Weight management is a game of calories in vs. calories out. But how would you know – like, for sure – if you’re indeed in a deficit?
Sure, you could get a rough estimate of your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) from your fitness tracker. But what about the number of calories you’re eating? Well, that’s where calorie counting comes in.
Before we begin: I recognize that the whole idea of counting calories to lose weight (or, counting calories, in general) is steeped in controversy.
Some people will find success with it, while others will not.
That’s why, while this guide is focused on how to count calories for weight loss, it’s also peppered with tips on how to determine if calorie counting is a suitable approach for you – or not.
What is calorie counting?
The concept of calorie counting is pretty self-explanatory.
It’s the act of adding up the number of calories of everything you consume in a day.
Which then gives you the answer to the ‘calories in’ part of the energy balance equation. Comparing your ‘calories in’ against your estimated TDEE tells you whether or not you’re really in a calorie deficit – and whether the amount is ideal for weight loss.
By the way: when it comes to weight loss, it’s not the larger the deficit, the better. Here’s a guide that explores how many calories you need for weight loss.
Oh, and here’s a quick refresher on calories for those who need it.
A calorie is simply a unit of measurement that describes how much energy a given food or drink has (1, 2, 3).
Calorie counting is the act of adding up the number of calories of everything you eat and drink in a day. A calorie is simply a unit that measures the energy content of foods and beverages.
How to count calories for weight loss in 3 steps
Alright. At this point, you should be familiar with your target calorie intake.
Now, time for the most exciting part. Here’s how – exactly – you can count the number of calories you’re eating daily to achieve weight loss.
Step 1: Measure how much food you’re eating
The first thing you need to do is to measure your food.
To make things a little easier to read, from here on forth, you can just assume that the term ‘food’ also includes beverages that you drink over a day.
There are different ways of measuring your food – with varying accuracy; which method you ultimately choose depends on your preference and/or the type of food you have on hand:
The most accurate measurement method.
All food labels have their serving sizes listed in grams, so make sure you set your scale to grams beforehand.
If you’re using a plate/bowl to hold your food, you should also tare your scale to ‘0 grams’ – so you measure only the weight of your food.
Less accurate than using the kitchen scale.
Certain foods don’t fit well into the measuring cups (e.g. pasta). Worse still, it’s well-known that their accuracies are shockingly low; there are huge discrepancies both between and within brands (4, 5).
That said, there’s no discounting the convenience of using measuring cups.
Especially when you’re trying to get that morning scoop of protein powder in!
Also known as ‘eyeballing’ the portion.
Obviously, this is the least accurate method of measuring your food. Research has consistently shown that we’re appallingly bad at estimating portion sizes (6, 7).
Worse, we seem to frequently underestimate our portions. This inevitably leads to us eating more than what we aim to.
Regardless. Using this method to count calories in your food can be suitable if you can’t imagine measuring every gram of food you eat.
Also, you can improve on the accuracy by:
- Using the weighing scale to learn portion size: Quick question. Do you have any idea what 100 grams of pasta looks like – right this instance? Probably not. Using the weighing scale for some time can help familiarize you with what different portion sizes look like. That can (to some degree) improve the accuracy of your estimations.
- Referencing the size of your hand: Your hand can be a pretty good tool to estimate portion sizes – especially when you don’t have easy access to weighing scales (e.g. dining out, having dinner at a friend’s place, or parties). Its accuracy will undoubtedly vary based on your hand’s size, but the following is – nevertheless – better than just ‘eyeballing’ (8, 9, 10):
- Fist = 1 cup
- Palm = 85 grams (3 ounces)
- Thumb = 28 grams (1 ounce)
- Thumb tip = 1 teaspoon
- Cupped hand = 28 to 56 grams (1 to 2 ounces)
Here’s a chart to help you estimate portion sizes using your hands!
Ultimately, using estimations to count calories in your food might mean taking a longer time (than the kitchen scale method). But it’s often a more sustainable measurement method for the long-term.
