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How to Count Calories (& Why You Might)

Calories alone don’t indicate how nutritious a certain food is but they can be a great way to make sure you’re getting enough energy each day. We're breaking down all you need to know here!

How to Count Calories (& Why You Might)

If you’re wondering how to count calories without becoming obsessed, you’ve come to the right place. Calories are a form of energy for the body, and understanding them can help you to better utilize them. 

From “tracking macros” to counting calories, there are many ways to make sure you’re getting enough energy and nutrients each day. Ahead, discover the best way to count calories for weight loss and other health goals. 

What Are Calories?

Calories are a unit used to measure the amount of energy provided by a food or beverage. When exercising, you can also measure the amount of calories burned. 

You might also so calories called kilocalories, as they are often used interchangeably. 

Calories versus Kilocalories 

There are two different units that enter the conversation when you’re talking about calories. Calories and kilocalories (kcal) are often used interchangeably but are actually two different units of measurement. In certain countries—like China and Australia—a measure called kilojoules (kJ) is also used. 

Calories can be “small” or “large.” Large calories measure the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram (kg) of water by 1℃. Using this definition, 1 large calorie equals 1,000 small calories. 

The term “large calories” almost always refers to kilocalories, since “kilo” means 1,000. In other words, 1 large (kilo-) calorie is equal to 1,000 small calories. While true measures of small calories are still used in research, they rarely ever appear outside of scientific studies. 

Since small calorie amounts, like 100,000 calories, might appear alarming on a label, calories and kilocalories have become synonymous in the nutrition world. This means you’re likely seeing kilo- (large) calories on a nutrition label, even when the term “calories” is used. Basically, in terms of nutrition, kcal and calories are the same. 

If you’re in a country using kilojoules, there’s no need to fear. It’s easy to convert from one measurement to another, as 1 kcal equals 4.18 kJ. Simply multiply the amount kcal by 4.18 to find out how many kilojoules your food or beverage contains. 

Estimating Calorie Needs

It’s estimated that the average adult needs around 2,000 calories per day. However, the number of calories you should eat depends on many factors, such as:

• Activity level
• Age 
• Disease stage or health status 
• Height and weight 
• Hormone fluctuations
• Life stage such as pregnancy
• Medications 
• Birth sex 

Depending on your health goals, your individual needs may range from 1,500 to 3,500 calories. Working with a dietitian can help you pinpoint where within this range you are. 

Connecting Calories and Macronutrients 

Interestingly, different macronutrients contain different amounts of calories. For example, proteins and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram while fats provide 9 calories per gram. 

“Empty” calories, such as those found in ultra-processed food, still count as calories. However, they neglect to provide adequate nutrition even though they provide energy. The calories in nutrient-poor foods often come from sugar or unhealthy fats and provide a quick burst of energy followed by an unpleasant “crash”. 

When you’re choosing between food and looking at calories, it’s important to consider macronutrients as well. An 8-oz can of soda may contain the same number of calories as a 8-oz glass of 100% juice, although the juice likely contains more nutrients than the soda. 

Why Count Calories?

There are many reasons a person may want to count calories. While weight loss often ranks high on the list of potential reasons, being aware of calories can benefit your health in many ways not related to weight. 

Get Insight Into Energy 

Understanding the calories found in food makes you more aware of the ways energy powers your body. When looked at in this light, counting calories can be empowering, as it allows you to make better energy choices for your body over time. 

Obtain An Objective Measurement 

Calories are useful because they provide an objective unit for measuring energy intake. This makes it easier to estimate your nutritional needs and effectively communicate with your healthcare team. 

Keep in mind that manufacturers generally round to the nearest gram when calculating calories based on nutrient content. This means that there may be minimal variations between what is actually contained in the food and what is listed on the nutrient label. 

In any case, understanding calories and macronutrients can help you make educated decisions when comparing different foods and drinks. 

Work Towards Weight Loss Goals

Being aware of your calorie intake can help you to make choices that honor your health goals. For example, research has shown that calorie counts displayed in certain locations on a menu may lead to lower-calorie food choices. 

Since excess calories can contribute to excess weight gain, noticing the amount of calories in the food you eat can be an important first step to making meaningful changes. Combining nutritious, low-calorie foods with exercise (which uses up or burns calories) is the start of a great game plan. 

To consume fewer calories, start reducing your intake by 500 calories. This small deficit can lead to big changes by allowing you to lose about 1 pound per week. While this weight loss may not be considered rapid by any means, it is thought to promote a healthier, more sustainable method of weight loss. Essentially, it’s a way of creating healthy habits that stick instead of rapidly losing weight just to gain it later on.

Remember, getting enough nutrients is still important when you are trying to lose weight. Feel free to count calories to lose weight, but keep in mind that it’s difficult to get all the necessary nutrients if you drop below 1,200 calories a day. This is often considered the point where your body switches from thriving to just surviving (or “survival mode”). 

It May Not Be Appropriate for All 

Counting calorie intake may not be appropriate for some populations. For example, those with disordered eating patterns or a history of eating disorders may not find counting calories helpful. In this case, closely watching calories could cause more harm than good. 

If you simply want to enjoy food without thinking about calories, there are other methods that may be more helpful for you.

How to Count Calories

If you don’t like math, counting calories can sound like a scary concept. However, estimating calories is an easy method used to make sense of your food. 

First, you’ll want to find out how many calories you need. If you aren’t into equations, you can work with a dietitian to find out how many calories you need. Don’t want to wait? Use the Mayo Clinic’s Calorie Calculator as a starting point or rough estimate. 

Next, there are two common ways used to find the amount of calories in a food or beverage: 

Look at the nutrition label. The calories contained in a food are listed at the top of the label, with a 2,000-calorie diet used as a reference. Keep in mind that calories are typically listed as the amount of calories per serving, so beware before indulging in the whole package.

Use a search engine. While it’s not considered the most accurate method, simply searching the internet for the amount of calories in a certain food can give you a good guess. The most accurate answers read “Sources include: USDA” below the result. 

For nutrient-dense foods, like peanut butter, using a scale or measuring spoon can be helpful in sticking with your desired calorie count. This allows you to prepare proper portion sizes each and every time. 

It can also be helpful when comparing calories from the same food but in different forms. For example, ¼ cup of peanuts contains about 200 calories and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter also contains 200 calories. 

Why Track Macros?

If you want to focus more on the food you eat instead of the amount of calories, tracking macronutrients (macros) is a more targeted approach. Instead of counting calories, you’ll be ensuring your body is nourished by getting enough of each of the three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat). 

Keep in mind that different types of foods contain a different number of calories. As mentioned above, proteins and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram while fats provide 9 calories per gram. Armed with this knowledge, resources like MyPlate can help you select smaller serving sizes of healthy fats and larger portions of quality carbohydrates and proteins. 

Tracking macros is a popular method among athletes and other health-minded individuals. This is because it allows them to tailor the percentage of energy they are getting from each macronutrient. The recommended ranges (percent of total calories or energy) for adults are as follows:

Carbohydrate: 45-65%

Fat: 20-35%

Protein: 20-35%

For example, someone wanting to build muscle and burn fat may aim for 35% of calories from protein, 20% from fat, and 45% from carbohydrates. Remember, a dietitian can help you tailor these macronutrient ranges to best meet your needs. 

The Bottom Line on Counting Calories

Calories provide a great guideline or starting point for understanding the amount of energy coming from your food. Factors like activity level may also play a role in your estimated needs since exercise can cause calories to be burned. 

If you feel like calorie counting isn’t for you, tracking macronutrients may make sense and help move you closer to your health goals like weight loss.


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