Does calorie counting work?

At one time or another, most people have tried calorie counting for weight loss. It’s usually an effective method to jumpstart weight loss, but does counting calories work over the long term? And is it the safest way to lose weight?

It turns out there are pros and cons to the calorie counting method. And weight loss isn’t always just about calories in and calories out.

Why Calories Matter

A calorie is a unit of energy. The number of calories in food refers to the amount of energy it provides.

Every person requires a certain number of calories each day to fuel their body. Knowing your daily calorie needs is important because:

  • If you take in more calories than you need, you’ll store the extra energy as fat.
  • You’ll lose weight if you take in fewer calories than you need.

Several factors account for your calorie needs, including:

  • Your sex.
  • Your age.
  • How tall you are.
  • Your body frame size.
  • How active you are throughout the day.

You can use an online calorie calculator to figure out how many calories to eat. Or you can use these average numbers from the USDA’s 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

Women’s average daily calorie needs:

  • Age 19-25: 2,000-2,400 calories
  • Age 26-50: 1,800-2,200 calories
  • Age 51+: 1,600-2,000 calories

Men’s average daily calorie needs:

  • Age 19-20: 2,600-3,000 calories
  • Age 21-40: 2,400-3,000 calories
  • Age 41-60: 2,200-2,600
  • Age 61+: 2,000-2,600 calories

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How to Count Calories

One easy way to count calories is by checking each food’s nutrition facts label printed on the back of the package. Keep a small notebook and write down the calories in everything you eat and drink throughout the day.

But make sure the serving size listed on the package is the same as what’s on your plate. If it’s not, you’ll have to adjust the calories accordingly. For example, if the serving size for cereal is one cup, but you eat two cups, you’ll multiply the calories by two.

Another way to count calories is by using a calorie-counting app. These are easy to use and track your calories right in the app, so you don’t have to write everything down. You just scan a food’s barcode or search the app’s database and add foods and beverages as you eat or drink.

Calorie-counting apps have some advantages. Their database includes foods that don’t carry a nutrition label, like fruits and vegetables. And most apps provide calories and other nutrition information for fast food and chain restaurant menu items.

Does Counting Calories Work?

Counting calories can help you understand what you’re eating and where to cut back to lose weight. Most people underestimate the number of calories in foods, so looking at calories and measuring your portions is often eye-opening. Still, there are some things to keep in mind when using calorie counting as a weight loss method.

  • Calorie apps aren’t always accurate. Most apps gather nutrition information from food manufacturers and USDA databases. But some also allow users to add nutrition data, which isn’t always accurate. Calories from some apps might be way off on certain specialty or restaurant foods.
  • You should weigh and measure your portions. It’s easy to underestimate your calories if you’re only eyeballing portions. To be completely accurate, it’s best to portion all food using measuring cups, spoons, and a scale. Once you get used to what these portions look like, you can resume eyeballing them, but check back in with measuring at least once per month.
  • Not all calories are equal. Meals and snacks made from whole or minimally processed ingredients are more filling and promote weight loss. Ultra-processed foods like packaged frozen meals and snack foods encourage weight gain. An important part of weight loss is changing behaviors and choosing healthy, whole foods.
  • Everyone burns calories differently. Counting calories is a good starting point. But other factors affect weight loss too. Your genetics, hormones, stress, medications, and sleep quality all play a role in how quickly you lose weight.
  • Your metabolism slows as you lose weight. Eventually, your body adapts to a lower calorie level, and it’s hard to continue cutting calories. To combat the inevitable plateau, increase your activity and add strength training exercises to build and maintain muscle mass. That will help you to burn more calories at rest and boost your metabolism.

The Dangers of Calorie Counting for Weight Loss

Sometimes, calorie counting causes anxiety or becomes an obsession. Worrying too much about how many calories are in foods can interfere with your daily life and social life. And sometimes, focusing too much on calorie counting and tracking may promote or fuel an eating disorder.

It’s nearly impossible to meet a specific calorie goal every day. So if you feel stressed when tracking daily calories, focus on the big picture instead. Work on developing healthy eating and exercise habits and monitor your calories periodically instead of daily.

Small habits, like choosing fruit instead of dessert or packing a lunch instead of ordering out, can significantly reduce calories. Put your daily effort into making these changes, and then check your calories at the end of the month. Chances are, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the downward calorie trend over time.

Alternatives to Calorie Counting for Weight Loss

There are many ways to achieve a healthy weight. It’s wise to work with a registered dietitian to find the best method for you. You might start with calorie counting to learn more about what’s in the foods you eat, but you can also try:

  • Adding more healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, instead of focusing on what to take away.
  • Behavior changes, like eating dessert only when you dine out or swapping flavored seltzer water for sugary beverages.
  • Spending some time on meal prep, so you have healthy meals ready when you’re too busy to cook.
  • Tracking macros (macronutrients) to ensure your meals provide balanced amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. A healthy macro target for weight loss is about 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrates.
  • Incorporating more activity into your day, so you burn more calories.
  • Doing yoga or meditating to reduce stress if you’re a stress-eater.

Counting calories can help you lose weight, but it has pros and cons, and it isn’t right for everyone. Long-term weight loss is about learning what’s in your food and making lasting behavior changes that promote healthy choices.

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. LINK

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Nutrition is vital for maintaining your overall health. UPMC Nutrition Services offers comprehensive diet and nutrition counseling on a variety of topics, including eating disorders, weight management, and heart disease. Our team provides medical nutrition therapy for chronic conditions such as celiac disease, cancer, and diabetes. UPMC’s network of registered dietitians is available to help guide all patients toward a healthier life.