How Does Calorie Counting Work? A Full Breakdown.

There are a lot of misconceptions about calorie counting.  Far too many people are touting calorie watching diets as unstable, unreliable, and sometimes even unhealthy.  I want to set the record straight on exactly how does calorie counting work, not just to explain how they function and lead to actual weight loss, but also why they are probably the most sustainable and easiest to implement diets going in. 

Understand WHAT a Calorie Is.

I guess before we understand how the calorie formula works in terms of weight loss, we should first spend some time understanding exactly what a calorie is and why it is used as a measurement for weight loss. 

As strange as it sounds, a calorie is defined as the amount of heat it takes to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water from 0 degrees Celsuis, to 1 degree Celsius.  Without getting into too much detail, over the years this has become a measure of energy that we get from our food. 

All the cells in your body, whether these are cells in your muscles, brain, or blood require energy to function and QUALITY forms of energy lead to better cell function (ie, eating a nutritious diet). 

Different types of macronutrients that we consume have different amounts of calories.  For example, one gram of fat has 9 calories and  one gram of protein OR carbohydrates has 4 calories.  

Calories are also a measurement unit applied to “burned” energy as well, so whether you are resting or you are performing a high-intensity workout, you are burning calories.  

So you can think of calories as a measurement unit.   Both on the consumption side, being food and drink and on the expenditure side, exercise and your normal daily caloric burn. 

The Formula: Calories in, Calories Out. 

There is a simple formula that leads to weight loss: calories that you consume through food and drink must be less than the calories that you burn naturally and through exercise throughout the day. 

Calories Consumed – Calories Burned = Net Calories

So if you consume 3,000 calories in a day, and burn 3,500 total, you are burning an excess of 500 calories and you will lose weight. 

First, how many calories do you burn on a daily basis?  That is referred to as your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), and that will vary depending on your height, your weight, and your age.   You can leverage one of many BMR tools to get your actual metabolic rate.

So for someone like myself, who is currently 215lbs, 6ft, and 40 years old, it is 2,048.  Those are the calories I burn, doing nothing at all.  That is the basis for your initial diet calculation, and then all of the expenditure calories on top of that are the total calories burned through the day.

It’s About Making Smarter Choices

Prior to the calorie approach to dieting, I tried many things.  I tried low carb diets, stepped my foot into Keto, tried going mostly VegaN (which I still actually do to this day), tried low fat diets, and also spent a lot of time “over exercising” to compensate for my bad eating habits. 

When I started investing time into understanding the calorie approach to dieting it is as much about making smart choices as anything.  These are “split second” decisions we all make when we are choosing what to snack on, or what to order at our favourite local restaurant. 

But without KNOWING what the caloric value of a particular food is and without considering it, we will typically let our brains choose what we want…which is usually the poutine, the burger, or the pasta with cream sauce.  Unfortunately, those are going to set us in a constant spin cycle of dieting and exercising just to maintain our existing weight.

So it comes down to making smarter choices throughout the day, and that DOES NOT mean that you can’t eat food you like.  It just means you need to be aware of what you are eating. 

The Realization That You Cannot Exercise Your Way to Success

One of the thought processes is that you can exercise your way to dieting success.  While that is partly true, it is much more difficult to exercise to burn 100 calories than it is to not eat 100 calories. 

Many people “cheat” on their diet thinking that it is insignificant to grab the cupcake or the extra piece of pizza at the time, and then try to compensate for those extra calories by going for a longer than usual walk or doing an extra set at the gym. 

But the reality is, one cupcake with buttercream icing is 430 calories.  To burn off those calories at the gym, you would have to circuit train for an hour or go on a 5 mile walk. 

So while it is ambitious to think that you can work your tail off at the gym and lose weight (which you can), it is not a rational way of thinking about losing weight if you are not investing enough time into the diet side of your weight loss regime. 

A healthy mix of good diet and exercise is ideal.

Building a Calorie Gameplan

To be successful with calorie counting, you have to have a game plan. There is nothing worse than prepping for dinner without an idea of what you are going to make, or without having consistency from your weekday diets.  I have a few tips that I have learned along my journey in the “calorie counting” space that I think will truly help you out. 

  1. Track Your Calories.  There are excellent apps that you can download on your phone, one of my favourite is MyFitnessPal app. There is a completely free version, and a paid version of this app.  You can track any food, and any exercise and have full control of your daily calories.
  2. Meal Plan.  If you don’t plan healthy meals, you are going to eat what is available to you and oftentimes that will be high calorie cravings.  You can eat hearty meals that are relatively low calorie, but you want to plan your weekly meals and grocery shopping ahead of time.
  3. Avoid High Calorie Snacks.  You walk into the kitchen, sometimes out of pure boredom/habit and you grab some crackers and cheese, or a higher calorie snack (often out of a bag or box).  These add up fast, REAL fast. 
  4. Don’t Over-exercise. Don’t eat crappy food that is high in calories, just because you know you can try to burn more calories through more exercise.  You are going to run out of steam and this is a cat and mouse game that will never lead to sustainable weight loss.  You can not exercise your way out of weight, it has to involve your diet as well.
  5. Have Cheat Meals.  It is OK to break your diet and eat something that you crave. These are called cheat meals and I highly recommend that you have one of these per week, just don’t overdo it.  Set aside a meal of the week where you eat something that you love, I find that doing this gets the cravings out of the way.  I do this every Friday night and whether I indulge in pizza or a nice burger and poutine, I afford myself the opportunity to cheat every Friday!

Now it’s your turn.  Take a simple math equation and apply it to your own day to day activities and you are going to start to see results. 

If you have any questions about calorie counting or the best way to implement a schedule, let me know in the comments below.  I have lots of experience with this and I will be more than happy to help you out. 


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