How to Count Calories

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Calorie counting can be a valuable tool for reaching healthy weight loss goals, gaining weight, or maintaining weight. While the process may seem simple, some common mistakes can derail success. Use this list of calorie counting tips to ensure you have the correct numbers for success.

Counting calories may not be appropriate for all, especially those with disordered eating. It's also not appropriate for children or teens. There are other, more intuitive and less intrusive ways to ensure you eat an appropriate amount of food. A therapist and/or nutritionist can help you learn more about nutritious eating.

Why You May Want To Count Calories

Some people prefer to count calories to help them balance their energy intake and output to support their body composition goals. While maintaining weight may be easy using intuitive eating, many people find that changing their body weight to lose fat or gain muscle mass is more challenging.

If your doctor has recommended weight loss for the sake of your health, or you are trying to build muscle mass, counting calories can help you meet your targets. Some people who've dieted in the past lose touch with their body's natural hunger and fullness cues. They may chronically under-eat and undernourish themselves. In this case, counting calories can help you eat enough.

Others may eat too many calories for weight loss or weight maintenance. Perhaps you are accustomed to calorie-dense foods or large portions, and small shifts in your eating patterns could help you learn to consume fewer calories to align with a more appropriate weight.

It's crucial not to reduce calories too much since this can be unhealthy and unsustainable long-term. Calorie counting can relieve some of the confusion and anxiety around knowing how much to eat.

Counting calories is not for everyone and if it becomes restrictive, creates negative feelings or relationships with food or your body, you should stop and consult a healthcare professional.

How to Count Calories

When counting calories, begin with your daily energy needs. That number represents the number of calories you should eat each day. There are different ways to get the number, but many people choose to use an online calculator. Below is one tool you can use for weight loss. Once you have a calorie target, use calorie counting tools and apps, measure portions, and don't forget to record other nutrients and exercise, too.

Tips for Success

There are several different ways to streamline the calorie counting process so that you get an accurate number each day.

Use Tech Tools to Your Advantage

Don't rely on memory to recall the food you consumed during the day. Even if you can recall what you ate, it is nearly impossible to accurately remember how much you ate. You're not likely to get a precise calorie number if your food journal is incomplete or if serving sizes are wrong.

Instead, consider using a calorie-tracking app on your smartphone. Record the calories in your meal before you sit down to eat. You can also use a small notebook that you throw in your purse. The point is to have a calorie tracking method that goes wherever you go.

Measure Portions Accurately

Don't use guesswork to determine portion sizes. People tend to underestimate their food portions. And there are certain foods that we tend to overeat. Cereal is a perfect example. People often pour too much cereal into their bowls, which means they inadvertently consume more than one serving.

Instead, invest in a digital kitchen scale. You don't have to use it at every meal, but each time you eat new food, weigh a portion of food so that you know exactly how much to eat. If you consume more or less than the serving size indicated on the nutrition facts label, you'll be able to get the correct calorie count if you know exactly how many grams were in your serving.

Stay on Budget

You don't have to break the bank to buy expensive tools. The best calorie tracking tool for you isn't necessarily the most expensive one. You'll find different gadgets and tools at every price point. The one that works is the one you use. You don't have to spend hundreds of dollars to get an effective tool.

You might also want to consider your lifestyle before making a purchase. Online tools might work for people in front of a computer all day. And for people who like using the traditional pen and paper method, a small notepad works well. Make sure that the notebook you choose is small enough to carry in a pocket or purse.

Record Macros and Exercise

Don't limit yourself to just tracking calories. Depending on your tool, you can track other nutrients like fiber and sodium intake. Eating adequate amounts of fiber can improve your health. You can also ensure you get the right amount of exercise for weight loss if that's the goal you've and your doctor have decided on.

In addition to recording your total calories, consider tracking macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrate, and fat grams. If you use a food app, these numbers will automatically be recorded when you input your food.

A Word From Verywell

Calorie counting is a tool you can use to help you reach body composition goals. It is a tool that should only be used short-term for most people since it can create obsessive behaviors. However, for many, calorie counting offers freedom from the anxiety of not knowing whether you've eaten enough or in some cases, too much.

Similar to creating a monetary budget, calorie counting can give you the freedom to eat foods you love without wondering if they "fit" into your energy balance targets. Maintaining weight is easier using intuitive eating, but making changes to your weight may require a strategy such as calorie counting for the best chance of sustainable success.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Erhardt GA. Intuitive eating as a counter-cultural process towards self-actualisation: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of experiences of learning to eat intuitively. Health Psychology Open. 2021;8(1):205510292110009. doi:10.1177%2F20551029211000957

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  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition.

By Malia Frey
 Malia Frey is a weight loss expert, certified health coach, weight management specialist, personal trainer​, and fitness nutrition specialist.