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Healthy Living Blog

Information and inspiration to help you make a habit out of living healthy.


Counting Calories and Weight Loss: 5 questions you need the right answers to

Monday, August 13, 2018

By , YMCA Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

I have heard it all. My clients tell me about the different diets they have tried and how nothing has worked. They’re tired, confused, and ready to give up. I can’t blame them! There is a never-ending list—Whole 30, Paleo, Atkins, Ketosis, South Beach, Zone, Blood Type, etc. The chance of sustaining one of these diets is slim, and the tendency to regain the weight and then some is high.

Good news for you: we’re going to break the restrictive chains of the dieting world and offer healthy alternatives to achieve your weight loss goals. Let’s look at five of the top questions I get from clients on how to find direction in a world full of opposing nutrition information. My answers can help re-frame and reinvigorate your quest for weight loss success!

Question: “How many calories do I actually need?”

Answer: The first step is finding out how much your body specifically needs on a daily basis, or its basal metabolic rate. (Find out what yours is here.) Everyone’s metabolism is different, and there are many factors that go into determining your metabolic rate. Age, gender, height, and weight all play a role.

But what does this number mean? This basal rate is the number of calories you burn if you were to do nothing for 24 hours. It is the minimal amount your body needs to function.

Once you have this number, it is important to also take your exercise into consideration—how long, what type, and how often. Have you ever been working out and feel as though you’ve hit a wall? Suddenly you are having a harder time keeping up the same intensity as you were at the beginning of a workout or start to feel dizzy or fatigued. This could be a sign that your calorie intake isn’t enough to support your current workout routine.

The other important thing to keep in mind is that this number is only a number, and there should be some flexibility. The better way to go about it if you are wanting to count calories is to give yourself a range to stay within rather than getting too caught up in one strict number.

Question: “Are all calories equal?”

Answer: People often get confused and anxious when it comes to the word calories. In simple terms, a calorie is a unit of energy. As we discussed above, the body requires a certain amount of energy to carry out vital internal processes. Every time you eat, the body is able to recognize food as one of the three macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates, or fats. Each of these provide the body with different nutrients and calories, depending on the serving size.

So, no, not all calories are equal! Let’s make it even more practical with an example: A medium banana has about 100 calories, and is rich in potassium, fiber, and antioxidants. The same number of calories can also be found in five Starburst, but contains little-to-no nutrients that benefit our body.

The main point is calories aren’t what make food good or bad. While we want to watch out for repeatedly overeating and consuming more than our bodies need, it is the nutritional value contained within the food that should be the focus. When all of our calories in a day come from empty calories, such as sugary drinks, cookies, French fries, and chips, we will continue to feel hungry and unsatisfied. When we focus on consuming quality calories, such as high-fiber, lean protein, and healthy fats, we will feel more satisfied and feel as though reaching our goals is possible.

Question: “Do I have to count calories or track my intake to lose weight?”

Answer: I typically recommend that my clients track their intake on an app, like MyFitnessPal, or on paper to provide them with a snapshot of their current eating habits. It allows you to easily review your intake, so that changes can be made according to your goals.

While I think that tracking and calorie-counting can be beneficial when first beginning the weight loss journey, it isn't for everyone. For some, calorie counting can become an all-encompassing, frustrating and nerve-wracking experience. The most important thing in counting calories is to maintain flexibility and fluidity. Don’t get so caught up in the numbers that you forget to listen to your body’s cues for what it really needs.

Question: “Is it possible to eat too much healthy food?”

Answer: Absolutely! As we examined in an earlier question, not all calories are equal, but calories do add up even for healthy foods. If you are consistently consuming more calories than your body needs, the excess food will be stored for later use in the form of fat.

The best example of this is a nutrient-dense food such as nuts or nut butters. While it's a healthy snack option in moderation, taking a spoon to the peanut butter jar or mindlessly reaching for handful after handful of nuts can become too much at one time. And when it comes down to it, weight loss really is just a mathematical equation. When the amount of energy in (calories consumed) is equal to the energy out (calories burned), weight stays the same. It is only when calories consumed is less than calories burned that weight loss occurs. So, remember to practice mindfulness in all forms of eating, even with healthy foods.

Question: “Why am I stuck on a weight plateau?”

Answer: You’re eating healthier, working out, and are starting to feel more confident in yourself, and then you hit the dreaded weight plateau. The number on the scale refuses to budge! Why? The body likes to maintain a stable and healthy weight, also called a “set-point weight.” While this number can be adjusted, it takes time and patience. Move your frustrations aside with some of these simple ways to push past a weight-loss plateau, including changing up your workout routine.

Goodbye fads, hello healthy weight loss

Weight loss is no easy task, but it's worth the work! Even though it can feel like a roller coaster ride, patience and trust are key. When you're considering the latest fad, remember that moderation instead of restriction is the healthier way to reach your goals.

Tell yourself that this isn’t a diet but rather a lifestyle change that takes time, and usually some trial and error, to figure out what works. Whether you use calorie counting, intuitive eating, or a combination of the two, find what guides your body best. And above all else, be sure that you are providing yourself with the nourishment it requires and deserves.

As always, reach out to one of the Y's Registered Dietitian Nutritionists if you'd like to set up a one-on-one nutrition counseling session. We’re here to help you reach your goals.

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