A Guide To Calorie Counting

Calories are a measure of the amount of energy in food. Knowing how many calories are in our food can help us balance the energy intake with the energy output. Calorie counting is a complicated business. Fat, carbohydrates, protein, sugar — are all calories created equal, or are some better than others? Here’s what the experts have to say.

We live in an era where an obsession to stay fit is becoming increasingly common and an overpowering need to look good and stay healthy can be seen everywhere. Since health is measured by our general outward appearance, many people are opting to shed extra pounds. Are you also one of those looking to lose extra weight?

If so, then the first thing you need to take into account is the number of calories you are consuming. Weight loss is not an easy feat — different people employ different methods to get the perfect body. While some people blindly follow fashionable diets, most people are methodical about their fitness regimes.

The most commonly-used technique used by individuals aspiring towards healthy diet plans and lifestyles is called calorie counting, The two main aims of calorie counting are to maintain or lose body weight. However, the key focus of calorie counting is usually on how to lose weight.

Calculating calories is relatively easy nowadays. The purpose of calorie counting is to stay healthy while losing or maintaining weight without starving oneself. Moreover, calorie counting is not simply about keeping up appearances — some actually consider it to be a solution to the US obesity epidemic.

An estimated 30 million Americans suffer from obesity, which leads to other chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis and hormonal imbalance. Calorie counting has been found to be an effective method in this regard as 30% of Americans embark on calorie control each year.

The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has been working towards providing accurate methods for calorie counting for years. The total caloric content of all things present on a person’s plate can be calculated using innovative tools. Several apps are also available online to check the calorie content of any food. However, these methods have limitations in different health conditions. Since 50%of Americans do not eat at home, proper calorie counting and dieting can be quite a challenge. Despite its limitations, determining an accurate calorie count has its advantages.

Ever since the USDA sanctioned the Nutrition Facts panel on commercially available processed foods, people can read the amount of calories present in their meals. The total number of calories in one serving is listed on the panel, along with the serving size. Using the panel, people can easily calculate their breakfast, lunch or dinner calorie content using simple addition. Similarly, the USDA National Nutrition Database, a vast directory containing the calorie content of almost all food products, is also available for calorie counting. . The calorie content of foods such as fruits and vegetables, which do not have proper calorie labels, can also be calculated.

Why calorie counting is important

For example, if you consume a slice of white bread with a tablespoon of salted butter smeared on it for breakfast, you can calculate the number of calories with the help of simple math. Since one slice of bread contains 117kcal and one tablespoon contains 102kcal, you have consumed 219kcal for breakfast.

 What Are Calories?

Calorie is a term used to quantify energy, which is essential for life. Daily tasks such as moving, breathing, walking and talking, all require energy obtained from calories in different food groups. Eating these foods is the only way for humans to gain energy. The amount of energy present in food is represented by the unit ‘calorie’.

A calorie is the amount of energy in the form of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1°C. It measures the energy present in nutrients of food  which tells us how much energy that particular food can provide us with. A Calorie (with a capital C),represented by kilocalorie or kcal, represents heat produced by a nutrient which can increase the temperature of one kilogram of water by 1°C.

On the Nutrition Facts panel, the terms ‘calorie’ and ‘Calorie’ differ based on the capital ‘C’ and small ‘c’. A capital C is equal to a kilocalorie and 1,000 small ‘c’ calories. The Nutrition Facts panel is the official labeling designated by the USDA and is used to quantify the amount of energy present in packaged, processed foods.

1 kcal = 1 Calorie = 1,000 calories

Food calories can now be measured with the help of formulae, which have given birth to food calorie calculators, also known as calorie counting software. Knowing the amount of calories in food can help in balancing the energy input of the body i.e., people can realize how much energy they actually need. Extra energy can lead to weight gain therefore knowing the calorie content of foods beforehand can help you avoid such problems.

The content of food itself – energy — is present in different sorts of nutrients in the form of chemical bonds. Such nutrients have different chemical bonds within which release various amounts of energy stored in them. Furthermore, they are energy-yielding substances such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

It is believed that one gram of carbohydrates usually contains four kilocalories of energy, proteins contain 5.6 kilocalories, while one gram of lipids contains 9.4 kcal. These facts indicate lipids have a higher ratio of energy stored in them compared to both carbohydrates and proteins.

 Why Is Calorie Counting Important?

Calorie counting is of prime importance because it is the best way to keep a check on your food intake. The American population is getting obese and the current objective of national health authorities is to overcome this issue. Calorie counting, therefore, is essential for losing, maintaining and even gaining weight. It provides a scientific and calculated view on food intake which you can use to your benefit.

