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Get excited about nutrition, and learn as you go with these information-packed resources on a wide variety of nutrition-centric topics! Our bistroMD experts review the importance of the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrates, as well as how to make them work most efficiently for you.

Calorie Counting Basics

Our experts explain the right and wrong way to calorie count. Find out how to lose or maintain weight.

Calorie Counting Basics

Counting calories is easily one of the least popular parts of dieting, but you can’t question the results it can bring.

If you are starting a new diet, it's important to learn everything you can about calorie counting, and how it can help you get where you want to go.

Where Did Calorie Counting Come From?

The whole idea of counting calories is only a few decades old.

During the Cold War, a scientist named William Atwater began burning different types of food, and measuring how much energy was released in order to determine which foods had what number of calories.

William Atwater published his work, and within a year or two, diet books began noting the caloric totals of different kinds of food and the obvious implications they had on diet.

Within ten years of his publishing, Atwater was able to convince thousands of people that counting calories was the basis for controlling weight loss.

What is the Best Method for Counting Calories?

It is a good idea to count all of the calories you take in, but you need to keep an eye on the foods you get those calories from.

For instance, if you enjoy a meal that is rich in fiber, those calories are doing a lot more for you than calories that come from saturated fat. Both calories need to be monitored, but they can’t be considered equal.

If you were to base your meals on proteins, and some on carbohydrates instead of fats, you can eat a significantly larger, and many would say tastier, meal for the same number of calories. So, not only is it important to have your total caloric intake known, but the sources are just as important.

This begs the question, why has calorie counting become known as the end all be all of American dieting? It could be because Americans love to have an easy way to grade how they are doing. In choosing an easy measure, we might be tricking ourselves into feeling better about our health than is medically warranted. Although calorie counting is important, it does not provide the full breadth of what you really need to know when it comes to managing your diet.

Why Counting Calories is Difficult

When most Americans fail at dieting, it isn’t because of a lack of effort. A recent poll showed that while over two thirds of all Americans consider the caloric contents of the food they eat, a stunning 90 percent have no idea how many calories they need in the first place. Studies have also shown that many people underestimate how many calories we take in, which means we think we’re doing a good job, when, in fact, we have a lot of work left to do.

One tip, that most experts agree on, is to keep your meals as small as possible, even if this means eating two extra meals per day. This way, you are much more likely to estimate your caloric intake accurately.

When meals become too large, mistakes are made when it comes to accounting for how many calories we are consuming. The same goes for snacking. Keep snacks small and under control, and you can count calories far more effectively. The question that many of us should be asking, is if there are sound alternatives to counting calories since, sometimes, even the experts get it woefully wrong? If the pros can’t get it right, what chances do the rest of us have?

Other Alternatives to Counting

One common sense alternative is the U.S. Health and Human Services Food Guide Pyramid. Instead of counting calories, simply follow the directions of the pyramid, and construct smaller meals based on its serving suggestions. Minimize the amount of fat and sugar you ingest, and increase the amount of fiber, low fat protein, and leafy green veggies. It is a lot easier to count the number of servings of each of the items in the food pyramid than it is to count calories.

It may only make a small difference per day, but try to choose foods that take more work for your body to digest. We have all heard the idea that celery is actually calorie-negative because it burns more calories to digest than it gives you in the first place. Choose whole grains over refined foods. Not only do whole grain breads taste better, they require your body to work harder to digest them as well. The same goes for whole grain rice.

Instead of counting calories, simply become more aware of where your calories come from. Then make any necessary changes. When you count calories, you have a log of everything you’ve eaten in a day right in front of you. You can see how many calories you get from things like soda, chips and sweets, and how many you get from veggies. You can also accurately gauge how full you feel from that first group, and how full you feel from the second, and you will actively notice that you have a fuller feeling from the second group, as opposed to the first. It is common sense, and it really can help you lose weight over the long term..  

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Written By bistroMD Team. Published on November 07, 2012. Updated on June 20, 2019.


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