Depending on your preference and type of food on hand, you could measure your foods with the following 3 methods:
- Weighing scale: Most accurate. But also the most troublesome.
- Measuring cup: More convenient compared to using a weighing scale. Although, it might not be suitable for certain foods (e.g. those that are irregularly shaped).
- Estimation: Most convenient. But is, unfortunately, the most inaccurate method to count calories in food. To improve accuracy, you can choose to 1) use the weighing scale for a period and/or 2) use your hand to estimate portion sizes.
Step 2: Calculate the number of calories in your food
Done all the necessary measurements for your foods? Here’s how you can use those specific numbers to count calories in your foods for weight loss purposes. First, you’ll have to find an online calorie database for the calorie count of different types of food.
Here are a few calorie databases you can check out:
A note about calorie databases
You must pay attention to details here.
That’s because calories for a particular type of food can differ quite a bit between brands. So, for instance, 100 grams of cooked spaghetti from brand A might contain 150 calories – but the same amount from brand B might provide 200 calories instead.
That’s why you’ll have to make sure the ‘food entry’ you find on the online calorie database matches the actual food you’re eating as closely as possible.
Specific points to look out for include additives, cooking method, and whether it’s skin-on or skin-off (e.g. on your chicken).
Now that you’re familiar with all the things to keep an eye out for when referencing the online food databases …
How to count calories in food based on its category
It’s time to learn how to count calories, depending on the specific category of food you have, with the aim of weight loss:
- Fresh foods: Tucking into a bowl of delicious strawberries? Let’s say you measured them – and they come in at 100 grams. That comes up to 32 calories (11). And that’s all there is. As you can tell, calorie counting is pretty straightforward when it comes to fresh foods.
- Foods with nutrition facts labels: This applies to foods like snacks, frozen foods, and even pre-packaged foods. Counting calories for these is also straightforward once you’ve measured out what you’re eating. So, let’s say the nutrition facts label tells you that the serving size of your mac and cheese is 55 grams – and that each serving contains 230 calories. If you’re eating 110 grams, do the math, and you’d know that the total calorie count of your meal comes to 460 calories.
- Home-cooked meals: Things get a little more complicated with home-cooked meals. For these, you’re going to have to count the calories for each ingredient – then add them all together to get the total number of calories within a dish. A simple example would be if I pan-fried asparagus with chicken breast and butter:
- 200 grams of asparagus: 40 calories (12)
- 14 grams of butter: 100 calories (13)
- 200 grams of skinless chicken breast: 220 calories (14)
- Total: 360 calories
- Takeout meals: Here’s the thing. You can typically find nutritional information of meals from popular, large-chain restaurants and fast food joints. But even then, sometimes, the calorie counts could be way off (15). Still, an estimate is better than simply not counting the calories at all, especially if you’re looking to lose weight.
Use online food databases to calculate the number of calories in any particular food (or meal). Ensure the entry you reference matches the food you’re eating as closely as possible; this ensures accuracy.
Step 3: Record and track your total calories
Congrats! This is the final step of learning how to count calories for weight loss. At this point, you should be an expert at getting the calorie count of any food you put inside your mouth.
Now … all you need to do is record the calorie counts of all your meals throughout the day so that you can tally it up.
Keeping a running record of your total calorie count – on a day-to-day basis – also allows you to gain valuable insights on how your nutrition affects other aspects of your fitness journey, including:
- Mood and motivation levels
- How hard you can push yourself during workouts
- Ability to recover from workouts
- Body composition changes
If possible, you should also track your macronutrients – just to make sure you’re hitting your daily nutritional requirements.
Eating enough protein is especially important since it helps prevent muscle mass loss in a calorie deficit).
Finally, the last step of counting calories to lose weight: simply tally up the calorie counts of everything you’ve eaten over the day. You might also want to track your macronutrients.
Can I use an app for counting calories?
Of course, you can! When it comes to how to count calories for weight loss, there is no single ‘best way’ to calorie counting and calorie tracking.
You could rely on good old paper journals, Google Sheets, or even simply logging calorie count on your phone’s ‘Notes’ app.