Before you embark on your weight loss journey, let us clarify a few concepts which are generally unknown but very crucial for your next diet plan. With these in mind, you can make wiser food choices based on the principles of energy balance.

 How Many Calories Should I Eat?

Although calorie counting is not an exact science the USDA has provided an estimated daily calorie intake based on age and gender. The USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines  consist of a table with calorie needs for different age groups of males and females with varying activity levels. The guidelines aim to raise more awareness about what and how much we should eat, rather than blindly eating everything.

calorie counting

For example, a moderately active adult man should not consume less than 2,400 and more than 2,800 cal per day. Similarly, a moderately active adult woman should not consume less than 2,000 or more than 2,200 cal per day. The guideline also mentions different foods that should only be consumed in recommended amounts. Additionally, the acceptable amounts for various macronutrients are mentioned under the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges in the guideline.

 Good Vs Bad Calories

The human body needs a variety of nutrients to survive since different nutrients have different types of calories. What you need to understand is that a low-carb diet is not the answer to losing weight. In fact, the solution is to eat the right kind of carbs. Don’t focus on restricting your calories but rather focus more on eating healthy.

A person cannot survive on a single type of calorie or by eating only one type of food all day. The general idea is that good calories curb hunger while bad calories increase hunger. Even though  the terms ‘good calories’ and ‘bad calories’ are not scientifically accepted since  they are based on scientific assumptions rather than proof, they do give a good idea of our body’s response to different foods.

For example, munching only on bread all day long would not help the body meet its nutritional requirements. In addition to calories, the body also requires vitamins and minerals to acquire energy and function properly. Nutrients, which determine how the calories are consumed, can be considered as the teachers in a classroom, while the calories are the students. If nutrients are absent then the calories are up to no good, but when they are present, the calories are obligated to do their work.

The presence of certain nutrients activates hormones in the body which in turn either store or consume calories. For example, some nutrients can activate the hormone Leptin, which controls hunger and leads to the body burning more calories. Similarly, the presence or absence of certain essential nutrients can activate the hormone insulin, which helps store energy in the form of fats. Therefore, we can consider some sources of food to have good calories or bad calories.

Foods with good calories have the requisite nutrients and fibers present to ensure the proper usage of calories in the body which is supposed to lead to an inhibition of hunger. Meanwhile, foods with bad calories do not have essential nutrients or additives which provide increased fat storage.

calorie counting

Research on food is very complicated since it is not easy to monitor the exact effects of food on the human body. Data on good calories and bad calories is constantly being updated but so far researches have shown that certain foods have a positive effect while some have a negative effect on the body. However, dietary recommendations can be based on favorable hypotheses.

The main idea is that whole, unrefined foods are friendly for our bodies while processed foods are harmful. Foods with preservatives, additives and high sugar and salt content are considered to have bad calories while natural foods with fresh and unprocessed healthy fats, lean protein and unrefined carbohydrates contain good calories.

For example, sugary drinks, desserts, fried food, processed meat etc, all contain bad calories, since they will lead to increased hunger and more fat storage. However, whole grains, vegetables, beans, and fruit contain good calories, which decrease hunger and do not store fat.

While considering good and bad calories, we do not have to worry that fats cause an increase in weight. Dietary fats are not the cause of weight gain and obesity but are the sources of fat leading to health complications. Fats are good for the body as long as they are consumed from a healthy animal or plant source. Processed fats on the other hand, are an entirely different story. Fat products with increased quantities of sugar e.g., high fructose corn syrup, are a major cause of metabolic syndromes, diseases, diabetes, obesity and cancer among others.

Another myth that should be debunked is that obesity is caused by an excess of calories. Obesity is only caused by the consumption of bad calories, because even at rest, the basal metabolic rate (BMR)  of the body is consuming calories. The truth is that obesity is caused by diets rich in processed carbohydrates i.e., sugar. The increased level of sugar in the blood affects insulin in a negative way. Hence, when the hormonal equilibrium of the body is disturbed by foods containing bad calories, it leads to various health problems.

 Calorie Effect With Metabolism

Did you know that metabolism has a direct effect on calorie burning? If a person is suffering from low metabolism, the amount of calories burned will be less. There are diseases that cause a person to have low metabolism — hypothyroidism and diabetes mellitus are among those. However, this does not mean that high metabolism is good, especially if one is suffering from a disease.

