Ask an Expert: Counting calories

Q: How important is it to watch calories if I want to lose weight? It seems most diet plans today focus on total fat intake, or the total amount of protein vs. carbohydrates. Do I still need to pay attention to calories?

Answer from Kimra Hawk, RD, LD, outpatient dietitian, and Terese Scollard, RD, LD, MBA, regional clinical nutrition manager:

Yes! You still need to pay attention to calories, and you always will need to pay attention to calories – even if popular diets don't.

In a certain sense, calories are part of a math equation: The number of calories you eat or drink, minus the calories you burn up, equals the weight you gain – or lose. Fat, protein and carbohydrates all contain energy that powers your body. Calories are a measure of the energy, or heat, that food produces as your body uses it as fuel.

When you eat more calories than you need – be they in protein, fat or carbs – your body packs away the excess as fat. When you eat somewhat fewer calories than you need, your body taps the stored fat.

Moderation and balance are always important, even when you are trying to lose weight. When a person severely restricts calories, the body, desperate for energy, turns inward. If it is short of protein, it consumes its own protein, including internal organ muscles such as the heart. If it needs carbs, it breaks down body protein sources to create carbs. If it is too low in fat, it uses up its fat, including the important fat padding that helps protect and hold internal organs in place and cushions the bones from bruising.  Please don't restrict calories to those extremes!

In general, people who are overweight eat too much of everything: fat, protein and carbohydrates.

We don’t want you to count calories obsessively. Over the long run, it's better to:

  • Pay attention to portion size.
  • Include in your diet more unprocessed foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes (examples: lentils, split peas, garbanzos and kidney beans).
  • Follow the general spirit of the food guide pyramid.

That said, becoming more conscious of calories is an excellent starting point if you are trying to lose weight. Studies have shown that men and women underestimate their daily consumption by 500 to almost 700 calories. You can get a truer picture by keeping an honest diary, for a few days, of what you typically eat and drink.

Don't fudge. This information will help you see where you can make modest, daily changes that, over a year's time, add up to significant and lasting weight loss.

A pound of body fat is about 3,500 calories. To lose a pound a week, you need to create a deficit of 500 calories a day, by increasing exercise, taking in fewer calories, or doing both.

We strongly recommend both. From what we see in clients who lose weight, 40 percent is from cutting food and 60 percent is from turning up activity.

Even modest changes will, over time, make a difference. Trim 100 calories a day for 12 months, and you will lose 10 pounds. Add 100 calories of exercise at the same time, and you'll double the weight loss. The key is to make changes you can stick with. That's where your food diary and a calorie counter will guide you.

Let's say your diary shows that you relax with a three-scoop bowl of ice cream every night. A half-cup of 11-percent-fat vanilla contains 135 calories. If you stop at two scoops and walk an extra mile a day, you've dinged out more than 200 calories. Do you butter your bread, vegetables and pasta? Skip the butter or use it lightly; a tablespoon of butter or margarine is 100 calories. Have a glass of wine or beer after work? Switch to mineral water every other day. A 12-ounce beer is 150 calories; a 4-ounce glass of wine is 100.

Unless you start a new habit of chips and soda, such minor adjustments will dent your calorie intake enough to drop half a pound a week.

That may seem miniscule, but two pounds a month add up. Many people's weight creeps up a pound or two a year. Instead, by making small changes, in one year you'll shed 24 pounds, build muscle and, ideally, add more fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains to your plate – foods that carry all sorts of benefits for preventing some cancers, heart disease and diabetes.

Want to start counting? To give you an idea of Food Guide Pyramid serving sizes, calories and activity, here are some examples:

  • A medium apple or orange is the size of a tennis ball. Calories: 60-80
  • A medium potato is the size of a computer mouse. Calories:  220
  • A serving (3 ounces) of lean sirloin is the size of a deck of cards. Calories: 175
  • A serving of grilled salmon (3 ounces) is the size of your checkbook. Calories: 140
  • One ounce of cheddar cheese is the size of four dice. Calories: 115

And here are ways to burn calories:

Activity Calories burned in 30 minutes of activity
Gardening 120
Walking (4 mph) 195
Recreational basketball 225
Light housework 123
Jogging (6 mph) 327
Swimming (1/4 mph) 150
Golf (pulling a cart) 135

Should you pay attention to calories? Yes, as a tool to get you where you want to be – and stay there.

January 2004