Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Calorie Counting FAQ

If I had to guess, I would say that at least 50% of the emails/comments/questions I receive have to do with calorie counting. I always try to answer them as best I can, but since I recently started counting calories again I thought now might be a good time to do a post addressing some of the common questions that I receive.

I am not a registered dietician, personal trainer, or medical doctor. The following information is based off of my own weight-loss experience and should not take the place of professional medical advice. Be sure to check with your doctor before starting a new weight loss program.

Alright, let’s get started!

How many calories do you eat?

I’ve experimented with this number a lot over the years, eating as many as 1800 (when I was still extremely overweight) to as few as 1100 (which was a NOT enough and did not last long very long). Right now I try to stick to a budget of around 1500 calories per day. It works for me and my current activity level and in the past, I have usually been able to achieve a healthy weight loss of about 1 to 2 pounds per week when I stick to it.


Of course, I probably will not stick to this number forever, as we all know that your body gets used to routines and often reaches that dreaded plateau. If and when that happens to me, I usually adjust my calorie budget (this does not necessarily mean less calories), my macronutrient ratio, and/or my workout routine.

Can you recommend a calorie budget for me?

The number one question I receive is “how many calories should I eat??” This is a difficult question to answer because an appropriate caloric intake is completely dependent on your height, weight, age, gender, and activity level. I recently discovered this website, which will calculate a number for you called your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is how many calories you’d burn if you did nothing but lay in bed all day. Once you know your BMR, you can visit this website (there is also a link to it on the BRM calculator page) and follow the instructions on how to calculate your daily caloric needs, which are how many calories you need to consume to maintain your current weight. This number is based on your BMR and your current activity level.

After you know how many calories you need to maintain your weight, you can select a calorie budget for yourself based on your personal goals. For example, say you want to lose one pound per week. One pound of fat is equivalent to approximately 3500 calories, so you would need to cut out 3500 calories per week (either by diet or exercise) to achieve this goal. This can easily done by subtracting 500 calories from your daily caloric needs.

(Just a reminder that a healthy weight loss is about 1 to 2 pounds per week, and it’s generally not a good idea to consume fewer than 1200 calories per day.)

How do you count calories at restaurants?

I have mentioned before that I use an app on my Droid to track my calories (I currently use My Fitness Pal and you can see my food diary here). This is extremely convenient because not only can I track calories on the go, but most smartphone (or iPod Touch) calorie counting apps have hundreds of restaurants already programmed in their databases. I haven’t experimented with My Fitness Pal yet since I just started using it, but Tap & Track on my iPod had everything. I could track anything from a full course restaurant meal to the toppings I put on my Cold Stone ice cream.


However, if you don’t have a smart phone or an iPod Touch, don’t worry! There is a huge selection of online calorie counting websites that you can use that have the same type of databases that the mobile apps have. In addition to that, you can always Google the calories of just about any restaurant item these days. If the restaurant doesn’t publish their nutrition information, then I guarantee you someone else has estimated it and put it on the internet somewhere Smile.

Of course, the biggest area that you’ll run into problems when tracking calories at restaurants is when you’re eating eat at places that are not chains. This is frustrating because those are the places that usually have the best food! When I run into this problem, there are a couple of things that I do to get around it. First of all, if I know I’m going out to eat later in the day, I’ll try to budget my calories accordingly and save as many as I can for that particular meal. Also, I still do a Google search and try to at least find a meal that is somewhat similar to what I ate and then use that information to add my calories. Obviously this is not always going to give you an accurate estimate, but sometimes you have to use your best judgment.


How do I calculate the calories of homemade meals?

There are two ways to do this: the accurate way and the lazy way. The accurate way means adding up the individual calories of all of the items that went into the meal and then dividing the total by the number of servings you get out of the dish. However, this is not only time consuming but it also doesn’t work if you are eating a meal that someone else has prepared and you don’t know exactly what’s in it. That leaves the lazy way, which happens to be the way I usually roll Winking smile. I simply Google the food that I ate (or do a search on my calorie counting app) and try to find something that looks similar to it and that I think would be approximately equal in calories. For example, my mom made two meals over the weekend that I didn’t know the calorie contents for: chicken noodle casserole and spinach lasagna roll-ups. I did a search in My Fitness Pal and found calorie counts for both of these items, and they both seemed appropriate (i.e. more calories than I was hoping for).


Do you add calories when you exercise?

I always hate answering this question because I think the answer is supposed to be yes. However, I will admit that I do not adjust my calorie ratio based on my workouts. I know that technically you are supposed to add on additional calories (I believe the appropriate number is about half of whatever you burned during your workout) to ensure that you are giving your body enough fuel, but I’ve never had an issue with this. The opposite holds true for me as well, I don’t subtract calories if I skip a workout. However, I will say that I definitely don’t let myself starve; like, not even close. I am an eating machine and I can safely say I never have to worry about going hungry Winking smile. If I’m super hungry after a 40 mile bike ride, I’m going to eat more!


Once again, this is just my personal preference and is based off of what has worked for me. This is one of those questions that would probably best be answered by a registered dietitian or a certified personal trainer.  

Do you count carbohydrates and/or fat as well?

I will admit, I am the Carb Queen. I love bread, fruit, cereal, pasta, cookies and pretty much all carbs in any way, shape or form. That being said, I have never been successful in the past when I try to limit my carbohydrates (one time I tried to give up carbs completely for a whole week, and that didn't go very well). However, I am mindful of my caloric ratios and I try to keep my carb:fat:protein ratio at about 40:30:30. At my current calorie budget of 1500, this equates to a goal of about 150 grams of carbohydrates, 50 grams of fat, and 113 grams of protein per day. Unfortunately, my ratios usually look more like 50:30:20, and this is something I’m working on.

Generally, I’d like to think I eat a fairly balanced diet and I focus more on getting proper nutrients and staying in my calorie budget than I do on how many grams of carbohydrates or fat I’m eating. You won’t be counting calories (or carbs, fat, etc.) for the rest of your life but you will have to make decisions every day about what you eat, and I try to make the best ones I can for my overall health and well being.

Alright, did I leave anything out? Anyone have anything else they’d like to add or any other tips??


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