How to count calories

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Now comes to the second part of the Energy Balance Equation, the calories in part. Here is the formula again in case you forgot:

EBE = Calories In - Calories Out

In previous posts I examined how to estimate your calories out using your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) and Physical Activity(PA) levels. For a quick review the articles click on the links. 

Now at the beginning you are going to learn one hard truth; counting calories is a pain in the ass. I mean really. However it is a necessary evil. At least at the beginning. As you get accustomed to counting calories it gets easier to estimate just by eye. The premise of this is very simple. you simply measure all the food you consume to arrive at a calorie in count. If you want to lose weight then you must get a negative calorie balance.

To get started, you will need a kitchen scale (one with ounces and grams is best to avoid excessive math), measuring cups and spoons and a decent database of foods which includes their calories, and macros.

You have two basic option here:

  1. Keep a written food log recording food item and weight or volume measurements. Time of day is useful too later. Then you use an online database to estimate calories accordingly. There is a pretty decent one here called self-nutrition. You simply search for the foods, calculate based on items eaten and record in your log. Its purely manual so will take some time.
  2. If you want to shortcut option one, then use something like myfitnesspal.com. They have a database, mobile apps and a free account (upgrading is optional)  that allows you to record all your meals. I use this myself and once you learn how to use the app, it is 10 times easier than doing it manually. 

Ready to give this a try? Here is some motivation:, studies show that people who count calories are more successful in losing weight.  That said let's go with some tips to make this easier.

Plan in advance

The key to victory is to plan your diet according to your goals (lose, gain or stay the same). You will have to dedicate some time and effort to this as you will need to coordinate your menu and grocery list accordingly, I wont go into that now, but I will in the future. The easiest way is to plan some protein and complex carb dishes that you can prepare in advance, refrigerate and keep over a few days.

Eat what you measure, don't measure what you eat

What I mean is you weigh the food before putting it on your plate. With practise, you will develop an eye to see how much food there actually is on the plate at a given measurement. This will come in handy when you eat out. Trust me on this one.

Cook more at home and portion your food

Cooking at home is the best way to following your plan. You have absolute control over ingredients and portion sizes. Packing a lunch for work allows you to keep your calories under control. I carry food everywhere.  Estimating calories consumed in a restaurant is quite difficult unless you bring your scale with you. I actually do this and it was embarrassing at first, but now I don't care. My food scale stays in my bag. At least until i am confident in my estimation skills.

Add a margin of error

I wish I could tell you this is an exact science, but it's not. When estimating calories there is considerable opportunities to make errors: inaccurate weight and measures, database errors in actual calories, the problems with calorimetry itself, complex food dishes and of course lying to yourself and not recording correctly. That does not mean you shouldn't do it. What I do is add a considerable margin of error of 25% to my calorie consumption. I have myfitnesspal counter set on a goal of 1500 calories per day and add 25% to come to 1875 calories. 

Keep track of your progress

You need to keep track of your weight on a weekly basis and tweak from there. Invest in a good digital bathroom scale. Here are the simple rules

  • If your weight is going down, then congratulations, you are in a negative caloric balance and on the way to meeting your goals.
  • If your weight is going up then you are eating too much or a positive caloric balance, reduce your calories in or up your exercise.
  • If you stay the same then you would be in an equal caloric balance. Although this is very hard to do.

Based on your results, you either eat less (or more) and/or adjust your PA levels accordingly. There is no shortcut here. Real sustainable weight loss is a hard goal to reach, but measuring and being mindful of what you eat will help immensely..

Real life example

Let me show you using an example of how I figure out my EBE in its entirety, using data from the previous articles. Active PA is for a 30 minute jog. This is the full equation:

Energy Balance Equation = (Actual consumption + margin of error) - (RMR + passive PA +activePA) 

EBE = (1500 x 1.25) - (1715 + 400 +273)

EBE = 1875 - 1791

EBE = -513

From this we see there is a negative balance of 513 calories which when multiplied by 7 days is equal to extra 3591 calories burned, hopefully from fat. Interestingly enough 1 pound of fat is equal to about 3500 calories, so I should be on track to lose about 1 pound a week. In actuality I have some very active days like Muay Thai and weight training so my negative balance is closer to about 7000 calories per week or about 1 kilo of fat loss. I do not eat more on these days I just cycle my macros and meal timing to make sure I have the energy to go all out.

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