But I digress. Back to the original point: yes, you can definitely use an app for counting calories. Here’s a list of the most popular calorie counters on the market right now:
Thinking of going for an obscure app for counting calories? Well, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Many of these apps are popular for a reason. First, they have an extensive database of food, which means you’d more likely find the specific type of food you’re looking for.
Plus, they’re usually more accurate.
And accuracy is super important when counting calories to lose weight. It can decide if you’re in a calorie deficit – or not. To illustrate: a discrepancy of just 200 calories a day adds up to 1,400 calories over 7 days; and 5,600 calories over a month!
Note: using an app for counting calories to lose weight might not be suitable for everyone.
You’ll have to weigh the following benefits and disadvantages (carefully) to decide if it makes sense for you.
Benefits of using an app for counting calories
- Can be accessed anytime, anywhere (i.e. convenient)
- An extensive database at your fingertips
- Allows you to scan the barcodes on foods with nutrition facts labels
- Typically present nutritional information in easy-to-understand charts
- Can send push notifications to remind you if you’re meeting daily requirements
Drawbacks of using an app for counting calories
- Could lead to obsessive checking of calories
- You’re usually limited to just one app (difficult to sync information across apps)
- Smaller apps often have a smaller food database and contain misreported nutritional facts
- Reminders, while helpful, could stress you out too
You can definitely use an app for counting calories. However, be sure to go for popular apps; they tend to have more extensive databases and provide more accurate nutritional information. Also, carefully weigh the pros and cons of using an app to count calories in your food to decide if it’s a suitable strategy for you.
Tips for counting calories
One thing’s clear: there are many ‘moving parts’ when it comes to how to count calories for weight loss. And, unfortunately, some of these moving parts are out of your control (e.g. when eating out).
Here are a few tips that can make a process a more stress-free experience for you:
- Meal prep whenever possible: Cooking your meals is the only way you can be 100% sure of what – exactly – you’re eating (right down to the amount of oil used!) As mentioned, when it comes to counting calories to lose weight, accuracy is key. So, if you’re looking for the quickest results, meal prepping is the way forward. Just make sure that you measure the weight of every ingredient you use. Here’s a guide that will walk you through what you need for a successful meal prep.
- Keep your recipes simple: Counting the calories of every single ingredient in a 30-ingredient recipe is frustrating. This means that you’re unlikely to count the calories in your food for the long term. So for sustainability’s sake, keep your meals simple. Here’s a disclaimer: this doesn’t mean that you should sacrifice on food variety – as that is often an excellent way to gauge if you’re getting in enough micronutrients. It just means that you should use fewer ingredients whenever possible.
- Get friends and family on board: This is especially so if you eat many of your meals in the presence of friends and family. Let them know why you need to count the calories in your food (i.e. you want to lose weight). Chances are, they’ll be wondering how they can best support you in your efforts – instead of putting you down, so don’t worry. Their support can go a long way toward helping you stick to a calorie deficit, too (16).
A few tips to make calorie counting a less stressful process:
- Meal prep whenever possible
- Keep your recipes simple
- Get friends and family on board
What to know about counting calories to lose weight
Now that you’ve made it so far in learning how to count calories for weight loss … I thought it important to mention all the finer details relating to calorie counting.
You don’t need to count calories
I’m going to be honest with you.
You don’t need to count calories in your food to lose weight.
Yes – calorie counting is associated with higher chances of succeeding at weight loss. But that doesn’t mean you can’t lose weight if you’re not keeping a running record of everything you put in your mouth daily.
The truth is: calorie counting isn’t for everyone.
For some, it could feel restrictive, time-consuming, and take away the enjoyment factor of eating.
What’s more, it could also pave the way toward an unhealthy relationship with food – and encourage disordered eating for some people (17, 18).
Building a healthy relationship with food is key if you want your results to be sustainable.
So … yes, you will see quicker progress on the weight loss front, but if that comes at the expense of your mental well-being?
Then it’s not worth it. Especially if you aren’t competing in sports like bodybuilding.
