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Does calorie counting work?

By H.K. Jones

To count or not to count, that is the question. If you're looking to shed some extra pounds in order to reveal the He-Man hiding underneath all that unwanted flab, calorie counting can help, but it's certainly not foolproof.

Why Should You Count?
It's a simple fact of life that your body needs a certain amount of calories to keep itself going. If you consume more calories than your body needs, you will gain weight, and if you take in fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight—that's a scientific fact. While many diets are based on some magic formula of balancing fat, protein, and carbohydrates, you need to understand that anything you eat—from steak, to potatoes, to broccoli, to tuna fish—can be turned into body fat if it is not used by the body as fuel.

Determining your body's needs, and balancing your dietary budget as you would your checkbook, can not only assist you in your quest to melt away those surplus pounds, but can also help you build some healthy habits along the way. Dietitians, nutritionists, and health professionals agree that calorie counting helps to increase your knowledge and awareness of what's in the foods you eat, and makes you conscious of what your body really needs. It also helps you focus on the amount of food you eat which in turn improves your understanding of portion control. But the calorie "count down" is not as simple as it sounds.

What Should You Count?
The longer you count your calories, the more tedious the task can become. Constantly having to calculate and consider every last calorie in each snack, meal, and beverage you put to your lips is a lot of work. As time goes on, the counting grind may eventually lead to burn out, causing you to throw in the calorie-counting towel long before you reach your goals. Also keep in mind that what you count is just as important as if you count. For example, if you are regularly counting say, 560 calories from a Big Mac, and 520 calories from a large fries, as a part of your daily calorie allowance, you're not doing yourself any favors.

For permanent weight loss, it's crucial you learn not just calorie control, but also sound and balanced eating habits. By adopting a healthy lifestyle, while considering (instead of exactly counting) your calorie intake, you set yourself up for long-term weight loss by training yourself to eat not only the right amounts of foods, but also the right types. If you rely on calories alone, you will quickly revert back to your old high-calorie, weight-gaining habits as soon as the counting stops.

Your lifestyle is made up of the habits and routines that you make a part of your life, and you can achieve, and maintain, your ideal weight by gaining positive, healthy habits. As an added bonus, you also reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, and other health problems, by consuming a diet loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals that researchers believe may impart multiple health benefits including protection from cancer).

Getting Started on Losing Weight
The average healthy, active male needs around 3,000 calories a day. You should aim for about 45 percent to 65 percent of your calories from carbohydrates, 20 percent to 35 percent from fat, and 10 to 35 percent from protein.
If you are overweight and want to drop some unwanted pounds to reveal those stealth muscles beneath, you should reduce your calorie needs by about 20 percent per day, and remember to pack you diet full of the good stuff:

  • Eat more whole wheat bread, oatmeal, and other whole-grain cereals and foods
  • Fill up on lots of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Choose lean protein sources including chicken, beans, fish, and low-fat dairy
  • Eat less processed foods, refined grains, fatty meats, and full-fat dairy
  • Consume only a small amount of fats, oils, and sweets
H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.