Counting calories is a thing that lots of people do and have questions about. So the five editors on the BuzzFeed Health team did it for a week so we could give real, honest, uncensored advice for anyone considering it.
We tracked every single calorie we ate or drank from Monday to Sunday. We weren’t doing it to lose weight or change our eating habits — our goal was to see how much work, time, and dedication it really takes to count calories, and report back with some (hopefully) helpful tips. So if you’re interested in counting calories, here’s what you need to know:
1. First, know that calorie counting isn’t for everyone.
Focusing this closely on your eating habits can be stressful, exhausting, and even unhealthy for some people, especially if you have a history of disordered eating. So we talked to Mary Pritchard, Ph.D., creator of the 30 Days to Body Love program, about some signs that you probably shouldn’t count calories:
• You have a history of disordered eating, or attaching your own self-worth or confidence to your eating habits.
• You’re doing it with the intention of restricting yourself to an exact number of calories as “punishment” for eating too much.
• You’re prone to getting obsessive or competitive in other areas of your life, even if they have nothing to do with fitness or nutrition.
If any of these sound familiar, or if you just have a gut feeling that you may not react well to monitoring your meals this closely, trust your instincts and talk to a doctor or nutritionist before you take the next step.
2. But there are also lots of benefits to counting calories.
We also spoke with integrative nutritionist Danielle Omar, R.D., to find out what a healthy and realistic calorie-counting goal might look like. Here are a few reasons why you may want to try it:
• To get an overall picture of how many calories you’re taking in each day — and how many calories are in foods you eat all the time.
• To identify patterns in your eating that might help explain things like why you’re always tired, why you’re always hungry, or why you’re not losing weight.
• To help you cut down on things like sugar, sodium, or calories — if that’s something that you’re interested in doing.
3. Start with a plan for how long you’ll do this and what you hope to get out of it.
“You can usually get a good picture of your intake by doing it three days a week, including one weekend day, since you eat a lot differently then,” says Omar. So start there if your goal is just to look for patterns in your daily eating or to figure out how many calories you’re typically eating. If your goal is to use calorie counting as a tool to change your eating habits, talk to a nutritionist to come up with a timeline.
4. If you want to lose weight, counting calories alone may not do that.
Sure, if you want to lose weight then you’ll have to burn more calories than you take in, and counting calories can help you calculate that. In the most general sense, a pound is roughly 3,500 calories, so you’d need to cut about 500 calories a day in order to lose a pound a week. But of course, it’s not that simple, says Omar. Your body adapts, and there are lots of other things that affect your metabolism (the rate at which you burn calories) — like sleep, stress, activity levels, muscle mass, body size, and the kinds of food you eat.
So if your goal is to lose weight, know that counting calories can be a good place to start — but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Consulting with a nutritionist early on would be your best bet.
5. It’s a lot harder than just reading nutrition labels.
For starters, whole foods like fresh produce and meat aren’t labeled — so you’ll have to look that up. And if you go out to eat ever, you’ll spend a lot of time looking up a restaurant’s nutrition facts (if they have any) or writing down every ingredient you can see and looking those up. And if you eat more than one serving of something (because who eats a 1/2 a cup of cereal?!), there’s more math. We’ll go over some tips to make this a little easier in a bit.
6. Remember: Just because something is low in calories, that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
As you can see above, not all calories are created equal. And for that reason, it’s not surprising that not all nutritionists suggest calorie counting. It puts all the emphasis on the calories, and not the nutrients and ingredients that can determine whether a food is actually healthy. So while it’s helpful to know how many calories are in different foods and drinks, it’s not the only thing you need to know.
7. Download a calorie-counting app immediately.
A few of the nutritionists we talked to suggested the MyFitnessPal app, which was intuitive and helpful…most of the time. It was less helpful any time we ate at a non-chain restaurant without calorie info or had something super random. Sadly, MyFitnessPal does not recognize mac and cheese spring rolls from a bar down the street.
Most of the app’s entries come from the USDA or specific brands and restaurants, but some are user submitted, so there’s no guarantee it’s legit. There can also be a crazy variety in the calories or sizes for some items, so you have to do a little guesswork to pick the one you think is most accurate.
8. But be prepared to use other sources, too.
If you can’t find something in the app (or you’re finding calorie counts all over the place), try the USDA Food-a-Pedia, SELFNutritionData, CalorieKing, or just googling brands and restaurants. Sadly, there’s no real shortcut here.
