How To Make Calorie Counting Easy
Energy balance – defined as the relationship between the number of calories you consume and the number you burn – is what determines body weight. If you burn fewer calories than you consume you will gain weight. If you burn the same amount as you consume you will maintain your current weight. And if you burn more than you consume you will lose weight. It’s as simple as that.
Our Bodies Change but Our Eating Habits Often Don’t
Most people don’t give much thought to the notion of energy balance. As such, they continue to eat what they want when they want thinking that their body will just naturally burn it off. But once you pass from the hyperactive days of childhood into adulthood the burning of calories slows down considerably and all the unneeded calories you consume are stored by the body as fat for potential future use. The problem is, that future use almost never happens and the fat stores just keep expanding. The only realistic way to get control of the situation is to restore the proper energy balance by exercising and monitoring the number of calories you consume. That is, calorie counting.
The Nature of Calories
Calories are a way of measuring the potential energy value of a food item. The energy that is used for maintaining essential organ function and performing all physical tasks from getting out of bed to exercising and everything in between. There are three sources of calories that dieticians refer to as “macronutrients”. They are:
On average fat contains about 9 calories per gram while carbs and protein each contain about 4 calories per gram. For the most part focusing on restricting calories from one macronutrient isn’t going to accomplish much by way of weight loss. It’s more important to focus on and restrict the total number of calories you consume from all sources.
9 Hacks That Will Make Calorie Counting Easier
Counting calories is about as much fun as watching paint dry but if you are serious about weight loss and getting into shape it’s essential. The process can be such a drag that many dieters simply give it a pass and instead try and guesstimate how many calories they’re taking in. This method almost never yields worthwhile results since virtually everyone underestimates the number of calories in various foods as well as how much they’re actually eating.
The good news, however, is that counting calories doesn’t have to be the equivalent of non-stop bookkeeping. There are actually a number of hacks you can use to get a fast, accurate grip on your calorie intake. Below are 9 hacks you can use to streamline the calorie counting process.
1. Establish an Ideal Menu
The first step is to draw up what you consider to be an ideal diet based on the way you actually eat. Your ideal diet should include what you think is the minimum you need to get you through a typical day. Don’t fill it full of tofu and sprouts if you’ve never touched those things in your life. The best way to create a diet plan you can actually stick to is to populate it with foods you actually eat and then work backward, carving away items and trimming portions until you have a workable menu.
If you’re going to eliminate anything at this preliminary stage eliminate obvious problems like the potato chips you have with every meal and your twice-weekly trips to the fried chicken palace. Also, cut back on or eliminate sugary drinks entirely. Once you have your preliminary, real-world meal plan in place it’s time to move to the next step.
2. Employ an App
Once you’ve put together your ideal diet you’re going to need an easy way to keep track of your calorie intake. Thankfully, the days of printouts and calculators are over, replaced by that most ubiquitous of contemporary cultural signifiers, the app. Fitness apps such as MyFitnessPal or Fooducate or Lose It! make determining your calorie intake a breeze. MyFitnessPal even allows you to combine foods into a meal and get a total calorie count, which can be a real time saver.
The second half of the equation is to count calories burned and once again MFP can help you here. While you’re not going to get a precise count this and similar apps can provide you with a ballpark figure of calories burned based on the activity, your weight, how many reps you do or how long you perform the activity. If you’re going to get the most from your apps you’ll need to be straightforward regarding what you’re eating and what you’re doing. Make sure you account for everything on both sides of the ledger.
3. Beware the Cheats
Most people are willing to stick to something difficult if they know there is an occasional payoff waiting for them. These “cheats” are all the rage when it comes to contemporary diet theory. But beware. Too many cheats will definitely spoil the diet. Once you start cheating out of turn and failing to record it out of a sense of guilt or whatever you’re on a slippery slope back to from where you came. Even if you are not slipping in extra cheats the ones you do allow yourself could be shooting you in the foot.
How? Because there’s a decent chance you’re underestimating just how many calories are in that cheat. And even many of those sold on calorie counting apps don’t use them on cheat day. They figure that’s why they call it a cheat, right? Because you get to eat whatever you want and calories be damned. While that attitude is certainly understandable the fact is you need to have some idea how many calories you’re pounding down on a cheat day or you’re likely to lose control of the diet. So keep the calorie counting app handy even when you belly up to that deep dish pizza. Oh yeah. And don’t be one of those folks who doesn’t count beers or cocktails.
