Understanding our eating is one of the most difficult things to do. And if you want to lose weight, it’s helpful to know a thing or two about calorie counting.
As a supplement to LUMME’s kCalculator Automated Calorie Tracker, we’ve provided some useful guidance, including some basics on counting calories to lose weight and answers to some more burning and complex questions.
If you’re looking for more information on the kCalculator app itself, you’ll find some terrific resources on our site including the kCalculator product page and on our blog including How a Smartwatch App Can Reliably Track Calories Without Food Journaling.
WHAT IS A CALORIE?
At the most basic level, a calorie is a unit of measurement for energy. Specifically, it is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. When used in the context of weight management, a calorie describes the amount of energy contained in food that can be extracted by the body when the food is eaten. When a person eats more energy than their body needs, it is typically converted to fat and stored for later use.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CALORIES AND KCALORIES?
These terms are used interchangeably. One calorie is a very small amount of energy, so when discussing energy in the context of diet and physical activity one kilocalorie (i.e., 1,000 calories) is often referred to as one “calorie.”
WHERE CAN YOU FIND CALORIE INFORMATION?
Most packaged foods should provide calories information on the nutritional label. It’s worth noting that while the United States, for example, has labeling requirements for this information, this isn’t always the case around the world.
There are also many online resources and apps that provide calorie and macronutrient (i.e., carbohydrate, protein, and fat content) information for various foods, including those found in restaurants. Always pay particular attention to portion size; if you eat more than one portion of a food, you have consumed more calories than what is shown in the nutrition information!
IS A CALORIE JUST A CALORIE?
At the most basic level, a calorie is unit of measurement of energy. The value describes the amount of energy that your body can extract from the food that you eat. Consume more calories than your body needs and the extra energy will be stored as fat, increasing your body weight. Eat fewer calories than you need and your weight will decrease as stored energy is used up. Simple, right?
There’s much more to the story. While the energy contained in one calorie never changes, the type of food that the calorie comes from can be very important. The healthiest foods tend to be plant-based, contain a wide range of nutrients, and contain little if any refined sugar or saturated fat (e.g., fats that are solid at room temperature like butter and fat from red meat). Healthy foods are also often low in “energy density” (i.e., the ratio of calories to the weight of the food). When a food has low energy density, it often contains water, fiber, air or other components that help “dilute” the calories. These foods tend to help people feel full for a long time, even though they have few calories. Think about how full you would feel from eating a single 100-calorie cookie versus a whole bowl of 100-calorie vegetable soup or a bag of air popped popcorn.
Healthy foods help you to feel strong, energized, and satiated. Foods that contain a lot of “empty calories” like processed foods, fatty meats, and snack foods don’t provide your body with the nutrients you need to live an active, healthy life. And when you eat junk food, you’re likely to get hungry more often and overeat as a result. You may also feel sluggish and irritable, which can make it even more difficult to make other healthy choices like going for a walk instead of watching TV.
The kCalculator asks you indicate the types of foods that you eat at each meal using a single simple slider. If you have eaten foods that are low in energy density, move the slider to the left. If you eat foods that are high in energy density, move the slider to the right. If you eat a mix, leave the slider in the middle. If you’re not sure about which foods fall into which category, visit our FAQ for a list of examples. Adjusting the slider will help improve your calorie estimate, and it also serves as a way to track the quality of your diet in addition to the calories. If you want to improve your diet and/or lose weight, a great way to start is to set a goal for most of your meals and snacks to fall into the low energy density category. To sum it all up, experts do agree that a calorie is a calorie – to lose weight you need to consume less and burn more. But in terms of your overall health and how you feel the source of the calories may be just as important.
CALORIES IN CALORIES OUT
You’ve probably heard “calories in, calories out” about as many times as you’ve heard “a calorie is a calorie,” but once again there’s more to the story. If you have ever tried to lose weight, you know that no matter how closely you stick to a calorie goal, your weight loss starts to slow down and most of the time it will eventually stop. Sometimes this happens because it’s hard to track calories accurately over an extended period. The kCalculator helps with that.
There are several other reasons why weight loss slows down. Here are a few of them, in brief: First, your body stores energy in different ways. When you’re first losing weight, the energy that you burn is very “easy to get to” meaning that the body has an easy time converting the stored calories to energy that your body can use. As time goes on, your body has to dip into it’s “long-term” storage, which is harder to access. That means your body has to work harder to convert the stored fat to energy. Another major cause of the weight loss plateau is “metabolic adaptation”. Basically, your body starts to burn fewer calories as you lose weight, regardless of how much you eat. If your body were a car, it would be the equivalent of becoming a hybrid vehicle that requires less gas (i.e., energy) to travel the same distance. Lastly, every part of our bodies requires energy (calories) to be kept alive. When we lose weight, there is literally less of us to be kept alive, and so the energy that our body needs every day to maintain our weight decreases.
Curious about how all of this could affect your weight loss goals? Check out the Body Weight Planner that was created by government scientists using sophisticated biological research: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/body-weight-planner
The bottom line is that “calories in, calories out” is a simplistic view of how eating affects weight because the body’s response the calories we consume changes as we lose weight.
HOW MANY CALORIES DO I NEED?
Your body requires a certain amount of energy (calories) just to stay alive. This is often referred to as the resting metabolic rate (RMR), which can range from about 1,000 to 2,500 calories per day depending on factors such as body weight, gender, and age. Any energy that you burn through movement (e.g., exercise) adds to the amount of energy that you need each day. There are variety of online calculators that you can use to estimate your RMR, most of which are based on the Harris-Benedict equation.
If you want to know how many calories to eat for weight loss, there are more powerful tools. One of the best is the Body Weight Planner (https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/body-weight-planner) that was created by government scientists using sophisticated biological research. This tool shows you what your weight loss trajectory will look like depending on factors such as the number of calories you consume each day and your level of physical activity. Its advanced functions can help you understand more complex factors such as when you are likely to hit a weight loss plateau.
WHAT FOODS SHOULD I EAT TO REACH A CALORIE GOAL?
The simplest answer is… whatever you want! If you stick closely to a calorie goal, you will lose weight almost no matter what you eat. However, some foods are obviously healthier than others and some foods may make weight loss easier or more likely. One key strategy involves focusing on foods that you can eat a lot of without consuming a lot of calories. This is the concept of low energy density eating. Pick foods that contain a lot of water, fiber, and/or air and very little sugar or fat. Unsurprisingly, these foods tend to be those that we already recognize as healthy: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and lean protein (e.g., beans, legumes, skinless chicken). It also includes low-fat dairy, air popped popcorn, broth-based soups, pickles, and shrimp. If you want to know more, google lists of low energy density foods!
Low energy density eating isn’t a specific type of “diet” per se; it’s a flexible approach to eating that can be applied to a wide range of food preferences. If you want more specific guidance on types of diets that you can follow to lose weight, there are plenty of good options out there! In the FAQ, we have given you several examples of what a “day in the life” looks like for several healthy dietary approaches that have stood the test of time, including low-carb, low-fat, Mediterranean, and vegetarian.
When picking a diet, choose something that is healthy (avoid fad diets that focus on eating only a certain type of food, for example), that you can stick to, and that is sustainable (if you can’t maintain the pattern of eating, you may regain the weight quite quickly).
The great news is that no matter what dietary approach you choose to follow, the kCalculator has you covered for tracking your calories! At the end of the day, it all comes down to picking a diet that you can follow and stick to.