9. If you cook a lot, look for food blogs that already have the nutrition info.
When you make a meal at home, you have to look up each ingredient, find the entry that’s most accurate, adjust it for the amount that you’re using, and repeat for every single item in the recipe. IT IS MADDENING. A good way around this is to look for recipes online from food blogs that already have the nutritional info, like Picky Eater Blog and Hungry Healthy Happy.
If you’re using your own recipe, just make sure to save the entry after you calculate the calories. That way you’ll never have to add up 1 cup pasta + 1/2 cup tomato sauce + 1 cup spinach + 1 Tbsp. parmesan cheese EVER AGAIN.
10. Buy measuring cups and spoons — and actually use them.
Calorie info is based on serving sizes, so you need to actually know what a serving size is and how many you’re eating. We dusted off our measuring cups and spoons and used them for everything from olive oil to cereal.
It’s slightly less practical (and kinda weird) to use measuring cups in public situations, but if you use them regularly at home, you might start to get used to seeing what a cup of vegetables, meat, and grains looks like on your plate. And that should help you make better estimates when you’re out and faced with a giant-size plate of pasta carbonara.
11. Packaged foods will be easier to track — but don’t let that steer you away from whole foods.
You will definitely be tempted to grab a packaged, processed dinner with a nutrition label over a made-from-scratch meal that you’d have to calculate every damn calorie in. We were, and we did, often. But if your goal is to eat healthier, try not to do that. Even if it’s a low-calorie option, lots of those calories come from added fat, sugar, salt, and a whole list of other weird ingredients, says Ryan Andrews, R.D., coach at Precision Nutrition in Toronto.
Remember that cooking your own whole foods will often be a lot healthier in terms of nutrients — and maybe even calories — so don’t avoid that just because it’ll take a little more time to look up the calorie info.
12. Log your calories after you eat, not before. And definitely not during.
One way to quickly ruin a meal is to log calories at the table, tapping around on your phone while your piping hot, aromatic food gets cold and clammy. And depending on your relationship with food and eating, calculating calories before you eat could cause you to obsessively plan and worry about your food instead of, say, looking forward to it.
Take all that off the table (literally) by logging your meal after you eat it. You can always snap a picture or jot down a few notes to make sure you remember it (like: half an avocado, slice of whole grain bread, coffee with Tbsp. almond milk, and IDK about a cup of berries).
13. If you track calories through an app, you might also learn that you’re eating a shit ton of sodium, fat, or sugar.
An added benefit (or curse) of calorie-tracking apps is that they can also measure your nutrients against the recommended daily intake of things like sodium, fat, sugar, protein, carbs, etc. So get ready to be WAY more aware of how much sodium is in literally everything.
Depending on what your goals are, paying attention to these numbers might be just as important, if not more so, than how many calories you’re eating. For example, if you want to lose body fat, you’ll definitely want to pay attention to carbs and fat. You can learn more about that here.
14. Remember: Alcohol has calories.
Finding the nutrition info for cocktails was one of the most annoying parts of this project. Here are a few ways to make it slightly less miserable:
• Start by searching for it on MyFitnessPal or the USDA Food-a-Pedia. For instance, you can look up red wine, rum, or Fireball and see what you get. If you get a ton of different answers, go with the one around the average.
• If you order a cocktail out, try googling the restaurant nutrition information to see if they list their drinks. It’s worth a shot.
• Search for the correct amount of each ingredient, rather than just “vodka soda” or “margarita.” Yes, that means you’ll have to actually measure out portions (like 2 oz. of vodka + 4 oz. of club soda). And if you don’t feel like measuring, it’s helpful to learn how many ounces are in different glasses (a shot glass holds 2 oz., a pint glass holds 16 oz., and a typical wine pour should be around 5 oz. — but it’s usually more.)
15. And most condiments have calories, too.
Taking the time to portion your mayonnaise into a tablespoon every time you add it to your sandwich gets old fast. Our best advice is to use the chart above to get familiar with what a serving of your favorite condiment actually is and what that looks like. This way, you’ll have an idea of how many extra calories you’re adding on when you inevitably plop some ranch dressing on your plate or cook your veggies in olive oil.
