The most effective method to lose weight is to create a calorie deficit. This is the ultimate guide to getting started with calorie counting for weight loss.
Some people find success losing weight by a variety of diets. In each case, they’ve found the most pleasurable way for their lifestyle to eat fewer calories. For some people, creating a calorie deficit is easiest when they
- Limit or restrict carbs,
- Eat low fat,
- Practice intermittent fasting,
- Eat vegan,
- Eat gluten free,
- Follow a meal plan,
- Count macros,
- Practice portion control
- Eat three meals a day and no snacking
- Follow a specific diet program like Body for Life or Bright Line eating
- Or simply keep their favorite foods in their life and count calories!
It’s vital to find out which eating style fits best with your life. You’ll know the plan for you when it feels possible to control your appetite on fewer calories.
Some ways of eating will help satiate you better than others. For example, I get very full from bread, fruit and carbs. My husband doesn’t. He needs meat and fats to feel satisfied.
The bottom line is, you must discover for yourself what style of eating makes you happy, while limiting calories.
What the research says about “Calories in – Calories out”
When what you are eating each day (Calories in) is less than energy burned each day (Calories out), you create a calorie deficit. This caloric difference will always result in weight loss.
However, the limitations of CICO (‘calories in- calories out’) is having accurate ways to measure the ‘calories out’ side of the equation. Calories expended or burned is influenced by:
- The thermic effect of the food consumed (digesting and absorbing food is a calorie using activity)
- Your current metabolic rate.
- Your body composition (muscle burns more calories than fat)
- How much sleep you are getting.
- Your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogensis)
People like to debate that the calories you eat don’t matter. They rather believe it’s the foods you are eating that control your weight. (high fat, low carb, etc.).
But, calories still do matter. There is plenty of evidence showing that even a healthy diet can result in excess weight when you eat too many calories. A conclusion in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed, “Reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize”.(source).
If you aren’t losing weight, even though you are positive you’re in a calorie deficit, there could be many reasons. Metabolism adapts to your lower calories, you aren’t tracking everything correctly, or you’ve overestimated your calorie goal.
How to get started counting calories
Now, because the calories burned side of the equation is a moving target, we can start by estimating your calories burned, and focus on calories consumed.
Step 1: Find your daily calorie goal
Determine your current calories
First we need to know how many calories you are consuming and burning currently, assuming your weight has been steady for at least a few weeks.
Without calculating anything, our body usually has a ‘set point’. A weight it fights to stay at.
So, if your weight has been stable for a few weeks, we can assume this is where your calories burned are equal to your calories consumed.
There are a few ways to calculate your current calories:
- Use an online calculator– There is one embedded below.
- You could Get your BMR tested. There are testing places that do this. I had it done in Utah at Dexa Body. This gives you a number for your resting metabolic rate using your breath. This is the amount of calories you burn in a day, without any activity.
- Track for 2-3 weeks. Perhaps the most effective method is to actually track your calories for 2-3 weeks while you are maintaining your weight. If you track accurately, it will give you a great idea what your calorie maintenance number is.
Calories to lose weight calculator:
Calculate your Calorie Deficit
I get the question daily, how many calories should I eat to lose weight?
Once you know your current calorie level, and want to lose weight, then you need to create a calorie deficit or use the widget above to calculate the deficit.
For example, if you found in the exercise above you are currently consuming 1800 calories, then you need to reduce the calories from 1800 to lose weight.
Losing 1 lb of fat requires a deficit of 3500 calories. So, if your maintenance calories were 1800, and you choose to lose 1 lb per week, your new calorie allotment per day would be 1200 calories.
You can make adjustments and spread out the 3500 calorie deficit in different ways. I like to cut back 500 calories per day, so after 1 week, I would lose 1 lb. I successfully did this when I prepped for the recent bikini show. I steadily lost 1 lb per week for almost 20 weeks.
You can also spread out the calories to eat more on the weekends, and less on weekdays. If you look at total calories for the week, you can get a more accurate picture of your consistency.
Often I see people trying to lose weight successfully create a deficit Monday through Friday, but on the weekend, they go over by so many calories there is no longer a deficit. Looking at your calorie allotment over 7 days, rather than day by day, seems to be ideal to stay consistent.
