Calories: To count or not to count?

Published On: Dec 06 2011 11:44:07 AM EST
Updated On: Feb 06 2013 09:39:02 AM EST

Mary Cole's New Year's resolution was to lose about 20 pounds. She started with watching what she ate.

After keeping a calorie journal for a week, Cole, 28, said she couldn't believe the numbers.

"I honestly thought I only ate about 1,500 calories a day," she said. "In reality, I was eating more than 3,000."

Dr. Linda Berry, a certified nutritionist, said that kind of surprise is common.

She said studies show most people go above their caloric needs, but are lacking nutrients.

"We are sort of an overfed but undernourished society," she said.

According to the USDA, women 31 to 50 years old who are not physically active need about 1,800 calories a day. Those who are active need 2,000 to 2,200 a day.

Men in that age range need about 2,200 if they are not active and 2,400 to 3,000 if they exercise.

Many factors affect that number for each individual, including height, weight and genetics. Heavy exercisers and those who are pregnant may need more, while some with slower metabolisms may need less.

Cole said she started her weight-loss plan by using an online calculator to see how many calories she should be eating. Then she started researching how many calories were in certain food.

Once she got an idea of that, she said, she stopped counting.

"I got the basic grasp of what my body needed and what was in the food I ate often," she said. "I learned what to avoid and basically changed my whole way of thinking. I don't have to look at labels anymore."

Berry suggests people stop focusing on an actual number. She said calorie counting is more of an emotional thing that can start with social conditioning, parental influence and more.

"I don't think it is beneficial psychologically to be strict with calories," she said. "It puts people under too much pressure."

If you want to know if you are eating the right amount of calories, Berry said, look in the mirror. If you don't have a waist, it is time to adjust what you eat and your activity level.

Rather than count the number, she encourages people to look at what and how much they are eating.

No Drastic Cuts

One pound of body fat is equal to 3,500 calories, so most people need to cut back about 500 calories a day to lose 1 pound a week. Berry doesn't recommend cutting more than that.

Drastically dropping will actually hurt your weight loss, Berry said. It suppresses your thyroid and when you go back to normal caloric intake, the thyroid will need less food, causing more weight gain.

Malnutrition can also make you bloat.

"You will not have a lovely body by starving yourself," Berry said.

Cutting back calories in a health way can be simple, without pulling out the calculator.

If you are eating two pieces of bread per day, cut back one, or if you have three glasses of wine, only have two, she said. Skipping one slice of bread can save you about 100 calories and passing on a glass of wine can spare you between 70 and 200 calories.

Exercise is also important in this process.

"You can eat more if you exercise," she said. A one-mile walk burns 100 calories on average.

"Strategies like that can help," she said, "Just stay persistent and consistent, and don't cut out the nutrient parts that are needed each day."

Eating For Nutrients

Berry said taking the focus off of food can help people cut back calories. She recommends thinking about food as a way to refuel your body and to notice the nutrients you are putting in it.

Rather than counting every calorie you pop into your mouth, use general rules of eating, such as controlling portion sizes and fat content.

"This helps you control calories without having to count them," she said.

She encourages people to pause and think about what they are consuming. If you make a mistake, correct it with your next meal.

Don't Just Cut The Number

If you decide you need to lose weight, it doesn't mean you should just cut the number of calories you ingest.

"Counting calories will not necessarily solve problem," Berry said. "You have to eat the right kinds of foods."

Berry said people cutting back don't eat foods that are nutrient dense.

"If you eat all of your daily calories in sweets, you are not going to lose weight," she said. "Empty calories make your body work without providing a lot of nutrition."

Even though they may have the same calorie content, eating things high in fiber like oats is better than a bagel, because your body is getting nutrients while it is working. She recommends filling up on colorful vegetables, fruits, proteins and good fats like avocados and olive oil.

Berry said it is also important to stack your plate the correct way to control your portion size. Your plate should be half high water-content veggies and the other half should share protein and starch.

You can watch your portion size by checking the size of your palm. Berry said a serving size of protein or starch should be about that size. The veggies on your plate should be about twice that.

When you are full, Berry said to listen to your body and stop to avoid taking in excess calories.

"Most people are heads dragging bodies around," she said. "People don't pay attention to bodies and are overeating."

If you find yourself still hungry, add more veggies or drink more water.

"We can't hurt ourselves by packing ourselves with vegetables," she said.

Cole said becoming aware of what she was eating and thinking of food as fuel helped her avoid consuming so many calories. She dropped 15 pounds.

"I just have a different outlook, and food and my weight is no longer an issue in my life," she said.

Berry said once you become familiar with things like serving sizes and the right foods to eat, you will know what your body needs to stay healthy without having to do the math.

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