16. Don’t forget to log all the little things you “just took a bite of.”
It might not seem like a big deal to leave out that forkful of cake or handful of chips, but if your goal is to see how many calories you’re actually eating, it’s worth it to jot all these things down. This is where counting calories is great for noticing patterns and creating a strategy for better eating, says Omar.
You might realize that you’re actually super-balanced and healthy during meals, but that you add on a few hundred calories in random grazing every day. Or you may notice that most of your weekday calories come from freebies in the office cafeteria. (Curse you, BuzzFeed snack room.)
17. To get a truly realistic portrait of your caloric intake, you have to hold yourself accountable.
You will definitely be tempted to omit a food or drink that’s particularly sketchy calorie-wise. Especially with MyFitnessPal, where the daily calorie numbers go from green to red, like the app is passive-aggressively judging you. When faced with a cafeteria full of delicious Middle Eastern food and free sugar cookies, we contemplated calling this whole project off.
The thing is, no one can stop you from “cheating” on your calorie counts but you. And if you want to — go for it. Just know that this won’t help you get an accurate portrayal of your diet, if that’s your goal.
18. But let yourself take a break every now and then if you need it. Then get back to logging tomorrow.
No one wants to be meticulously logging calories when out at brunch with friends or grabbing an impromptu drink with a date. If you feel like you need a break from numbers and nutritional labels, take it. And we swear we’re not just suggesting this because we said screw it rather than attempting to calculate the calories in the boozy birthday brunch we enjoyed together.
19. Keep an eye out for signs that you’re getting at all anxious about tracking or developing an unhealthy relationship with food.
If you start getting obsessive about tracking your food, you should stop as soon as possible, says Pritchard. But sometimes, it’s hard to recognize in the moment that you’re obsessive rather than dedicated, so Pritchard says to look out for these signs:
1. You find yourself thinking about your food logs in terms of success and failures. As in, a certain number of calories = success, while going over = failure.
2. You feel bad about yourself — or guilty — on the days you go over your calorie goal. No part of counting calories should make you criticize yourself. “Once you get to that point, it starts to become less about health and more about, ‘Was I good today or bad today?’” says Pritchard.
3. You’ve been tracking for a month or more and the idea of stopping makes you anxious or uncomfortable. You want to get to a point where you’re no longer tracking things down to the exact calories, according to Pritchard. “I’ve never seen anyone do it daily for over a month and not become obsessive and unhealthy about it.”
20. Know when to stop, and have an exit plan to help you readjust to eating without tracking.
For most people, counting calories isn’t something you should (or would want to) do long term. So when you’ve hit your predetermined time limit or whatever goals you set for yourself, stop counting. Then make a plan for how you want to use all the knowledge and patterns you learned while counting calories.
Maybe that means taking this info to a nutritionist to come up with a weight loss plan. Maybe it’s deciding to only order your favorite burrito once a week now that you know it contains half a day’s worth of calories and sodium. Or maybe you just go back to blissfully ignoring nutrition labels forever and focusing instead on choosing whole foods over processed ones.
So after the five members of the BuzzFeed Health team counted calories for a week, here are our final thoughts on this whole thing:
Sally: I am never going to hate using any well-designed app that lets me track and analyze data (especially if it’s about myself). That said counting calories was definitely a chore and a bit of a timesuck aaaaand made me overthink the way I was eating. I look forward to not doing it anymore.
Casey: It was cool to finally have a gauge for how many calories are in the things I eat all the time. Also wine. But I’ll never be able to unsee the crazy amount of sodium and sugar in certain foods — and that’s probably a good thing.
Caroline: I’m happy it’s over and that it didn’t make me think of food as just a number. It was good to get a better picture of my eating habits, especially how much processed food I eat, but counting calories mostly added more work and stress to my day. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Shannon: I never put much thought into the amount of food I was putting on my plate, as long as it was generally healthy. But after logging my meals for a week, I realized how much calories really do add up. However, it’s definitely not a habit I could — or want to — keep on a regular basis. I’m fine with going back to being blissfully unaware of how much pizza and whiskey I consume on a weekly basis.
Anna: Nothing will make you question your life choices like having to look up how many calories are in an entire bottle of moscato. But in all seriousness, as someone with only vague aspirations of being healthier, it was way too easy for me to blow off logging things when I wasn’t anchored to a specific goal. I’m much better off being mindful about fat, protein, sugar, sodium, etc. than I am logging calories.
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