coaches and dietitians will tell you to do before you start a diet. The thing is, BMR (basal metabolic rate) and TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) formulas are not that accurate(4). They don’t take into consideration some highly important data about your body like your body fat percentage or your dieting history. Most calculators will only show you the range of calories you should eat to maintain, lose, or gain weight.
The only way to find out your TDEE is by tracking your food intake while maintaining weight (or doing expensive laboratory testing). One to two weeks of precise tracking will help you to find out your starting point. After that, you will be able to deduct 10-20% of calories from your TDEE to start losing weight.
How to find out how many calories in food? Use food trackers. There is such a large variety of them today! Try several of them and choose the one that fits you the best. Some calorie trackers have the function of adding your own recipes to the database. If you have more or less the same breakfast, lunch, or dinner every day, this function might come in handy. Most modern calorie trackers also have bar code scanners, so you can add a product to your food diary in one click.
If there was only one piece of advice we could give that would be it: Keep your diet sustainable! Do you know why almost all fad diets fail? Because they offer quick fixes that most people cannot sustain for a prolonged period of time! Do you want to try keto? Then make sure you will be able to eat only 5% of calories from carbs for the rest of your life. Want to go OMAD? Then answer yourself if you’re ready to eat only once a day all the time.
Studies show no significant difference between intermittent fasting(5) or low-carb diets(6) compared to conventional low-calorie diets. If you want to create additional boundaries and restrictions in your weight loss journey, of course, you can. But ask yourself if these “magic” diets are really more sustainable for you.
Be careful when you’re creating a calorie deficit as well. Too harsh restrictions are not sustainable. If you need to lose a significant amount of weight, a lower calorie deficit will be more sustainable and, in the end, will bring you to your goal weight faster than cutting half of your calories.
Let’s make it clear: If you don’t want to count your calories and weigh your food, there are other methods that can help you lose weight. However, they are not as precise as weighing your food. And if it’s okay to make some minor mistakes now and then when you’re eating vegetables or fruits, insignificant amounts become more important when it comes to high-calorie foods like nuts or oil. Miscalculating your fat intake can lead to significant looseness in your daily calorie tracking.
It doesn’t mean that you will have to weigh all foods you’re eating for the rest of your life. After several months of food weighting, you will become more accurate with evaluating the weight of your food on the eye.
People often get confused with calories per portion size that some producers put into their packaging. The “calories per portion” is usually more exaggerated on high-calorie products packagings, like sweets, chocolate bars, or peanut butter. In most cases, consumers have a different perception of how their portion should look like.
Showing you the calories per portion instead of calories per 100 grams is pure marketing. The numbers per portion are lower and customers are more willing to buy high-calorie products. Pay attention to these tricks and weigh your portions if you’re not sure if your teaspoon of peanut butter contains the same amount of spread as a producer’s teaspoon.
100 ml of orange juice is about 45 calories. But you rarely stop drinking only 100 ml, right? In most cases, that would be a full glass which is about 115 calories. If you’re not very high or large, these 115 calories might compose 5% of your daily calorie needs. If you’re cutting your calories by 10%, this glass of juice becomes meaningful!
Another thing that can increase your daily intake is additives to your coffee. A portion of skim milk will add only 30 calories to your morning coffee. But if you choose full creamer, sugar, and syrups, in the end, you will get a high-calorie beverage.
If you like soda and want to lose weight, choose diet versions of your favorite soft drinks. Artificial sweeteners do not harm your health and have a bunch of benefits for the sustainability and efficiency of your diet.
If you’re someone who’s used to drinking their calories, simply cutting off sugar from your tea and coffee and opting for sugar-free versions of your favorite soft drinks might help you create a significant calorie deficit.
Alcoholic beverages are not simply “empty calories” that your body doesn’t need. They also metabolize differently(7). Your body will use booze calories first and won’t use your body fat as a fuel source until it has alcoholic calories to burn. If you have too many cocktails, some calories from them will be stored as fat.
The worst part about alcohol is that it puts your self-control at ease, and chances are, you will find yourself near the fast-food chain or with a doner kebab early in the morning after a long night.
One gram of ethanol contains seven calories. This is just a quick reminder of how many calories you might get from your favorite drinks:
But you rarely stop drinking only one glass, do you?
Since the 2018 Obamacare calorie rule, all sit-in restaurants, fast-food chains, and takeaway cafes have to indicate calories and macros of their foods on the menu. That is a handy tool for those who want to know the approximate amount of calories they consume. However, all the cafes and ready-to-eat pre-packed products can have a 20% error when they display calories.
