One of the best skills you can develop when it comes to nutrition is the ability to count and measure calories in your food. I’m not just talking reading the nutritional labels on the back of food packages you seen in the store, but the ability to look at your meal and determine the rough amount of calories the meal comprises and the macro break down of carbs, fat, and protein.
Why is this a useful ability? Here are three good reasons:
1. Keeping Your Calorie Target For Weight Loss: The obvious one is to keep your meal calories in check for your weight loss goals. If you want to lose weight, it’s critical that you know how to calculate the calories you are eating. If you don’t know how to count calories, how can you possible keep your calories on track?
2. Setting Up Your Macronutrient Meal Plan: It’s also important to be able to count your meal calories so you can build your macronutrient meal plan for weight loss at your specific target calories for weight loss.
3. Keeping Calories on Track When Eating Out: This skill also comes in handy when you invariably find yourself eating out at a restaurant and you need to quickly figure out your calories. However, before you can “wing it”, you’ll have to put your time in first by directly measuring your food and calculating the precise calories making up your (home cooked) meals. Once you get familiar with this process, you’ll have a general idea about how many calories and the macronutritional makeup of your food without having to pull out the scale after a few weeks of doing this. I’ll have a future article with some simplified calorie counting process that will make figuring out calories and macros when eating out easier.
Calories and Macronutrients
Before we get into counting calories, it’s important to know a bit of background information about calories and what they are made up of.
So What’s a Calorie?
Before we talk about counting calories, we should first address exactly what a calorie is. In short, a calorie is just the name of a measurement of heat as energy that’s equal to 4.186 joules. A calorie can be made up four different macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, fats, alcohol
What are Macronutrients?
You often hear fitness guides talking about macros, macronutrients, and macro ratios. Macronutrients basically consist of four things: protein, carbs, fat, and alcohol.
The calorie breakdown for each macronutrient gram is as follows:
Protein: 4 calories
Carbohydrate: 4 calories
Fat: 9 calories
Alcohol: 7 calories
What You Need to Start Count Calories
- An Electronic Weight Scale
- A nutritional database of food items
It’s absolutely essential that you get yourself an electric weight scale so you can weigh your food. This allows you to precisely calculate how many calories you consume, and also the breakdown of protein, carbs, and fat.
Personally, it’s a hassle trying to measure calories exactly all the time, which is why there are a few rule of thumbs that you can use to “get by” without having to pull out the scale and calculate everything exactly. Keep in mind that you absolutely need to start off the first few weeks to few months measuring things exactly so you learn to “eyeball” food calories on the fly.
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
- Calorie King
Counting Calories The Exact Way
First you want to create a nutritional cheat sheet of the basic food staples that make up your diet. This cheat sheet makes it a breeze to calculate things. It’s annoying having to always look up each food group in an online nutritional database every time you make a measurement. Write the basic foods you regularly eat down and their nutritional profiles.
Keep in mind that RAW food and cooked food are not exactly the same, so you’ll have to adjust for that.
TIP: Create a “cheatsheet” of the common foods you tend to eat. Write down the macronutrient profile of carbs, protein, and fat. You can print it out, hang it up in your kitchen and refer to it when putting together your meal.
- Take your weight scale and place the RAW food on the scale. You should be able to get the weight in grams or ounces.
- Look at your cheat sheet or or package nutritional label or an online nutritional database such as myfitnesspal.com to get the exact calories, carb, protein, and fat breakdown of your food.
Extracting Calories from Nutritional Labels
Let’s break down how to read a nutritional label, which will be a key part of counting your macronutrients and calories.
In the label to the left, we can extract the following information:
13 (grams of fat) X 9 (amount of calories per gram) = 117 calories.
Both carbs and protein have the same number of calories per gram. You can just add them together to arrive at the calories for both.
31g carbs + 5g protein = 36 g x 4 (number of calories per gram of protein OR carbs) = 144 calories.
So the total calories here are 144 + 117 = 261 per serving (228 grams of product).
Being able to understand these labels is important because portion of your foodstuffs will be packaged and have nutritional labels on them. You can use this information to exactly calculate the calories and macro nutritional profile of the food, provided you have a weight scale.
Extracting Calories from a Nutritional Databases
Another method and one you’ll have to use for NON packaged food like meats, fruit, veggies, etc. is to get the macro nutritional information from an online database such as myfitnesspal.com. You will need an electronic scale to weigh your food. More on this in a later section.
Take a good look at this article – there are some good tips on HOW to use the online nutritional databases to track your calories.
Should You Count Calories By Cup or By Weight?
You’ll find a lot of nutritional guides give the macronutrient breakdown of food by cup. I suggest you err on the side of caution and actually use an electronic scale to weigh food rather than calculate your calories by cup (or spoon), which can lead to a lot of inaccuracies in your counting.
Weigh Calories Raw or Cooked?
There is a difference between raw food calories and cooked food calories with cooked potentially having more calories (if there are additions added like butter, sauces, etc.) or less calories.
Some food expands (carbs) and some food shrinks (meat) but the change mostly has to do with water lost or gained by the food and the macronutritional profile doesn’t really change. Some fat may be lost in meat, but overall you can just use the raw food macronutrient profile and weigh your food raw. The caloric difference won’t be very much.
If you choose to weigh your food after it’s cooked, keep in mind that you could end up over calculating the calories or under calculating them. For example, the weight of piece of grilled chicken might be quite a bit less than that same chicken when it’s baked and using the macronutritional profile for cooked chicken can give you quite a bit of a different caloric breakdown.
Should you Count Calories for Veggies?
Unless you are a vegetarian you can pretty much ignore the calories that come from green vegetables. They are generally low calorie and very low carb. Make a point to each veggies with your main meals, but don’t bother including them in the caloric count.
Can I Just Eat Any Food without Worrying About Macros?
While you can certainly lose weight by eating any type of food exactly to your caloric target (say McDonalds), you won’t be giving your body the optimum nutrition to function well, especially if you at a caloric deficit. One simple example is that you could get most of your calories from fat and carbs and underfeed on protein. If you are on a caloric deficit and trying to lose weight and keep muscle, the lack of enough protein can mean your body ends up shedding a lot of muscle with your fat. The whole “Is a Calorie a Calorie” is itself a highly debated topic in the fitness world and merits a long article just on it’s on. For the sake of simplicity here, just assume that it’s important to create your meal plan with a sound ratio of proper macronutrients.
So I’m Counting Calories. Now What?
Now that you know how to count calories, you’ll need to put this skill into practice by figuring out your macronutrient profile for those target calories. This is important because a calorie can be made up of either protein, carbs, or fat. Assuming you’ve calculated your weight loss calories for say a 180lb man at 1800 calories a day to lose 1lb a fat per week, it’s easy to get those calories mostly from a single or couple sources. For example, you can probably hit 1800 calories by going to McDonald, ordering a double big mac, large fries, coke, and a milkshake in one single meal. That leaves you with 1 or 2 other meals which will then put you over your target calories. Getting most of your calories from one source (like saturated fat or carbs) can also mean you end up nutritionally deficient with another food source (say protein).
The next step is to build a meal plan to those target calories based around a sound macronutrient profile. Once you have your macro profiles and target calories per day/meal, you simply eat the foods in that precise quantity every day. If everything has been calculated right and you reach your calorie target per day, you should lose weight in time.