Are you trying to lose weight by ‘watching calories,’ ‘counting calories,’ or ‘limiting calories’? Have you heard the ‘eat less calories and exercise more’ advice a bit too often?

Simply put, understanding calories and being able to shop for the right foods is a must to achieve lasting weight loss without compromising on the body’s daily nutritional requirements. If you don’t understand the food you’re consuming, you’ll never have control over your body or your health.

Understanding Calories

A calorie is a unit of measurement for energy. Scientifically speaking, a kilocalorie or a calorie refers to the amount of energy needed to increase the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. So, if a food is claimed to have 200 calories, it means that the particular food is going to impart that much energy onto our body.

Counting Calories

Let’s make this simple. Most foods that we eat comprise of three major nutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. While one gram of carbohydrate and protein provide 4 calories each, a gram of fat provides more than double, 9 calories.

How are Calories in a Particular Food Counted?

All foods that we eat contain calories, some more than the others. The easiest way to calculate the number of calories in any food is to multiply the gram of carbohydrate and protein present with 4 and the fat content with 9. The total sum will determine the total amount of calories or energy provided by that food. Since the calories consumed directly impact our metabolism, energy levels, and wellbeing, however, looking only at the number of calories provided by any food is not enough.

As per a new Harvard study, “What kind of calories we take in may matter as much as how many we eat.” A negative calorie balance can be achieved either by eating less or exercising more, without worrying about the source of the calories. However, when we take nutrition into account, things are not as simple. You may choose to get 300 calories from a grilled chicken sandwich or from a bag of French fries and burn those calories by running on a treadmill.

But the calories achieved by eating those fries are going to have adverse effect on your heart and health in the long run without adding necessary nutrients like the protein in the chicken sandwich. Thus, it is equally important to look at the source of the calories as well as their quantity.

How Do We Calculate Our Daily Calorie Needs?

A person’s age, weight, height, and physical activity level determine his or her daily calorie needs. Harvard Health Publication gives a simple formula. Multiply your current weight by 15 – that’s roughly the number of calories needed to maintain your current weight, if you are moderately active. If you want to lose weight (about 1 to 2 pounds a week), deduct 500-1000 calories from your daily calorie needs and put in 30 minutes of exercise per day.

Calorie Dense Foods

Calorie dense foods are the foods that provide a lot of calories per serving size. If you are trying to gain weight, then adding calorie dense foods in your diet would be a good idea. Conversely, dieters must restrict the intake of calorie dense foods. Fruit juices, nuts, potatoes, brown rice, cheese, meats, bananas, eggs, beans fall under the category of ‘healthy’ calorie dense foods – assuming they’re consumed in moderation.

Empty Calories

Also referred to as junk food, the ‘empty calorie’ foods are high in calorific value but have little or no nutritional value. Donuts, cakes, carbonated beverages, burgers, French fries, pizzas, sugary baked goods, fried foods, and candy bars are all loaded with calories but lack any substantial nutritive value. If you want to do your heart, weight, and body a favor, steer clear of these empty calories.

Reading Nutritional Labels

Harvard Medical School suggests that “one approach to meeting your daily calorie target is by adding up the number of calories per serving of all foods that you eat and then plan your menus accordingly.” This requires us to search cookbooks and read nutrition websites to understand how much calories are provided by each food eaten. An easier approach would be to read nutrition labels at the back of all packaged foods and beverages and get acquainted with the calories provided per serving. We would still need to do our math to sum up the total calories.

According to US Food and Drug Administration, “the first place to look at the Nutrition Facts label is the serving size and the number of servings in the package.” The number of calories and nutrients present in the pack will be determined by the serving size. For example, if 1 serving size equals one cup and provides 200 calories, then having 2 cups would mean that the calories and nutrients also get doubled. The next thing to watch out for is the ‘calories from fat’ as well as the percentage of saturated fats, trans fats, and total cholesterol. Selecting the foods which provide less calories from fats, especially the trans fats, is recommended.

Guidelines for Those Who Hate Calorie Counting

  1. Base your diet around complex carbohydrates (whole grains and legumes), lean proteins (fish, low fat dairy), and healthy fats (nuts, olive oil).
  2. Consume 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
  3. Avoid processed and fried foods and choose a wide range of whole, natural foods.
  4. Fast or junk foods and sodas are only for special occasions. They are not only high in calories but also in simple sugar. sodium, and saturated and trans fats.
  5. Choose lean meat cuts, cut down on alcohol and exercise regularly.

The Bottom Line

No one likes to count calories, and few people have the time for it, but, you have to get educated about food before you can get around doing it. Like everything else, it’s all about consistency. Once you get familiar with the best foods that suit your lifestyle as well as the ones that will help you stay healthy and fit, then you will have a an idea of what foods fit for you without having to look at a label.

Sure, cheesecake isn’t something that’s good for weight loss, but if it’s your weekly cheat, then you know it’s ok to eat, regardless of the calories. If you eat sandwiches for lunch, get used to knowing the calorie count of what’s inside – including things like mustard and mayo. You may choose to add more veggies and cut back on cheese to keep it low-calorie – later, understanding how to swap meats or veggies or things like mustard will become second nature.