If you’ve been following a low-calorie diet for several weeks and see no changes in your weight, maybe it’s time to swap pre-packed meals or takeaways to some home-cooked food.
Sometimes we mess up our perfectly balanced meals with high-sugar, high-fat, high-calorie additives. This might be a salad dressing, sweet mustard, bbq sauce, mayonnaise, all these toppings in the form of sesame seeds, extra cheese, or additional olive oil. Counting calories doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them. Just weigh them up and put them in your food diary!
The most precise way to evaluate your calorie intake from grains or meats is to weigh them raw. If you want to know how many calories are in a meal you’re cooking, here’s what you should do.
Weight a raw product first and then weigh it again when it’s cooked. See how much moisture your meat, chicken, or fish have lost. See how much water your rice, bulgur, or beans have absorbed. Calculate the percent that your grains have gained, or your meat has dropped. Add them or subtract them from your cooked meal to see how many calories exactly are in your portion size.
The good news is that if you use only one way to cook your grains or meats, you can do these calculations only once and then add or subtract your average percent from your cooked products.
Regarding animal protein, note that the number of calories in the slice of meat depends on what part of the animal’s body it is. This depends on how much fat is in the part of the chicken, pork, or lamb you’re about to have. For example,
By the way, if you’re eating bony parts, don’t forget to weigh bones before throwing them away to deduct their weight from the initial weight of your meal.
There are some products you don’t have to weigh before eating. Almost all leafy greens and non-starchy vegetables are extremely low in calories. For example,
However, if you tend to overeat them, there might be a need to add a pound or two of your veggies to your tracking app.
There is for sure no need to weigh your diet coke, spices, herbs, chewing gum, one clove of garlic, or one slice of lemon you’ve added to your water. If you feel a need to do so, this might be a warning sign that you might have developed disruptive eating behavior.
We’re not against snacking! We just ask you to add your snacks to the food diary. And pay attention to the food you’re tasting when cooking for your family, too! This might be half a teaspoon and might be a couple of tablespoons of food. You might taste baked vegetables, and you might want to make sure that your lasagna tastes good. Just don’t lie to yourself and add your snacks to the food diary.
One day, you will see how many calories a meal contains just by looking at it. But this will not happen in a week or a month. Usually, you will have to make a habit out of tracking your calories. In a couple of months, you will say how many grams of particular foods are on your plate and make quite accurate assumptions about their calorie density. It’s just that it won’t happen right now.
Burn more calories than you eat, they say, but the problem is, counting calories out is not that simple! Let’s leave alone your basal metabolic rate, thermic effect of food, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. There are simply no ways how you can evaluate them without special laboratory equipment.
Let’s focus on your exercise activity thermogenesis, aka calories you burn in the gym. And the problem is, you can’t be quite accurate with these numbers too! The thing is, the burned calories indicators on treadmills and other gym equipment are not personalized and often flattering. Your fitness bands or fitness apps are not precise either! The only way to find out how many calories you burn is in the laboratory when you have a mask on which calculates the amount of carbon dioxide you’re breathing out.
Another reason why calories out calculators don’t work is because they don’t consider how long you’ve been training. For example, a marathon runner of your weight, who's been running for decades, will burn significantly fewer calories than you will. That’s because their muscles are used to running and burn less energy for this activity. This also means that when you just start doing some physical activity, you burn more calories than you will after a month of training. Your muscles adapt, and as they adapt, they don’t need as much energy to work out.
Three miles don’t equate to a cinnamon bun. Three miles don’t equate to a chocolate bar. What three miles equate to is 4,8 kilometers; that’s it! Of course, you can slightly increase your cardio session after a huge overeating episode, but only if you’re willing to. But be aware that there’s no way you can calculate the exact amount of calories you’ve burned working out if you’re not in a lab. Another reason why working out food you’ve eaten is the bad idea is that it transforms physical activity into punishment! Please, don’t do that. Find a physical activity that you like and enjoy moving your body.
These small or medium changes can have a dramatic effect on how easy-to-follow your low-calorie diet might be. There are some common recommendations, like “avoid highly-palatable foods” or “opt for low-cal sweeteners instead of sugar.” These are some less obvious tips.
This tip is more about how to stay in a calorie deficit with less struggle. Protein is very satiating, and multiple research(8) states this macronutrient helps in weight management in several other ways as well. For example, it has a higher thermic effect of food, which means that your body needs more energy to digest protein than fats or carbs. Not that much more energy, actually. Only 29 calories(9) more for every 10% increase in protein in your diet, but this might be important in the long run.