Calorie Counting

Hyperthyroidism causes high metabolism owing to endocrinal malfunctioning and has grave effects on the body. Having a high metabolism in terms of calorie burning is good but it is not advisable to stay untreated. In fact. physical activity  is supposed to increase metabolism and consequently, calorie-burning as well.

Resting metabolism is another term that is also used when a person is burning calories after a workout. This happens when a certain amount of protein mass is maintained in the body along with suitable physical training and food.

The weight or the BMI of a person is the most important factor when considering losing weight. The body weight determines the number of calories to be burned since the more a body weighs, the more the calorie burner would be required to lose weight. Therefore, planning an exercise regime around someone’s weight is an important factor.

 Calorie Counting Software And Tools

Currently calorie counting apps, tools and websites are generating a lot of excitement, but how do you figure out which one is right for you?

The USDA has provided links to several approved online directories, apps and tools on its National Agriculture Library (NAL), used for calorie counting. All of the tools provide valuable information on how to lose weight fast.


Food-A-Pedia is a quick-access online directory which provides information based on food groups and calories. The directory, maintained by the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion,  also allows for people to compare the nutrients present in two different types of food to make food selection easier.

 Interactive DRI For Healthcare Professionals

This page has been established by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and can be used to calculate daily nutrient recommendations. Dynamics such as energy (calorie), macronutrients, and micronutrients can be calculated for a developing an individual dietary plan, using the tool. All the recommendations provided by the tool are based on the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) designated by the USDA.

 Basal Energy Expenditure — Harris-Benedict Equation

This tool is based on the Harris-Benedict equation for the calculation of calories necessary for the basal body metabolism, depending on an individual. The tool, also featuring links to other medical calculators, is featured on the Cornell University website and was introduced in collaboration with the Weill Medical College.


HealthWatch360 is a free mobile app available for both Android and iOS and is based on dietary intakes recommended by the USDA. The nutrition calculator  provides the user with detailed nutritional analysis and personalized food recommendations. It has a simple configuration and generates colorful and interactive charts.

 Body Mass Index Calculator

The BMI calculator is maintained by HHS in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. The tool, also available in Spanish,  measures body fat based on the height and weight of adult men and women because determining BMI is important if an individual is looking to lose weight using calorie counting.

 Get Moving Calculator

The Get Moving Calculator  is based on USDA recommendations and was created by the Calorie Control Council. The tool calculates the number of calories used by the body during physical activity and is therefore used to calculate the number of calories burned during exercise.

 Burn Meter

The burn meter is a tool used to calculate the daily caloric requirement. It also has a variant called the Calories Needed for Weight Loss analyzer, which helps you lose weight by setting a target weight and recommendations for calorie requirements.

 Calorie Target

Calorie Target is another calorie counting tool approved by the USDA, specially designed for individuals wanting to lose weight. The tool allows for the user to select the target weight goal and then provides recommendations that should be obeyed to reach the goal.

 Calorie King

Calorie King is a tool which includes a compilation of the calorie content of all the famous fast food restaurants in the US. The tool, essentially a calorie calculator, shows the nutrient composition of major foods along with their ingredients and a nutritional fact sheet that provides nutritional information about the particular food.

For example, the Calorie King directory shows that a single Big Mac burger from McDonalds has 540cal and small french fries have 116cal. Coupled with one can of Coca Cola, which has 90 cal, the total calorie content of one small meal equals to 746 cal.

The tool also provides suggestions on how to burn calories gained by consuming specific foods. For example, to burn off the 90 cal from one can of Coca Cola, a person can walk for 23 minutes, jog for 10 minutes, swim for 7 minutes or cycle for 12 minutes.

 MIT Voice-Controlled App

Recently, MIT researchers developed a new voice-controlled app which helps people lose weight. The app is a calorie counter developed by obtaining nutritional data from a USDA-maintained online database. The app logs in calorie counts and other nutrition-related information after every single meal after which it analyses the meal data and provides information from the USDA database. Images of the data, along with corresponding foods and pull-down menus are displayed, through which users can select and refine precise quantities of food using voice commands.

What’s more users can tell the app what they ate through a voice interface. The user can say that he/she had half a banana and a glass of orange juice for breakfast following which the system will display calorie-related data on the described breakfast. According to MIT researchers, their main challenge was to make the system recognize phrases and connect them with data from the USDA database.