Is it possible to lose weight without counting calories?
Of course. You could use several other tactics to achieve a calorie deficit – without actually counting calories. Examples include:
- Center your diet around minimally processed foods: In addition to being less calorie-dense, minimally processed foods (e.g. whole grains) are also typically more satiating than their highly-processed counterparts (e.g. instant noodles) (19). And that can help bring down your daily calorie intake.
- Cut down on the alcohol intake: I know, I know. But every gram of alcohol contains 7 calories. That means it ranks second only to fat when it comes to calorie density (1 gram of fat contains 9 calories). So, cutting down on your alcohol intake – like indulging only on special night outs – can help you achieve a calorie deficit (20).
- Use smaller plates: Instead of counting calories in your food to lose weight, just use smaller plates. Research shows that we tend to eat nearly everything (more specifically, 92%) that’s on our plate (21). As such, using a smaller plate means you’d likely end up eating less. Meaning? A reduced calorie intake – which could potentially put you in a calorie deficit.
Here are more practical and helpful weight loss tips you should check out.
Once again, you wouldn’t know – for sure – if you’re indeed in a calorie deficit. At least in the beginning stages (because weight loss takes time).
That’s why you need to be consistent with any changes you make to your dietary choices. Stick to them for at least 1 to 2 months.
And if the number on the scale starts dropping, great! You’ve successfully managed to achieve a calorie deficit without counting calories. But if you don’t see any progress? Then you might want to look into other measures that could help bring you into a deficit.
A popular step taken is to increase the amount of cardio you’re doing. Of course, you need to figure out how much cardio you need to create the deficit.
Avoid the ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset
To be clear, though, when it comes to the entire concept of counting calories to lose weight … I’m not advocating for an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach (i.e. you either do it – or you don’t).
Remember that you can see counting calories as being on a spectrum.
Tracking all your meals, every single day of the week, is the end of the spectrum. It’s the most rigid. But if you find that unenjoyable and/or unsustainable? There are plenty of less restrictive ways of counting calories in your food that’ll still help cut down on your intake:
- Only counting calories for select meals (e.g. breakfast and lunch)
- Choosing to track intake on select days (e.g. weekdays)
- Counting calories for a week, then taking a break for the next
There are endless permutations. Find one that works for you based on your goals, lifestyle, and preferences.
The quality of your diet still matters
Knowing how to count calories for weight loss is great. Just keep this in mind: the calorie count in any particular food is just that; it tells you how much energy it contains.
It doesn’t tell you anything about the nutritional profile of the food. Nor how it’s going to influence your overall health.
100 calories of kiwis has much more to offer your body than 100 calories worth of potato chips, for instance. This is because kiwis provide you with fiber, vitamins, and minerals – whereas potato chips primarily contain fat, sodium, and carbohydrates.
Long-term, the regular consumption of fruits such as kiwi can help support heart and digestive health (22, 23, 24).
On the other hand, the regular consumption of calorie-dense snacks can lead to a slew of chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and hypertension (25, 26).
What does that all mean for you?
It just means that if you’re looking to lose weight, your best bet is to pay attention to both your calorie intake – and the quality of your diet. Need a nutrition ‘cheat sheet’ to improve your diet’s quality?
You can start by prioritizing:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Lean protein
- Healthy fats
Counting calories isn’t strictly necessary if you want to lose weight. It’s just one of many tools that can help you stick to a calorie deficit. Don’t approach calorie counting with an all-or-nothing mindset. Instead, it exists on a spectrum, in degrees of increasing structure and rigidity. Also, while a calorie is a calorie when it comes to weight loss, the same doesn’t apply to your overall health. Base your diet on nutritionally dense foods for optimal health.
Pay attention to how you feel about counting calories
Counting calories can be a very effective tool for your fitness goals. But if you’re giving it a shot, remember to pay close attention to how this approach affects you.
With any new approach, always take the time and effort to monitor how it changes your training, nutrition, and emotional health. If it’s not doing you any good, consider scaling it back or cutting it out completely.
Your well-being should always be the top priority.