Protein intake is also essential for building muscle. The more lean body mass you have, the higher your metabolism rate is, the more food you can eat and maintain your weight.
All in all, increasing your protein intake is a great way to stay satiated, build muscle, increase your metabolism, and maintain your new physique after weight loss.
In other words, eat more fiber! Let’s make it clear. Fiber is not a magic pill. It won’t(10) decrease your hunger levels or boost your fat loss. It will increase the volume of food on your plate and make your meals more substantial. Another reason fiber is that good for your diet is that it is usually contained in fruits and vegetables, aka micronutrient sources which you need to sustain good health.
That’s another tip on how to stay in a calorie deficit with less effort. Oil is very dense in calories. It doesn’t mean that you have to cut it off your diet completely. Don’t do that, fats are crucial for your health. However, most of us don’t even realize how much oil they use when cooking healthy, low-calorie chicken breasts, egg white omelets, or veggies.
What’s the way out? You can use a teaspoon to measure the volume of oil you put into the pan. Or, you can buy spray oil and make the amount of oil you use for frying food significantly lower.
This is what many people end up with when they start counting calories. Fats are the most calorie-dense macronutrient, so let’s get rid of it completely, right? Wrong! Fats are essential for your hormonal balance, overall health, and appearance (if you don’t eat fats, your skin will lose firmness, and your hair will look dull). Eat at least one gram of fats per one kilogram of your body weight.
Another way you can make your new diet more sustainable is by cooking low-calorie versions of your favorite foods.
Experiment with ingredients and try to find the perfect taste-calories balance.
You will also need this skill further on when you will maintain your new weight, as the main purpose of your diet is to be in your best shape forever, not just for a couple of months, right? If you don’t know how to cook healthier versions of your favorite foods, you can check out Unimeal meal plans. They contain the shopping lists of products you will need for a week and simple-to-follow recipes of tasty, nutrient-dense, low-calorie foods.
When we’re on a calorie deficit, we start to have hunger urges(11) more often. This is how our bodies react to the lack of food. This means that a severe calorie deficit might lead to overeating episodes now and then.
If you’re prone to binge eating, there are some right and wrong strategies to follow after you’ve overeat. The right way to deal with the consequences is to accept that you have overeaten and keep following your diet the next day. The wrong strategy is decreasing your calories drastically the next day after the “cheat meal.”
What to do about your urges to make a “cheat meal?” Plan it beforehand. You don’t have to eat a set amount of calories every day. What matters is your calories in—calories out balance at the end of the week or month.
Let’s assume your daily calorie intake to stay in a slight calorie deficit is 2,000 calories. This means you can eat 14,000 calories a week. If you know that you will have a great feast on Saturday, you can plan to eat 500 calories more and create a slightly larger calorie deficit on other days.
Your day-by-day calorie intake can look like this:
Of course, these numbers are just an example of how you can still be in a calorie deficit even if you have a big celebration party during the week.
Apart from the calories we burn during workouts, our bodies also need the energy to move. This included walking, washing dishes, cooking, talking, petting your dog, fidgeting, standing, sitting, and even blinking. These activities are a part of your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). When you’re in a huge calorie deficit, your body will adapt and will try to keep you immobile for the biggest part of your day.
So, what should you do about it? First of all, try to move more to maintain your metabolism high. And if you feel like you don’t have energy even to blink or keep a conversation, this means you’re dieting too hard! If you’re feeling like a wrack most of the time, it’s time to reverse diet or make a break in your diet for a couple of weeks. Don’t let your metabolism adapt(12) by following a too severe calorie deficit for too long.
If you track your calories out with a fitness band, you’ll notice that you burn fewer calories per session of heavy lifting than during your cardio workout. However, this doesn’t mean that running or cycling is better for weight loss than resistance training. Yes, cardio can burn more calories, but it won’t help you to build muscle. And the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism will be in the future, the more food you will be able to eat, the easier it will be to maintain your new physique!
What’s more, according to some research(13), resistance training can elevate your post-exercise metabolic rate for a prolonged period helping you to burn more calories.
If you’re a woman and you’re afraid that you will get bulky because of two weight lifting sessions per week, just stop it! See those female fitness models who compete in bodybuilding? Most of them work out as crazy, and a part of them are on performance-enhance drugs or steroids. Lifting weight won’t make you bulky. It will give you that “toned” appearance people mean when talking about their dream body.
All in all, lifting weights is one of the working strategies to maintain your goal weight after you drop some excess pounds. However, if this is something you’re not willing to do, don’t force yourself. Choose a kind of physical activity you will enjoy. This will help you to make everyday exercises more sustainable.