Step 2: Plan the Foods to include in your day (Calories In)
Now that you know how many calories you want to eat per day, it’s time to plan your meals!
You may be interested in following a specific diet, or eating style. Low carb, low fat, high fat, vegan, paleo, etc.
This is what’s so exciting about calorie counting for weight loss, is it doesn’t really matter what eating style you choose. You should choose the one you enjoy and gives you a variety of healthy foods.
Step 3: Find the calories for the foods you added to your planner
If your plan is to eat 1200 calories per day, split your meals into 400 calories for each breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Or 300 calories for 4 meals. (I have a sample meal plan set up for 4 meals here and here)
A good way to do this is
- Find the calories associated with each food and adjust the measurement of food for that meal in order to stick to your calorie goal. For example, if you love oatmeal and eggs for breakfast, write that down. Then, calculate how much of each food you’ll need in order to meet, but not exceed 400 calories.
- Decide ahead of time how much you can eat to meet your calorie threshold without exceeding it for each meal and write it down.
- Decide anything above and beyond your 400 calories will be filled with free foods, or no calorie foods. (grab my list of free foods here!)
Ways to find how many calories are in a food
Some resources I use to find the calories in a food include:
- Google! The easiest way is just to do a google search. I type: How many calories are in carrots, and your result is usually correct.
- Nutrition Data site. This is very accurate, and one of my favorite resources for looking up foods.
- MyFitnessPal (or other food trackers)
- You can also use a pre-calculated meal plan from bloggers online (like my meal plans!)
Step 4: Plan your shopping list
Once you select the foods that will fit into your plan, create a shopping list so you have the food on hand that you plan to eat. You must have the food on your calorie counting planner in order to be compliant and consistent!
Step 5: Track your food after you eat. (Calories in)
It wasn’t until I was absolutely, 100% accountable for every crumb I put in my mount, and every sauce I added to meals, that I finally got to my goal weight. We are very good at eating things that we don’t think count. (like my prior addiction to gummy vitamins!).
Some basic rules to follow:
- You must weigh your food. 1 banana isn’t always 100 calories. Your banana, depending on the weight could be off by as much as 50-100 calories. This is why a food scale is essential if you decide to track calories. You can get them at any store (Walmart, Target, Amazon), and they all work basically the same.
- You must measure your food. I have liquid measuring cups , dry measuring cups and measuring spoons.
- You must keep a daily log as you eat. (don’t try to remember what you ate at the end of the day). Again, I love MyFitnessPal as most food is already in the database and it makes tracking very easy. You can also save meals that you tend to eat frequently, making tracking even easier still.
Keeping an accurate and honest record is the only way you will know if you are creating a calorie deficit.
BONUS: Putting weight loss into overdrive and start burning calories! (Calories Out)
When you are starting out with a diet, there is no need to increase your calories just because you exercised. Most exercise intensity won’t require an adjustment in calories.
Continue with your prescribed calorie intake, and let your calories expended through exercise be an added bonus, and possibly accelerate weight loss.
Some things I recommend to burn more calories include:
- Getting outside for a daily walk.
- Signing up for a group exercise class.
- Follow YouTube videos for Yoga or strength workouts.
- Start lifting weights. (my dumbbell only workout is here)
- Use a standing or walking desk for work.
- Go on a bike ride.
- Clean your house! This burns a lot more calories than we realize.
- Work in the garden.
- Walk to your destination instead of drive.
Once you’ve mastered calorie counting for weight loss, we can take it to the next level and count macros! Mastering calorie counting first, will make changing your body through adjusting your macros so much easier! Stay tuned for macro counting next!
Resource, links, printable, and worksheets for calorie counting.
- Calculating your maintenance calories
- Amazon links to weigh and measure your food.
- Printable Calorie list for vegetables
- Printable steps for calorie counting for weight loss
- Daily Calorie Planner worksheet
Let me know how you are doing in your weight loss journey! I love to hear from you! Sign up for my free ebook below and you’ll be on my list to get my Tuesday morning emails.