4. Assess and Adjust
After you’ve been on your ideal diet for a few days and have been tracking both caloric input and output it’s time to sit down and assess things. Chances are when you go over the numbers you’ll notice that, as long as you’re consistent with what you eat, your calorie intake falls into a predictable range. That predictable range is now your baseline. The most important thing to figure out at this point then is the energy balance. Are you burning more calories than you’re consuming?
If the difference between burning and consuming is significant you can proceed with this plan for the foreseeable future and see whether you’re able to adhere to the diet and what kind of results it yields. If the energy balance shows you’re consuming more than you burn or roughly the same as you burn then you’ll need to make adjustments. Start by reducing portion sizes or eliminating more peripherals like peanuts. Or switch from one “cheat day” per week to one “cheat meal” per week. On the other end of the spectrum ramp up some of your physical activity. Continue this process, verifying every few days, until you arrive at an energy balance that enables your weight loss goals.
5. Streamline the Process
Now that you have a diet plan that’s working the next step is to try and make the whole process more efficient. The easiest way to do that is to stick to a few of the same meals using the same proportions every time. This doesn’t mean that you have to eat the same meal 2 or 3 times a day. It just means that now that you have established a workable baseline with a half dozen or so key dishes stick to those dishes until preparing them and logging the associated calories becomes second nature.
By sticking to your established meal plan you can stop counting calories sooner if you like and also reduce the time you need to dedicate to meal prep and cooking. If you feel that centering your diet on just a handful of core dishes might be too constricting then plan to switch up those core meals every couple of months. Use your app to help plan out those new meals ahead of time and make sure they fit nicely into your established energy balance formula. This way when the time comes to make the switch to the new menu it should be a fast and relatively effortless process.
6. Introduce Pre-Portioned Foods
If you don’t want to wait to switch things up every couple of months you can introduce pre-portioned foods to your diet that have all the nutritional information, including calories, right on the label. This saves you a lot of time and trouble. Because you have an established total calorie intake all you have to do is make sure that no matter what you’re eating that it doesn’t exceed that total. So go ahead and pick up some pre-portioned chicken loaf or tuna. Add it to your diet plan in your app and remove something of equal value to compensate.
There’s a downside to everything, however, including this approach. In this case, the potential downside is that you’ll wind up swapping so many things in and out of your app that you’ll lose touch with what you’re actually consuming and before you know it that spare tire will start inflating again instead of deflating. We think it’s easier to just stick to your core meals with a single weekly cheat and swap things out every couple of months, but it’s up to you. Pre-portioned foods can certainly work. You’ll just need to be mindful of what you’re adding and what you’re subtracting to maintain your energy balance.
7. Have Your Core Recipes Loaded in the App
Some folks like to keep track of exactly what’s going in even after they’ve established an effective energy balance and become adept at staying within it. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with being in the habit of keeping an eye on things. One of the best ways to streamline your continued calorie logging is to pre-load your core meals into the app which we mentioned in hack #2. Then, when it’s time for dinner simply hit “dinner 1” (or whatever title you’ve chosen) and the app will autofill all the calorie data related to that meal.
8. Get the Most from Your App
Your calorie tracking app can be an invaluable tool in helping you streamline the process of calorie counting when you’re trying to establish an energy balance that works for you. But most will also allow you to track things other than just calories and you should take advantage of this fact. If you want to dig down deeper into your diet use your app to track things like fiber and even how much water you’re drinking.
As your diet begins to pay off you can also use the app to tweak things either to get more from your workouts or to speed up weight loss a bit. If you’re into a slow, incremental change as a way of keeping things fresh swap out one variable per week. After a couple of months, you’ll have a core diet that still adheres to your energy balance goals but is decidedly different than what you were eating two months earlier.
9. Thank Your App for all its Help and Move On
At some point, all this stuff will become second nature to you and you’ll find that you don’t really need the app anymore. You’ll know that X amount of broccoli is X number of calories and doing Y number of preacher curls will burn Y number of calories. At that point, you will be free of the need to count calories. You’ll know exactly what you need to eat to stay compliant with your dietary goals. And if you ever want to tweak things the app will always be there to help.