 Disorders Caused By Irregular Caloric Intake

Calorie counting can only be successful when carried out in the right balance. Eating calories more or even lower than your bodily needs can be harmful to your health. Consuming irregular quantities of calories is not only related to weight fluctuations but also leads to many other disorders. Some of the disorders caused by irregular caloric intake are:

  • Dietary insomnia
  • Insulin insensitivity
  • PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome)
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Diabetes Mellitus (type II)
  • Morbid obesity
  • Stress-induced eating

Dietary insomnia is a condition which arises when a person tries to lose weight and does not consume enough calories. A diet low in carbohydrates, deficient in chromium and meal consumption at wrong times can lead to difficulty in sleep in which case the body believes itself to be in a starved, hyper-stressed state, further leading to insomnia.

Insulin resistance is another condition where glucose builds up in the body due to ineffective utilization of insulin. People with insulin resistance usually develop type-II diabetes or PCOS since glucose is not being absorbed from the blood. Insulin resistance usually occurs in morbidly obese people who consume a diet high in bad calories.

It is believed that stress leads to high cortisol reactivity, which leads to overeating and causes individuals suffering from the affliction to consume more calories. Furthermore, the consumption of high-calorie food increases as stress increases over time and affects one’s health.

 Calorie Counting And Exercise

If you want to achieve notable weight loss goals, then mere calorie counting is not enough. In addition to calorie counting, regular physical activity is of the utmost importance for  shedding extra weight. Exercise, which affects the number of calories burned by the body, is also essential for your mental well-being.

The US government claims to properly lead a healthy life, good nutrition, calorie control and exercise need to go hand-in-hand and that short and long-term weight loss diets can prove to be impossible when based only on calorie counting. The USDA has even issued official guidelines on different types of exercises necessary to lose weight with calorie counting. The main purpose of exercise is to get the heart pumping and improve blood circulation so that the body can burn off all the calories.

Calorie Counting

The USDA guidelines officially recommend the amount of physical activity required for different age groups.

  • For an adult, 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise is recommended on a daily basis for a healthy lifestyle. The guidelines state increasing the duration or following a more intense exercise program results in greater benefits.
  • The guidelines also suggest at least 60 minutes of exercise on a daily basis to prevent unhealthy body-weight gain in adults with a predisposition to or a family history of obesity or weight gain. The 60 minutes should comprise of moderate to vigorously intense cardio exercises. The exercise regime would also result in gradual weight loss over a long time span.
  • Similarly, USDA suggests that more than 60 and at least 90 minutes of exercise is required every day for a person looking to lose weight. The exercise regime is to be continued for a few months to keep the weight off immediately after shedding the pounds.

The guidelines further suggest the simplest exercises are often the most effective when starting out. For example, if you want to burn off some calories after a meal, the best way to get started would be to walk around your house. Taking small steps towards maintaining a long-term healthy lifestyle helps in gradual weight loss and general fitness level.

Keep in mind the exercise duration does not have to be performed in one go. For example, if it seems impossible at the start , in a 60-minute exercise regime, a person can carry out 30 minutes of cardio in the morning and evening each.

Several devices  which track the number of calories burned during a fitness regime are also available. Wearable devices which monitor the heart rate to provide data on the number of calories burned are readily available in the market. Companies such as Garmin, Fitbit, Microsoft, and Xiaomi offer different sorts of calorie-counting gadgets and apps.

 Factors Controlling Calorie Burn

Besides wanting to lose weight with the help of exercise and calorie counting, you also need to take a look at unexpected factors which can influence the success of your fitness regime.

 How Many Calories Should I Eat

It may come as a surprise to you but even exercise can prove to be ineffective for burning calories if some factors are not considered. Effective calorie burning is only possible by keeping these points in consideration:

 Frequency Of Exercise

While trying to lose weight, the frequency of exercise needs to be consistent for effective calorie burning. The guidelines suggest the frequency of moderate activity should at least span an entire week.

 Duration of Exercise

When more time is spent on physical activity, more calories are burned. For successful weight loss, at least 30 minutes of activity on almost all days of the week is recommended. To ensure calories are consistently burned, the USDA  has deemed 90 minutes of exercise to be effective.

 Intensity of Exercise

The intensity of exercise is another important factor to consider when  burning calories. The more vigorous the exercise is, the more calories are burned. In this regard, the USDA recommends more vigorous exercise for a shorter time span, ensuring that the same number of calories are burned if an easier exercise is carried out for a long duration.

  1. Rizwan Amin says

    How Many Calories we Really Need? For a daily routine work

    1. Nofal Aizaz says

      More specifically, sedentary men ages 19 to 30 need 2,400 to 2,600 calories; 31- to 50-year-old men require 2,200 to 2,400 calories; and sedentary men over the age of 50 need 2,000 to 2,200 calories each day to maintain a healthy body weight.

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