Counting calories: Get back to weight-loss basics

Your weight is a balancing act, and calories play a big role. Find out how calories determine your weight and ways you can best cut calories from your diet.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Despite all the diet strategies out there, weight management still comes down to the calories you take in versus those you burn off.

Fad diets may promise you that avoiding carbs or eating a mountain of grapefruit is the secret to weight loss, but it really comes down to eating fewer calories than your body is using if you want to shed pounds.

Calories: Fuel for your body

Calories are the energy in food. Your body has a constant demand for energy and uses the calories from food to keep functioning. Energy from calories fuels your every action, from fidgeting to marathon running.

Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are the types of nutrients that contain calories and are the main energy sources for your body. Regardless of where they come from, the calories you eat are either converted to physical energy or stored within your body as fat.

These stored calories will remain in your body as fat unless you use them up, either by reducing calorie intake so that your body must draw on reserves for energy, or by increasing physical activity so that you burn more calories.

Tipping the scale

Your weight is a balancing act, but the equation is simple: If you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. And if you eat fewer calories and burn more calories through physical activity, you lose weight.

Because 3,500 calories equals about 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) of fat, it's estimated that you need to burn about 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound.

So, in general, if you cut about 500 to 1,000 calories a day from your typical diet, you'd lose about 1 to 2 pounds a week.

It sounds simple. However, it's more complex because when you lose weight, you usually lose a combination of fat, lean tissue and water. Also, because of changes that occur in the body as a result of weight loss, you may need to decrease calories further to continue weight loss.

Cutting calories

Cutting calories requires change but doesn't have to be difficult. These changes can have a big impact on the number of calories you consume:

  • Skipping high-calorie, low-nutrition items
  • Swapping high-calorie foods for lower calorie options
  • Reducing portion sizes

Saving calories by cutting high-calorie, low-nutrition items

Skipping one or two high-calorie items is a good place to start when cutting calories. For example, you could skip your morning latte, soda at lunch or that bowl of ice cream you always have after dinner.

Think about what you eat and drink each day and identify items you could cut out. If you think that skipping your indulgence will leave you with a craving, try a low-calorie substitution.

Healthier options
Instead of this ... Calories* Try this ... Calories*
*Actual calories may vary by brand.
Flavored latte, 16 ounces 250 Black coffee, 16 ounces 4
Chocolate ice cream, 1 cup 285 Strawberries, 1 1/2 cups whole 69
Lemon-lime soda, 16 ounces 201 Sparkling water, 16 ounces 0

Swapping high-calorie foods for lower calorie options

Simple substitutions can make a big difference when it comes to cutting calories. For example, you can save 60 calories a glass by drinking fat-free milk instead of whole milk. Instead of having a second slice of pizza, reach for some fresh fruit. Or snack on air-popped popcorn instead of chips.

Lower calorie options
Instead of this ... Calories* Try this ... Calories*
*Actual calories may vary by brand.
Whole milk, 8 ounces 149 Skim milk, 8 ounces 91
Regular-crust pepperoni pizza, fast food, 2 slices (each slice equals 1/8 of a 14-inch restaurant pizza) 626 Regular-crust pepperoni pizza, fast food, 1 slice (1/8 of a 14-inch restaurant pizza), plus 2 cups grapes 437
Ranch-flavored tortilla chips, 1 snack bag (3 ounces) 426 3 1/2 cups popcorn, air-popped 109

Reducing your portion sizes

The sizes of your portions affect how many calories you're getting. Twice the amount of food means twice the number of calories.

It's common to underestimate how much you're eating, especially if you're dining out. Controlling your portions is a good way to control calories.

Portion sizes
A typical portion ... Calories* A standard serving ... Calories*
*Actual calories may vary by brand.
Orange juice, 8 ounces 117 Orange juice, 4 ounces 59
Buttermilk pancake, 6-inch diameter (73 grams) 175 Buttermilk pancake, 4-inch diameter (41 grams) 86
Whole-grain spaghetti noodles, cooked, 1 1/2 cups 277 Whole-grain spaghetti noodles, cooked, 1/2 cup 92

Try these tips to control portion sizes and cut calories:

  • Start small. At the beginning of a meal, take slightly less than what you think you'll eat. If you're still hungry, eat more vegetables or fruit.
  • Eat from plates, not packages. Eating directly from a container gives you no sense of how much you're eating. Seeing food on a plate or in a bowl keeps you aware of how much you're eating. Consider using a smaller plate or bowl.
  • Check food labels. Be sure to check the Nutrition Facts panel for the serving size and number of calories per serving. You may find that the small bag of chips you eat with lunch every day, for example, is two servings, not one, which means twice the calories you thought.
  • Use a calorie counter. Check out reputable resources that offer tools to count calories, such as websites or smartphone applications.

Putting it all together

Replacing high-calorie foods with lower calorie alternatives and reducing your portion sizes can help you cut calories and improve weight control. For a successful — and sustainable — weight management plan, you also need to increase your physical activity. Combining regular activity and healthy eating will best help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

March 28, 2018 See more In-depth